Residents Speak Out on Construction As Harassment

Brandon Kielbasa of Stand for Tenant Safety and Borough President Gale Brewer. | JORDAN RATHKOPF

Brandon Kielbasa of Stand for Tenant Safety and Borough President Gale Brewer. | JORDAN RATHKOPF

BY EILEEN STUKANE | Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is unafraid of becoming a lightning rod in her commitment to confront property owners who drive rent-regulated tenants from their homes by conducting renovations without the required Tenant Protection Plan in place.

On January 10, Brewer teamed up with Stand for Tenant Safety (STS), a Lower East Side-based tenants’ rights and legal services coalition, for a town hall meeting in a packed auditorium at the Municipal Building at 1 Centre Street.

The frustration among the several hundred people in the room was palpable — a frustration mostly directed at the city’s Department of Buildings for its lack of interest in changing its culture. Brandon Kielbasa of STS asked for examples of construction as harassment from the audience.

Many of the issues expressed had been heard before –– and are ongoing. Audience members spoke of gas shutoffs, front doors and windows being removed, jackhammering causing cracks in and collapse of drywall, and toxic dust in the air. A number of people spoke about the DOB’s self-certification process, whereby a building can acquire a permit by falsely stating a building is “unoccupied” when it is in fact occupied and requires a Tenant Protection Plan.

Brewer has said on several occasions she is appalled by the frequent gas shutoffs initiated by landlords who seem unconcerned about creating hazardous conditions in people’s homes. And she has taken action by contacting Con Edison, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and the commissioners of the DOB, the city’s Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), and the state’s Homes and Community Renewal and the Public Service Commission.

Twenty elected officials were co-sponsors of the town hall, and 10 sent representatives. Working in cooperation with STS, 11 councilmembers who were among the co-sponsors are working to enact 12 new pro-tenant measures into law. The bills would force the DOB to overhaul its penalty system for violations and to take on more oversight of Tenant Protection Plans and the issuing of permits.

Kielbasa spoke about how construction is often used as harassment targeting rent-regulated apartments.

“The landlords create an unsafe space around you under the guise of construction work and say, ‘This isn’t our fault. We’re trying to do this as fast as we can,’” he said. “A landlord will buy a building and chase out as many rent-regulated tenants as he can through lawsuits and buyouts. This is the acquisition stage of ownership. Then they transition quickly to the renovation stage, where they use construction as harassment to lean on tenants who know their rights and understand the importance of having their rent-regulated apartments.”

This “violent and tormenting” harassment, Kielbasa said, may last from three months to a year, depending on the extent of construction, until the landlord moves into the marketing phase of moving in new market-rate tenants.

A stellar panel of activists was on hand to offer ideas and counsel to the community. On the dais were Yonatan Tadele, an organizer for the Cooper Square Committee, Marti Weithman, a supervising attorney for MFY Legal Services, Kerri White, director of organizing, policy, and research at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, and George Tzannes, a Lower Manhattan tenant leader.

Borough president Gale Brewer and St. Nicks Alliance’s Rolando Guzman. | JORDAN RATHKOPF

Borough president Gale Brewer and St. Nicks Alliance’s Rolando Guzman. | JORDAN RATHKOPF

Henry Dembrowski, a resident of Soho who said he was subject to harassment through long-term construction by his landlord, Marolda Properties, recalled coming home one night in the wee hours to his residence at 57 Spring Street, only to find the front door of the building locked. He could only get into his apartment by going through the basement access of the bakery next door, climbing up the fire escape in the back of the building, and entering through one of his windows. That was only the beginning. What followed, he said, was a loss of power for 10 days and the installation of pipes that went on all night and resulted in the collapse of a wall and holes poked in his ceiling and walls.

Dembrowski’s advice to the audience was simple.

“Organize,” he said, warning against trying to take a landlord on alone, since there is much more power in getting people together. When Dembrowski began speaking with his neighbors, he recalled, he was able to create a coalition of buildings in the neighborhood. Eventually, he prevailed in housing court.

“Construction as harassment is a poison in our city and we need to group together and work together, through legislation and bills,” he said.

Holly Slayton, an East Village resident, spoke of the Toledano Tenants Coalition, of which she is a member, that has organized to fight Brookhill Properties.

“They pushed out my business and 21 of 24 businesses in the neighborhood,” Slayton said of Brookhill. “Three of the buildings have dust issues, and my doctor advised me and my daughter to wear dust masks in our own apartment.”

Slayton explained that Healthy Homes, part of the state Department of Health, finally came and got a lead dust sample.

“DOB has a billion dollars in fines due to them,” she said. “They need to put liens on these buildings, take some action. And it is up to us to speak out.”

Rolando Guzman, the deputy director of community preservation at St. Nicks Alliance, a non-profit community development organization in Brooklyn, gave an update on the 12-bill package, dubbed a “Legislative Platform to Reform DOB,” first introduced in September 2015 and working its way through the City Council. So far, seven of the measures have received hearings before the Council’s Housing Committee.

“We are working with some councilmembers to have hearings on the remaining five bills, and we hope that within the next month they should be voted on and passed,” Guzman said.

He noted that the first bill on the list would require the DOB to inspect at-risk buildings instead of allowing for self-certification, something that represents a prevalent complaint among tenants. More information on the 12-Bill Package can be found on the STS website at

On the broader issue of affordable housing generally, Loraine Brown, a co-chair of the Upper East Side’s Community Board 8 Housing Committee, mentioned a groundbreaking gathering of all 12 Manhattan community boards, to which the public is invited, that will discuss issues to raise with developers on how to maximize the availability of reasonably priced permanent units. The gathering, which will include members of the boards’ Land Use and Housing Committees, will be the first time all 12 have come together with the public to share ideas.  It takes place on January 31 at 6:30 p.m. at the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center at 415 East 93rd Street.  ν

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