Rent-Regulated Chelsea Tenants Fear Pattern of Harassment Will Continue

Tenants fear that the end of their long ordeal to fully restore their utilities is only the beginning of additional construction that will upend their lives. | Photo by Scott Stiffler

UPDATE: Tenants informed Chelsea Now that Con Edison arrived at 311 W. 21st St. on Thurs., Aug. 2 and installed cooking gas to all units. Also, a “Notice to Call for Inspection” was put up on Mon., July 30 by the NYC Department of Buildings (see a photo of that notice at the end of this article).

BY WINNIE McCROY | For the past 28 months, tenants at 311 W. 21st St. (btw. Eighth & Ninth Aves.) have dealt with the inconvenience of not having cooking gas. Now, just as Con Edison is preparing to install meters and restore the connection at long last, the New York City Management Corporation has informed tenants that once the gas is back on, basement construction will begin. The property manager contends that they’re just restoring a few old apartments. But tenants wonder if it’s just the latest chapter in a pattern of “eviction by harassment” techniques they’ve seen happen all too often in neighboring buildings.

They say they’re in the final stages of getting the gas back on — and we are grateful for that — but back in November they said it was just going to be another three months, so you never know,” said tenant Kelly Maurer. Once tenants saw permits indicating that basement construction would begin, they wondered, “Are we being lied to again?” NYC Management, Maurer noted, “said they’re going to excavate the cellar of our building, which is over 100 years old, and put two new apartments in. They’re also going to demolish six apartments and do extensive work on the stairwells, so we’re thinking, ‘How are we to live through this?’ And a box on the latest construction permit says that the stability of the building will be in question during construction. So we’re scared to death.”

A June 14, 2018 memo from NYC Management to the tenants of 311 W. 21st St. states there will be excavation work in the basement — despite assurances otherwise made to Chelsea Now on July 27. | Photo by Kelly Maurer

But when Chelsea Now spoke to the property manager at NYC Management Corp. on Fri., July 27, he assured that there would be no structural issues with construction.

“We are not excavating anything,” said the property manager, who declined to give his name. “These are legal apartments that the previous owner kept as storage, but that were initially built in there. And there will be no excavation; we will be getting all 17 apartments in this building up and running again. We had a big meeting at [City Council Speaker and District 3 rep] Corey Johnson’s office where we explained everything.”

To say that elected officials had advocated for them is an understatement, said tenants, who were quick to note that their elected officials, including Johnson and State Senator Brad Hoylman, had been fighting tirelessly on their behalf.

Hoylman’s office has introduced two pieces of legislation in the past year to help tenants: S8810, which requires the NYC DOB to confirm that units are vacant before they authorize construction, and S8573, which makes it a felony to submit a building application falsely claiming that no tenants are living in an occupied property. Hoylman hopes that tough legislation can save others from a similar fate.

“Life at 311 W. 21st Street has been a living nightmare. Tenants have withstood extensive landlord and construction harassment, and prolonged periods of time without gas and hot water,” Hoylman told Chelsea Now. “I’m outraged by the severity of the situation, and my office has met with affected tenants to address the matter. Our office has confirmed that HCR [The Division of Homes and Community Renewal] had no prior knowledge of NYC Management’s excavation plans.”

“We have also confirmed, with verification from HCR and DOB, that NYC Management continually submitted false permits,” Hoylman noted. “This flagrant disregard for the law will not stand. We have asked DOB to revoke the falsified permits immediately and will continue to work with tenants to ensure they are able to remain in their homes safely.”

Could basement construction destabilize the structural integrity of the building? Seen here on July 26, a recently installed lock denies tenant access to the basement. | Photo by Scott Stiffler

Speaker Johnson’s office told Chelsea Now that they had also spoken with Con Edison, who had held a field inspection at the property on Tuesday, July 24, and that the building passed “with the condition that the DOB’s [NYC Department of Buildings’] gas authorization be amended.” Once Con Edison has the necessary changes in hand, they should be able to schedule the gas turn-on.

