The main target of the new legislation is the widespread practice of “construction as harassment,” whereby landlords use invasive, unsafe, and sometimes illegal construction to drive out tenants. Typically the landlords are trying to get rent-regulated tenants out so they can charge market rents.
A group of a dozen small business owners and community advocates from Bushwick gathered at Esmeralda Valencia’s restaurant on Myrtle Avenue this morning with an alarming message on posterboard: “Los pequeños negocios nos declaramos en crisis”—We small businesses declare ourselves in crisis.
On a miserably rainy Thursday, just after lunchtime, about 10 people had gathered in front of a nondescript building on Broadway and the corner of Bleecker Street, holding signs with slogans such as “Stop Tenant Harassment” and “Stop Croman” while patiently waiting for permission to finally be allowed to enter the building and go up to the seventh floor, where they hoped to meet with Steven Croman, or at least with Oren Goldstein, the chief operating officer of Croman’s real estate company 9300 Realty. They had some important letters they needed to deliver, and it was best to do it in person.
The crowd consisted of members of the Cooper Square Committee, a tenant advocacy organization, members of the Movement for Justice in El Barrio, an East Harlem nonprofit, current Croman tenants, and a couple of representatives from different religious organizations, including Marc Greenberg, the executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing. They had gathered in order to personally deliver letters from 32 different religious figures across the five boroughs to Croman, and express their grievances over his alleged ongoing tenant harassment.
Lannie Lorence, one of the tenants protesting Croman and his real estate company, tried to shield a big cardboard sign with the story of an elderly Croman tenant on one side and a satirical image of Croman on the other from the rain while he explained his complaints.
“I’m rent-stabilized, and [Croman’s company] has been harassing me to get out,” Lorence, who lives in a Croman-owned building on 23rd Street, said. “They brought this frivolous lawsuit against me saying that I haven’t been paying rent,” a claim he asserted was not true at all. “They’ve been very abusive in taking people to court,” he said, adding that threatened lawsuits were allegedly a common follow-up after previous attempts at removing tenants from rent-controlled and rent-stabilized buildings through low buy-outs, heat and gas cuts, and constant, seemingly pointless construction. “[Croman] will try anything he can to scare you.”
Bernarda Flores, a member of El Barrio and a tenant of a Croman-owned building on 108th Street, recounted a similar story. “We were called to court and told that we owed rent,” she said, explaining that a court-appointed lawyer eventually looked over Flores’ paperwork and determined that she, in fact, did not owe rent. Now Flores was seeking legal action in the New York Housing Court against Croman’s initial summons.
Croman is surely no stranger to this kind of publicity: in 2014, the New York State Attorney General launched an investigation against him regarding charges of using illegal methods to remove rent-stabilized tenants from his properties, and he has made The Village Voice‘s list of New York City’s worst landlords twice (once in 1998 and then again in 2014). There’s a Croman Tenants’ Alliance, which gives legal and practical tips to Croman tenants, as well as a Stop Croman Coalition.
Yonatan Tadele, the housing organizer at Cooper Square Committee, which had helped co-organize today’s event, hoped that the letters would lead to “tangible improvement.” He added that “this action has been in the works for a few months now,” and that Juan Haro, the director of El Barrio, came up with the idea of asking various religious leaders to submit letters in order to achieve a response from Croman.
The letters included statements by Catholic priests, rabbis, Buddhist leaders, and a variety of ministers from Pentecostal, Methodist, Unitarian, and other denominations. The original plan was to have Greenberg and some of the tenants read some of the letters to Croman or his COO before handing him the entire package, but the building’s security wasn’t having any of it, and the plan was readjusted, with the readings being conducted in the lobby, in front of a very exasperated security guard.
Two letters in, however, the building’s manager decided to put an end to it and ordered everyone out with threats that the police were waiting outside, ready to arrest the trespassers that we were. As everyone quietly shuffled back outside, Greenberg suggested they could send Croman the letters through a delivery service instead.
While five or six of New York’s finest were indeed assembled outside of the building, Haro, Greenberg, and others remained undeterred, and Rev. Valerie Holly from the Judson Memorial Church led a prayer for both Croman and his tenants. After a couple more speeches by other tenants, the congregation finally broke up, a bit deflated but undefeated, with promises to keep the pressure on, and to not lose hope. Before the group broke up, Greenberg mused aloud whether the letters could somehow be served to Croman, like divorce papers.
When we reached out for comment, Croman or another spokesperson from 9300 Realty were not available.
City and state government officials are cracking down on landlords who collect tax benefits for affordable housing incentives but don’t follow through on their obligations. This practice was one of the major criticisms of the 421-a tax incentive leveled by activists and city leaders in favor of repealing the rent laws that governed the incentive when they were up for renewal over the summer.
The two-bedroom apartment that Jesenia Ventura shares with her three young children, her sister, and her mother Amalia Martinez is so run-down that some windows will stay open only long enough to smash fingers, while others are stuck open even in winter. Frames of doors are ripped off, floor tiles are pulled up, and there is no running water in the bathroom sink, Jesenia says. There is green and black mold, drooping ceilings and a floor that is so warped that Jesenia’s son once tripped and cut his forehead. Jesenia worries that if she takes her kids to daycare, she’ll be reported to Child Protective Services. She says they regularly wake up in the middle of the night itching from painful-looking bedbug bites, and cockroaches crawl across their beds.
The conditions at 501-505 Grand Street, in Williamsburg, are so poor that in the summer of 2014, Amalia, Jesenia and four others organized a tenant association and filed official complaints to NYC Housing Preservation and Development. They hoped to persuade the building’s new owners, Manny and Eden Ashourzadeh of 501 EMR LLC, to make critical repairs. More →
Today Mayor Bill de Blasio signed three new measures into law to prevent the tenant harassment and shady practices that have become so commonplace among New York City landlords, particularly those who own rent stabilized units in rapidly gentrifying areas like North Brooklyn, the East Village, Bowery and the Lower East Side.
Six years ago, Josefina Blanc, a former photography editor at Art & Commerce, found herself priced out of Bushwick when the rent on the 10,000 sq. ft. loft shot up from $2,500 to $8,000. Her husband, a performance artist now represented by a gallery in Chelsea, had spent years renovating the space with the understanding that, in exchange, the rent would remain stable, but efforts to appeal to their landlord were in vain. The couple decided to call it quits and moved to South Carolina that year.