New Series

Posted on October 26, 2015

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Every week, the news media reports on issues relevant to the work we support. But often, these accounts tell only a small part of a more complicated and nuanced story. In our new series, we ask our grantees to fill in the blanks. Discover the events leading up to the story and how the issue fits into the bigger picture. Find out what’s next for the people involved and their partners who are behind the scenes.

Today’s Story Behind the Story was sent to us by the staff of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center. They, along with organizers at the Good Old Lower East Side, have been working to protect tenants on the Lower East Side from displacement.

Here’s their story:

Last week, the New York Times had a story about tenants who are recording conversations with their landlords and their agents to document attempts to get them to move. Why are tenants feeling pressured to move?

Current loopholes in the laws that govern rent-regulation reward owners who displace long-term tenants. For example, once a long-term tenant vacates, the owner can take a large increase in rent through the vacancy bonus, renovate the unit with individual apartment improvement costs being passed on to the next renter, raising the rent to the “market rate” and out of rent regulation and its protections. In areas like the East Village, a one-bedroom market-rate apartment can rent for upwards of $4,000. As soon as a rent-regulated tenant leaves, the remaining tenants can expect that unit to become a construction zone—one that subjects tenants-in-residence to excessive noise, dust, toxic fumes, and other hazardous conditions.

Owners pressure our clients to vacate their units using a number of tactics, many of which are blatantly illegal. Strategies include making explicit or implicit threats to undocumented tenants, hiring “relocation specialists” to make repeated in-person visits to offer buyout agreements, “investigating” illegal activity in the building, and/or working without permits or while a stop work order is in effect. Owners also threaten to (or actually do) shut off basic services like heat, hot water, and gas. Promising to and/or actually performing disruptive construction also pressures tenants into surrendering their apartments. Most distressingly, some tenants will voluntarily move and/or accept unconscionably-low buyouts because they are unaware that they are rent-regulated or rely on fraudulent misrepresentations that the owner can remove the building from rent stabilization.

What else would you have added to this story if you could?

Likely because of space issues, several interesting and compelling narratives did not make it into the New York Times story. For example, before the court case began, two units signed surrender agreements. One apartment surrendered for an unjustifiably low amount and another tenant signed a surrender agreement after the relocation specialist paid him approximately 20 visits, sometimes staying at his apartment until 1am. The specialist told the tenants that the prior owner had not properly registered the apartment so therefore tenants had no rights under rent-regulation law. At this time, MFY Legal Services is representing the tenants in a Supreme Court action to try to rescind that agreement. The tenants remain in residency but will have to fight to keep their homes.

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The article also did not focus on the history of malicious and aggressive behavior of some of the people involved. According to public records, owner Raphael Toledano has a criminal felony record in the state of New Jersey for aggravated assault. He has had multiple contacts with the criminal justice system. The ex-NYPD officer hired to “investigate” tenants was dismissed from the force after striking and killing a civilian with his police vehicle.  This agent also broke into a tenants’ apartment to photograph sleeping occupants to show a purported “prostitution ring.” Tenants at the building believed he was a police officer when he asked them for identification and proof of citizenship during his visits.

Lastly, the article did not focus on the adjoining building. That building was vacant and DOB has approved an application to demolish the premises. The tenants were told that, due to a structural connection between the buildings, the demolition of the adjoining building would cause their building to collapse. Tenants are fighting in housing court to maintain the case against the LLC that owns the vacant building and to assure the safe demolition of that property.

The building owners in the story were described as renovating their buildings. The photographs showed extensive demolition happening around existing tenants making it difficult if not impossible to live there. How wide-spread is this problem?

Construction, demolition, or renovations of buildings severely impacts tenants across NYC. CDP, as a member of the Stand for Tenant Safety (STS) Coalition, recently released a report documenting aggressive construction in occupied buildings and how it is used as a tool to displace rent-regulated tenants, especially in rapidly-gentrifying areas. The report surveyed 150 Brooklyn and Manhattan tenants currently or recently living in buildings undergoing major construction. The report also contains an analysis of DOB records for 57 buildings underdoing major construction. This sample of tenants and buildings represents a mere fraction of the people affected by aggressive construction as harassment.

