This is the third part in a series about low- and moderate-income affordable housing tenants in the rezoning area put at risk of displacement by de Blasio’s rezoning. If you would like us to profile your story, please contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
What follows is a representative story provided by a current resident of the harassment they experienced from their 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 their request, we have altered the resident’s name and specifying details to protect their 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).
Jon moved into SoHo in 1997. He had been doing construction work for galleries and museums on a freelance basis and, after a few years of moving around town, he found an apartment in the area, a rent-stabilized studio in a five story building owned by a small, independent landlord, whose sons ran a business on the ground level. Things were going well with his new place until the owner sold the building to a small realty company that had been acquiring properties with rent stabilized units throughout the neighborhood and then trying to take those units out of rent regulation through tenant buyouts and tenant harassment. Before long, the new landlord got to work on Jon’s building, buying out at least one of the residents and suing others, arguing that they were not rightfully on the lease. Not long after the sale, Jon bumped into his old landlord, who greeted him and then warned him that the new owner would try to force him out – a warning subsequently echoed by one of this landlord’s own contractors.
One day, Jon came back home to learn that his key no longer worked at the entrance door. The landlord had changed the lock without notification and without making available a copy of the new key. Locked out and unable to get through to the landlord, Jon went through the ground floor business into the courtyard and had to climb up to his apartment and enter through his window. This change-of-lock surprise turned out to be an opening salvo. The landlord soon began to do extensive gut renovation work throughout the building. Plumbing systems were moved or installed; debris and dust (including lead dust, subsequent tests would reveal) covered the hallways; and power was cut off without notice for ten days. Calls to 311 and Con Edison had little effect; so Jon had to make do with camping lanterns. No construction permits for this work were ever posted, because none were ever obtained.
During the construction, workers poked holes with a crowbar through Jon’s ceiling from the upstairs apartment. After complaints to the landlord went ignored for almost four months, Jon took the landlord to housing court and, after a dragged out process, ultimately prevailed. This began Jon’s education in the ins and outs of the court system for tenants: the visits to help centers to understand what you need to file and how; the service of process to the landlord and all entities under which he operates; the subpoenaing of records; and, in short, the hassle, time commitment, loss of income, and emotional toll required to see through a legal process that, for landlords, is just the cost of doing business. Unfortunately for Jon, this legal education proved useful again before long.
The work done above Jon’s apartment had left an underlying leak above his kitchen. In response to complaints, the landlord would have the problem addressed cosmetically but leave the leak unfixed. The situation persisted for almost three years, until Jon took the landlord once more to housing court. This seemed to result in the necessary repairs; but the respite did not last. In 2004, Jon came home one day to find his apartment door jammed from the inside. The leak had compromised the kitchen ceiling, large chunks of which had collapsed and blocked the entrance. The landlord again ignored Jon’s complaints; so Jon started withholding rent and began another round of legal proceedings. In response, the landlord countersued Jon for non-payment of rent. This segment of Jon’s ongoing legal battle concluded after about a year with a stipulation that required the landlord to fix the leak and the damage to the ceiling and Jon to resume rent payment.
And still the leak persisted. For two years, Jon simply put up with it, putting pots under the leak and watching his ceiling bow. But eventually, in 2009, the joists in the floor above failed, and Jon’s ceiling collapsed. A call to 311 led to a visit from the Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD), which put in shoring to hold up the ceiling and reported the matter to the Department of Buildings, which issued a violation for immediately hazardous conditions. And still the landlord refused to correct the matter, making Jon resort yet again to housing court. The resulting stipulation this time required repairs within 30 days. Instead, repairs took three months, forcing Jon to temporarily move to a friend’s place. During this period, the landlord offered to buy Jon out of his lease for $10K – offer that Jon rejected out of hand.
In 2014, Jon was interviewed by the office of the attorney general in connection to an investigation of his landlord for tenant harassment. Charges were eventually filed and a settlement reached, but that had little impact on Jon, except insofar as the investigation led the landlord to sell the building to another realty company.
Jon’s new landlord began where the last one left off, suing some residents, successfully buying out another, cornering Jon in the hallway, asking him to name the price it would take for him to leave, and undertaking another round of disruptive construction. Once more, dust and rubble accumulated in all common areas. This time, a 311 complaint by the tenants led to an investigation by Healthy Homes, which determined a high level of lead dust in the debris, making the landlord do regular cleanups and use plastic covers. The construction, however, seemed once more designed to disrupt residents’ peaceful habitation. Workers drove a screw into a pipe above Jon’s apartment, causing water to pool upstairs and leak down for five days. No sooner had that been addressed than a fire broke out in an empty unit, because of oily rags left in the bathtub during construction, causing water and smoke damage to Jon’s apartment. While this was happening, Jon kept receiving threatening letters from the landlord’s lawyers accusing him, without basis, of not allowing access into his unit for construction purposes. The landlord then sued Jon for non-payment of rent. Luckily, over a decade of dealing with tenant harassment had put Jon on guard; and he had made it a practice to send his checks certified mail receipt. The landlord had simply not cashed them for four months. The case was dismissed.
Jon was subjected to the pattern of harassment described above even though the upside to his departure consisted merely of facilitating the landlords’ efforts to ultimately remove his unit from rent stabilization. If multiple landlords found this motivation enough to embark on such campaigns, we can only imagine what they’ll be driven to under de Blasio’s proposed neighborhood upzoning, which offers a far richer prize. It gives landlords throughout the district enough square feet of extra development rights to develop buildings twice as large or more as the ones they’re replacing. The possibility of building super-luxury units at this scale creates an enormous financial incentive to demolish existing buildings with rent stabilized units. The City has raised the possibility of anti-harassment measures (without actually including any in its plan) as a response to these problems. If the present case demonstrates anything, it is that even state tenant harassment investigations at the highest level are playing a game of whack-a-mole, where a new landlord, given the proper financial incentives (as de Blasio’s SoHo/NoHo rezoning plan offers) is ready to take the place of its whacked predecessor and continue the work of displacing lower income tenants and eliminating affordable housing from the neighborhood.
For these reasons, Jon strongly opposes de Blasio’s upzoning, and urges you to join him and numerous community groups in doing so too.