Court, Fines Fail to Bring Landlord to Heel

Demolition taking place at 940 First Ave. this past March. | Photo by Cathy Levan

The city has levied fines and charges that total more than $151,000, a Housing Court judge mandated seven months ago that repairs be completed within 30 days, and yet longtime tenant Cathy Levan is still waiting for her home to be habitable.

“It’s been such a whirlwind of nothing and everything,” Levan said.

For 17 years, Levan was happy with her one-bedroom apartment at 940 First Ave. between E. 51st and 52nd Sts. When she moved there in 1998, the street-level storefront was a bustling fish market, the units above were filled with tenants who had lived there for decades, and the building was family-owned.

Things were upended in July 2015, when the building changed hands, city property records show, and First Avenue Realty Holdings LP brought the property. Cheskel Strulovitch became the new owner.

By September, applications were filed with the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) to turn the four-story property into a 14-story, 13-unit building, according to news reports.

Meanwhile, Levan said conditions in the building started to deteriorate.

By November, Levan took Strulovitch to Housing Court to make repairs, with her saying some have since been completed. The next time, Strulovitch took Levan to court — for eviction proceedings in 2016, which were eventually dropped.

In the latest round of Housing Court, a judge ruled on Dec. 6, 2017 that the landlord needed to make the unattended repairs within 30 days and relocate Levan in the meanwhile, she said in a recent phone interview.

In late December, she moved to an apartment — paid for by her landlord — on the Upper East Side.

“It has many issues,” she said, noting a broken oven and a refrigerator that works sporadically. “In essence, you cannot cook there.”

Also, the apartment, which is a studio, is around 200 to 300 square feet smaller than her one-bedroom, she said.

“Everything is in boxes waiting to be moved back into my apartment,” she said. “It’s like living in a storage unit.”

In addition to the building being left to deteriorate, Levan said there was a fire on Jan. 19, at a time when the building was empty since Levan is the last tenant living there.

Jim Long, an FDNY spokesperson, wrote in an email that the fire happened a little before 11 a.m., starting on the second floor and then extending to the third. Fire marshals investigated and “determined the cause to be an accidental electrical fire.”

At that point, the DOB had a stop-work order in place. The fire department notified the DOB, which went to the scene to inspect work carried out in breach of that order and a violation was issued, according to the department.

“I don’t know why they were in the building in January,” Levan said, adding that she has not gone into it since she moved out.

As of now, there is no indication when Levan can move back home.

“I was naïve, I thought something would happen in 30 days,” she said. “I really believed that.”

Cathy Levan in front of her apartment building last summer. | Photo by Dusica Sue Malesevic

In Housing Court on June 29, another extension for the repairs was given, with a new deadline of July 30, said Michael Terk, an attorney with the law firm of David Rozenholc that represents Levan.

Terk said the landlord’s lawyers say there is additional structural work that needs to be done and they haven’t gotten the necessary permits from the DOB to do it. (Levan said she has never seen her landlord, Strulovitch, in court.)

“Always someone to blame other than them,” Terk said in a phone interview. “Every time we’re in court, there is another excuse of unexpected delay.”

The gas was shut off in May 2017 and is still off, according to Terk, noting that some violations landlords are obligated to fix within 24 hours, others in 30 days, and less serious violations within 90 days.

“They had a legal obligation to correct these conditions under the [city’s] housing maintenance code — independent of the court,” he said.

Terk said that they would wait to see if the latest deadline is met.

East Side State Senator Liz Krueger said a next possible step is filing a contempt of court motion. Her office has been working with Levan for some time.

“This landlord wants to keep Cathy out and tear down the building,” Krueger said by phone.

On Feb. 1, the city’s Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) notified the landlord it had placed the building in its Alternative Enforcement Program. Buildings assigned this status have several housing maintenance code violations and are considered “severely distressed.”

“So of all the boroughs, my building is one of the most egregious in violations,” Levan said.

Last August, there were $20,134 in charges, and now it is around $93,000, according to HPD. At the time of publication, Strulovitch had not paid any of it.

“It is imperative that owners live up to their responsibilities and maintain their properties so that residents have safe homes,” Juliet Pierre-Antoine, HPD’s press secretary, said in an email. “HPD will use all enforcement tools available to encourage owner compliance.”

The DOB has issued Environmental Control Board violations that are adjudicated through the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. There are currently $58,550 in those violations, according to the DOB’s website. At the time of publication, the landlord had not paid any of that.

“Multiple city agencies — including HPD and DOB — have brought serious enforcement action against the building owner to compel them to meet their legal and moral obligation to provide a safe building and these efforts are ongoing,” Joseph Soldevere, a DOB spokesperson, said by phone.

Krueger said, “So far government agencies do not seem to be successful to get him to make the repairs or get in to do it themselves.”

Landlords see these fines as the cost of doing business, she said.

“That’s our frustration — we’re following every law, every rule, but the landlord, he’s not complying,” Krueger said.

Levan said that tenants “are literally under siege because no one collects fines on these buildings — and everybody knows it.”

Strulovitch’s attorneys — Todd Shaw of Gartner + Bloom and Janine Getler of Getler, Gomes & Sutton — declined an interview request, with Shaw writing in an email, “Our office cannot comment regarding pending litigation.”

Strulovitch did not respond to email interview requests.

Levan said she is in limbo, waiting to go home.

“I have to remain balanced in the most unbelievably unbalanced, ludicrous situation,” she said.

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