They also discussed construction plans with the property managers, who “said at our meeting with the tenants that they are adding two units in the cellar…. as the certificate of occupancy for the building originally had two units in the cellar,” which the Schedule A for that building confirms.

Notwithstanding, a June 14 memo from NYC Management about the exact nature of the work to be done in the cellar indicates that, “Two apartments (1BR/1BA) are being created in the cellar. The work will involve excavation of the cellar to capture ceiling height.”

The DOB’s permit for construction indicates that the construction will threaten the structural integrity of the building. But the property manager says that it is “standard for [the DOB] to say that; any basement apartments getting work permits will say it on there, it’s standard. But there will be no digging and no structural issues. We are just making apartments.”

A spokesperson from the DOB confirmed that it would be common for an applicant to indicate on a permit that the proposed work could affect the structural stability of the building, as would be required to be indicated on even small jobs like creating new doorways or replacing window lintels. They also noted that the architect had submitted a Tenant Protection Plan with the application, which indicated that no structural work was being done that would endanger occupants or affect major structural elements of the building.

Still, based on tenants’ concerns, including the proposed “excavation” outlined in the management’s memo but dismissed by the property manager, the DOB has agreed to conduct an audit of the project to ensure that it fully complies with the NYC Construction Codes and Zoning Resolution, and that the work will in no way endanger the tenants’ safety.

The audit will include an inspection of the building to determine the presence of apartments in the basement. It will prevent the permit from being issued until the conclusion of DOB’s investigation.

Apartment 3W, like 3E (where squatters are suspected), is unlocked. | Photo by Alison L. Moore

Chelsea Now reported on the situation at 311 W. 21st St. in April 2017 (“Knowledgeable Tenants Challenge Lack of Utilities, Shady Landlord Tactics”). At that point, tenants were struggling to get cooking gas reconnected after a February 2016 gas leak forced Con Edison to cut service. The building’s former owner, Sidney Rubell, had secured permits from the DOB on May 23, 2016 to fix the gas. But that August, he sold the property to New York City Management Corporation.

The original gas contractor withdrew from the project in December 2016, and the order was rescinded in March 2017, after the owners hired a new contractor to supersede the original permit holder. Since then, says the property manager, they have been working diligently to get the gas restored.

But what residents see is that the end of their long ordeal to fully restore their utilities is only the beginning of additional construction that will upend their lives. And they’re worried that if they take NYC Management’s advice and relocate during construction, they will never be allowed to return.

OUT OF THE FRYING PAN, INTO THE FIRE | Chelsea Now spoke with a half-dozen tenants from the property on Wed., July 25, all of whom expressed concerns that the planned construction was part of a “bad landlord’s playbook” pattern of harassment they’d witnessed in neighboring properties, as outlined by the July 16 New York Times article, “Kushners Sought to Oust Rent-Regulated Tenants, Suit Says.”

“We feel a little cornered and threatened, like they are trying to push us out of our homes,” said Dani Balarezo. “We feel this is a new tactic they’re using to destabilize the building to get us out, and once we’re out, we’ll never get back in. At this point, it’s been going on for two and a half years, and before this company, Sidney Rubell was doing it. From the news out there about the ‘eviction machines,’ we feel that we’re just part of that game.”

Tenant Sam Moore echoed these concerns, saying, “It seems like a concerted effort on the part of NYC Management. We’re all aware that developers use a series of techniques to get people out of rent-stabilized apartments and this ‘relocation’ scam is apparently the latest trick.”

And tenant Steven Zivkovic — a resident in this building since he was seven years old — said that he’s been fighting to stay in his home ever since NYC Management took over.

“They’ve been trying to decide whether I belong in that apartment since they bought the building. They haven’t cashed a rent check of mine for over 20 months, but I just keep sending them via registered mail,” Zivkovic said. “I have had all the city agencies from DOB to the NYPD telling me this is harassment.”

