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Tenants in the Crosshairs: the SoHo/NoHo Rezoning Plan Victims the Mayor Wants You to Forget, Part 1

This is the first part in a series about low- and moderate-income rent regulated tenants in the rezoning area the de Blasio rezoning puts at risk of displacement. If you have a similar story that you would like us to profile, please contact us: info@gvshp.org

Within the sometimes glossy exteriors of SoHo and NoHo streetscapes lie hundreds of units of affordable, rent regulated housing, whose residents are mostly low-to-moderate income and manage to hang on only because current zoning rules make it hard to remove them or provide little incentive for doing so. The Mayor’s plan would change that.

The parts of SoHo, NoHo, and Chinatown that Mayor de Blasio wants to rezone have well over six hundred affordable, rent regulated residential units that largely house moderate- and low-income residents, many of whom have lived there for decades. The current zoning offers limited incentive for landlords to push such tenants out of their homes, because it rarely allows larger construction than existing buildings and only permits a limited range of uses in new construction. That has not stopped landlords over the years from trying. But under Mayor de Blasio’s rezoning plan, residents rightfully anticipate a huge increase in harassment efforts, because they will be the sole impediment to larger scale development of a much wider range of lucrative uses — from luxury condos and big box chain stores to boutique offices and NYU dorms. 

SoHo/NoHo Rally 5/10/21

What follows is a representative story provided by a current resident of the harassment he experienced from his landlord over the years, as well as an explanation of how and why such incidents are likely to worsen significantly if the rezoning is approved. At his request, we have altered the resident’s name and specifying details to protect his identity (any member of the press or city official seeking to explore this case further or confirm the person’s identity should contact us, and we would be happy to connect them under the condition that the tenant’s confidentiality be maintained, so as not to further endanger him or fellow residents of his building).  

Paul, a singer, moved to SoHo in 1979 and has lived there since then on an artist’s income that has characteristically fluctuated between “what a great year” and “wow, how am I going to make it through this year!?” His loft initially consisted of recently vacated light manufacturing raw space with very basic plumbing and a work sink. No one had lived there before. To render the space more habitable, Paul had to build the cabinetry, install appliances, and upgrade the electrical supply. He also had to install a gas space heater, since his commercial lease only included heating during weekdays–no nights or weekends. To help defray his living costs, Paul shared the space with one or two roommates. 

In 1982, the Loft Laws were passed to require landlords to bring manufacturing loft buildings such as Paul’s up to code for residential use so as to protect the safety of those living there. Upon certification of the building as compliant, its inhabited manufacturing units became regulated as rent stabilized live-work units. The law also stipulated that those who wished to live in one of them had to either obtain an “artist” certification from the Department of Cultural Affairs or prove that their tenancy pre-dated the deadline set forth by the law. Although Paul and his neighbors successfully went through the onerous bureaucratic process necessary to comply with this requirement, their landlord pretended that none of them lawfully lived there and embarked on a harassment campaign to drive them out, cutting off the heat, shutting down the elevators, and stopping all building maintenance. In 1986, the tenants, resorting to the only source of leverage at their disposal, declared a rent strike for failure to provide essential services. In response, the landlord sued them for failure to pay rent. The lawsuit dragged on for five years, with the tenants’ legal fees accumulating along the way.

In the early 1990s, the landlord agreed to settle the case. The pattern of harassment, however, resumed shortly thereafter. Leaks and broken windows went unrepaired; asbestos was improperly removed and left exposed; and maintenance fell well short of the bare minimum. The tenants tried for years to make a case of tenant harassment before the Loft Board and to get its enforcement branch to ensure code compliance by their landlord. Both efforts, however, proved futile. The landlord knew how to avoid the threshold for a harassment finding, and the agency’s enforcement proved ineffectual. 

As a result, the tenants had to resort once more in the mid 90s to rent strike for failure to remedy health and safety code violations. In response, the landlord sued them yet again for non-payment of rent. This time, the litigation lasted for almost ten years–until 2005, when the landlord finally brought the building into code compliance. This allowed the tenants’ lofts to be regulated as rent stabilized residential units and allowed the landlord to access years of rent payment that had been accumulating in an escrow account. It did not, however, put an end to the conflict between the parties. 

In 2004, the landlord filed a special permit application with the Department of City Planning in order to: a) rent 10,000 square feet of ground floor retail space; b) convert ten commercial units into live-work units; and c) build 5,000 square feet of penthouse residential space. At the public hearing, the tenants testified against the application, arguing that, among other things, the construction of the penthouse units would necessarily intrude into their units and lead to their temporary displacement (which, in matters involving rent stabilized housing, often becomes permanent). Ultimately, the agency allowed the first two parts of the application. It did not, however, allow the penthouse expansion, because the building did not have enough unused square footage under the existing zoning for a development of that size. 

Approval in hand, the landlord proceeded to rent to a big chain retailer not just his ground floor, as allowed by the permit, but also the basement, first and second floor–over 35k square feet of space. The conflict between residential uses and retail operations of that size became apparent as soon as the noise from the massive late night and early morning merchandise deliveries and garbage disposal began. Hoping to have the zoning rules enforced, the tenants complained repeatedly to their elected representatives. This yielded no results. Finally, a 2016 complaint with the Department of Buildings resulted two years later in a $1,750 fine. This flagrant zoning violation–and the nuisance that goes with it–persists to this day. 

Paul has managed to keep his home despite years of harassment and ongoing nuisance. In doing so, a significant factor has operated in his favor: current regulation does not allow his landlord to expand the size of his building or to devote it to more profitable but incompatible land uses. This prevented the penthouse construction that would have displaced Paul or impaired his living conditions. It also prevents the sort of oversized retail operation that still illegally occupies multiple stories in the building due the City’s enforcement negligence. By constraining such possibilities, the current zoning limits the upside of removing Paul from the building either through a buyout or by harassing him into submission. 

De Blasio’s plan removes these constraints. It would allow big chain retail as big as Paul’s downstairs neighbor or bigger. It would give Paul’s landlord 55,000 square feet of extra development rights with which to build, not just a few penthouse units, but several stories of luxury residential uses. This enormous handout, in return for which the public gets little or nothing, creates far greater incentive than currently exists to displace Paul and make his life miserable. And the past twenty plus years have taught him that, when that happens, the City will do little to protect him. 

For these reasons, Paul strongly opposes de Blasio’s upzoning, and urges you to join him and numerous community groups in doing so too.

Find out more about the SoHo/NoHo Upzoning plan here, and urge city officials to oppose it here.

One response to “Tenants in the Crosshairs: the SoHo/NoHo Rezoning Plan Victims the Mayor Wants You to Forget, Part 1

  1. Inevitably, migrations of “spot zonings” will spread like a stone skipped on water and bad acting LL’s will be granted “zoning text amendments” to building owners outside the proposed rezoned area and more stories with similar details of harassment will emerge.
    Decrease in services, breach of warranty of habitability, little or no code enforcement, construction as harassment, No heat or hot water. Ultimately, same pattern of lost affordable housing.

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