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Among other findings, our research indicated that major construction negatively impacted tenants’ health, disrupted essential services, and often violates DOB rules and regulations. Nevertheless, due to DOB’s failure to respond to tenant complaints in a timely manner, most of the illegal and hazardous construction occurs without any consequences to the owner.

What could be done to protect more tenants from this practice?

In collaboration with the tenant advocates, eleven NYC Council Members introduced a package of 12 bills in late September proposing various measures to curb landlords’ efforts to harass and constructively evict tenants through aggressive construction work.  Some of the bills propose:

  • Creating a real-time enforcement unit within DOB to respond to tenants complaints within as little as two hours.
  • Increasing scrutiny for construction projects happening in occupied buildings or where the plans include significant amounts of work.
  • Permitting DOB to levy higher fines against owners and allowing the City to collect these fines by placing liens on buildings in violation of construction laws and regulations.

The tenants at 444 East 13 Street were courageous and used effective tactics to document the harassment in their building.  How did the tenants get organized? What is necessary to ensure they continue to work together?

Initially, some of the tenants at 444 East 13th Street worked with a local grassroots organizing group called Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) to receive individualized assistance applying for benefits like SCRIE and DRIE. One day, a senior citizen told the organizer that he was going to be kicked out. The organizer, realizing the tenant was rent-regulated, asked him for some details and learned about the egregious acts of harassment taking place at 444 East 13th Street building-wide.  GOLES invited the tenants to meet as a group at their offices and they began to organize and meet formally to discuss their strategy.

Throughout the time that the harassment was taking place, the owner tried to pit “good tenants” against “bad tenants” by accusing certain tenants of alleged criminal activity, implying “bad” tenants would be deported for prostitution, mafia activity, and drug trafficking. The “relocation specialists” awarded some tenants leases but left others in a state of limbo, explaining that the entire building would be removed from rent-regulation. Several tenants, under the pressure and confusion, signed agreements to surrender their apartments.

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In spite of the landlord’s coercive behavior, tenants began to clandestinely record interactions with the owners’ agents. Though they were told to “keep conversations strictly confidential,” tenants shared their experiences with their neighbors.  Soon they had amassed hours of recordings.

By the time GOLES reached out to the Community Development Project (CDP) of the Urban Justice Center, the situation proved dire. The heat, hot water, and gas service at the building had been terminated, the relocation specialists were threatening to “drop dynamite” on the building and to demolish the neighboring building in a way that would compromise the structural integrity of their homes. Illegal construction had resulted in DOB placing stop work orders on work performed in vacant units and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene placed violations for dangerously elevated levels of lead construction dust. The building had become infested with all manner of vermin, including bedbugs.  Across approximately eight occupied units, HPD placed 244 violations, many of them classified as C violations for immediately hazardous conditions.

CDP then filed an emergency case on behalf of the building, seeking the immediate restoration of services and an injunction against further harassment. The case remains pending but the owner has fired the relocation specialists, sought legal permits for work at the premises, and has restored the heat, hot water, and gas.

Communication has proven integral to the tenants’ unity. Tenants meet regularly both with and without their attorneys present and they send at least one representative from each apartment to court appearances that take place at least once per month.

Many of the tenants have lived in the building for decades. Owners and relocation specialists often rely on dividing the tenants, falsely stating that other tenants have already signed buyout agreements and that if the tenant doesn’t act fast, s/he will be left behind. By communicating and recording interactions with management, tenants uncovered inconsistencies, misrepresentations, and outright lies.  Meanwhile, by seeking assistance from GOLES and CDP, the tenants learned more about their rights as rent-regulated tenants and how to assert those rights in housing court.

Tenants of 444 East 13th Street have also met with tenants in other buildings that were recently purchased by the same owner, to encourage them to organize in their own buildings.