Zivkovic said that he went to DOB’s headquarters at 280 Broadway to file a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act; request so he could take a look at the contractor’s plans himself, to determine whether the planned construction efforts would compromise the structural integrity of the building.

“Being that I’m in the construction business, I asked the company to have the plans delivered to me, but that never happened,” Zivkovic said. “And we didn’t meet with their contractor, although we asked to. Speaking of good faith efforts: there are none.”

Apartment 5E, unlocked and (officially) unoccupied. | Photo by Alison L. Moore

Tenants are also concerned about other issues surrounding construction. Alison Moore  was concerned about the many renovated units the management company had left unlocked, and the evidence of squatters she’d found.

“Kelly and I went floor to floor looking at these open apartments, and found that unit 3E is unlocked and the fridge is on, and full of recent deli packages dated July 18,” Moore said, adding, “We have evidence that these unoccupied units are being left open.”

Zivkovic said that he himself had caught a squatter in the empty apartments across from him, and told the man he needed to leave. By the time Zivkovic returned from work, the man was gone.

Moore, who lives on the top floor, also expressed concern about the planned stairwell renovation, wondering how she’d get up to her apartment. The fire escape was out of the question, as Moore said, “it’s all rusty and probably wouldn’t even hold our weight if we had to use it to escape.”

Tenants believe squatters are responsible for this July 25 photo of deli products (from nearby Ideal Marketplace) in the refrigerator of apartment 3E. | Photo by Alison L. Moore

Tenant Mutsuko Oikawa also expressed concern about the asbestos reported to be on the roof of the building. Although rooftop construction wasn’t listed on the permit, Oikawa said, “It’s a very serious matter, and because the management company kept lying about other stuff, we can’t trust them and we don’t know what to do.”

The property manager for NYC Management sounded exasperated at the tenants’ concerns, pointing to the multiple meetings they’d had and the good faith efforts he’d made.

“We purchased the building when it was without gas for a year and a half, and we’ve been waiting for Con Ed’s install meter date,” he said. “They know we are doing stuff whereas the previous owner did not fix stuff, that ever since we came on board we’re trying to get things to run properly. All we’re doing is trying to clean up the mess that Sidney Rubell left.”

Said Moore, “If they had been honest about things all along, we would be happy to see them get the building in a good condition, but they are not trustworthy. Now there is no reason to trust them at all, because now we feel threatened. At this point, we won’t leave on principle, because we don’t like seeing people like this get away with their bullying.”

WHY DO THEY STAY? | Well-meaning friends ask Maurer all the time, “Why don’t you just leave?” But in addition to the principle of the thing, it’s not as easy as all that.

“For us, this is our home,” Maurer said. “This is our house, and we don’t want to leave. It’s a great concern for everybody, but even more for Jordan and myself because we have a child. Our daughter attends a District 2 school — one of the best in the state of New York. That’s worth fighting for.”

Tenant Sam Moore furthered this, saying, “We’ve been here since the ’90s, and the building was never a prize, but it’s valuable to have stabilized units for us that are firmly middle class. It’s critical, and this effort on the part of developers to attenuate rent-stabilized housing through attrition has to be addressed.”

“By virtue of the fact that we’re not paying what are market rates in Chelsea isn’t reason enough to get people out of these stabilized units,” Moore said. “We may frustrate developers, they may feel a great deal of animosity or see us as deadbeats, but the fact is, we have every right to be here.”


Posted on Mon., July 30, this NYC Department of Buildings notice calls for an inspection of 311 W. 21st St. | Photo by Dani Balarezo

Holes in the floor (covered by carboard and tape) and mouse droppings, in apartment 3E. | Photo by Alison L. Moore

Page 1 of a June 14, 2018 memo from NYC Management to the tenants of 311 W. 21st St., in which tenant concerns are outlined. | Photo by Kelly Maurer

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