Tenants and activists who are part of the Stand for Tenant Safety Coalition (STS) rallied outside of 90 Elizabeth Street this morning before marching to City Hall to show their support for a package of bills that would address construction-related harassment. Today marks an important landmark for the coalition’s fight against landlords who are taking advantage of a lack of oversight and toothless fines.
“Today’s significant in a lot of ways, helping the tenants here at 90 Elizabeth to push back against [their landlord] James Fong. Given all the things we talk about with construction harassment, that’s important on its own. But today also marks the first hearing for any of the package of 12 STS bills. [Council Member] Antonio Reynoso’s bills are being heard right now, and it’s big,” explained Brandon Kielbasa of Cooper Square Committee. “We need a comprehensive change, and we’re hoping the legislation will give the DOB better tools to go after bad acting landlords.”
Coalition members — including advocacy groups like Cooper Square Committee, GOLES, and Los Sures — say the Chinatown apartment building on Elizabeth Street offers a prime example of the problem of construction as harassment. The 21-unit, six-story residential and commercial building is owned by James Fong, who purchased the the building for $6.5 million in June.
Here, the landlord has proceeded with gut renovation, wracking up a number DOB violations in the process, including for proceeding with construction work without a permit, and multiple code infractions for “immediately hazardous” conditions.
Tenants, many of them elderly and families who have been living in the building for decades, waved signs. A few of them addressed the crowd, speaking out against their landlord, who they claim is doing his best to get them out of the building.
William Xu, who lives at 90 Elizabeth, spoke to the crowd about the “horrendous living conditions,” the legal battle the tenants are carrying out against their landlord in hopes of forcing Fong to address the outstanding violations. “They are not above the law,” Xu said.
Residents here cited complaints similar to those aired by Icon Realty tenants living in rent-regulated buildings in the East Village who accuse their landlord of relentless, systematic harassment. Typical construction-harassment related issues include nuisance conditions like debris and blocked elevators, as well as fire hazards related to obstruction of hallways, stairwells, and fire escapes. Things get more serious with health concerns related to excessive dust, improper removal of lead paint and asbestos and immediate issues like the loss of essential services including heat, hot water, and cooking gas.
Philippe, a Brooklyn Resident who has sought help from St. Nicks Alliance, an affordable housing advocacy organization, expressed his solidarity for the tenants of 90 Elizabeth. A woman named Erica, who lives in Washington Heights and is also working with local community groups to address her own construction-related issues, spoke about her experiences living in a building that has wracked up “155 violations.” She and her neighbors have lost cooking gas and dealt with a broken boiler. “We can’t live how we’re living,” she said.
Andrew Lombardi, the Community Liaison from the Office of Manhattan Borough President, Gale A. Brewer, also expressed support for the Stand for Tenant Safety Coalition’s mission. He explained how problem landlords “start going crazy with construction” and called on the need for “DOB to look harder at this” and increase penalties against owners like this. Particularly problematic, he said, are after-hours work variances that allow construction workers to proceed on weekends, holidays, and for extended hours. “If you apply, you pretty much get it,” he said. Lombardi said that Brewer’s office is working with the DOB commissioner to address these issues. Another issue Lombardi highlighted was poor workplace conditions — one a perhaps less talked about side of construction-related harassment.
Council Member Margaret Chin was also at the demonstration, and explained that 90 Elizabeth has been on her radar for a while. This is not the first time that residents there have demonstrated. “This building has a really long history of tenant harassment, from the previous landlord to the new landlord,” Chin said. “But the tenants are organized and they’re fighting back, they recently filed a lawsuit.”
So what next? The City Council met for a hearing on the 12-bill legislative package that includes Intro 794-A, calling for “a task force to assess safety risks at construction sites”; and two bills introduced by Bushwick’s Council Member Antonio Reynoso, Intro 0949 and Intro 0939, that would increase fines. The first would raise the fine for violation of a stop work order from $5,000 to $10,000, and the second would also double the penalties for construction work without a permit.
“The landlords like this generally go ahead and think they can do whatever they want, because they see the penalties as insignificant,” Kielbasa explained. “So the more we can make them significant, the better off we’ll be.”
Chin argued that the DOB, “could do more– that’s why we have legislation to push for new reforms. The most important part is for the DOB agency to be proactive, like the bill I’m sponsoring — they have to do an inspection before they give the permit to make sure whether there’s people living in here or not. Often times they tell you that the building is empty, and it’s not.”
However, Chin also pressed the importance of tenants’ activism. “I think the rally shows the importance of organizing and fighting back, this is happening all over the city, not just here in Chinatown,” Chin pointed out. “Residents are supporting each other and community-based organizations are supporting each other, and elected officials are also working together with the coalition and we’re pushing for legislation.”
Following the press conference, demonstrators marched (backed by a brass band) to City Hall, chanting in Spanish, English, and Chinese: “The people united will never be defeated.”