Buildings Behaving Badly

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Downtown Manhattan boasts many coveted addresses, but some buildings have earned reputations of a different kind. The phrase "buyer beware" is especially relevant for those looking for a place to live in New York City, given the widely unpredictable nature of buildings and landlords, which run the gamut from good to bad, and many times even ugly. Downtown, there are several addresses with the dubious distinction of being named to the public advocate's Worst Landlords Watch List. One of this year's top violators, based on information from residents as well as city agencies, is 197 Madison St. The troubled history at 197 Madison includes both city Department of Building (DOB) complaints, which have to do with building maintenance problems, as well as Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) complaints, which address mostly poor living conditions such as pests, lack of heat, hot water problems and safety issues. To date, the building has 13 outstanding DOB violations classified as "hazardous" safety violations which include failures to maintain exterior walls, as well as blocked exits and entrances, and other fire code violations. The building's owners, KL Father & Son Inc., owe thousands in fines to the city, but many of the fines have been written off as legally uncollectable. Further highlighting the building's problems, back in August, an emotionally disturbed tenant, armed with a knife, held the building's landlord hostage and forced the landlord to jump out of a second-floor window to the street below. Several calls to the company's head officer, Josephine Lo, were not returned. Ryan Fitzgibbon, a spokesperson for the city's DOB, said that the agency does what it can to make sure that landlords are doing the right thing. "A property owner is responsible to maintain his or her property in a safe and lawful manner at all times and that includes work being done on the property," she said. She added that the agency investigates all complaints it receives. Last year, DOB inspectors conducted more than 290,000 inspections and issued close to 60,000 violations, including thousands of stop-work orders. But increasingly, complaints of illegal, after-hours construction have been prevalent downtown. Kelly Magee, a spokesperson for Council Member Margaret Chin, has reported numerous complaints of after-hours construction at 21 Ann/113 Nassau St. as well as many other locations in the district. Brandon Kielbasa, a housing specialist with Cooper Square Committee, an organization that works to preserve and develop affordable housing on the Lower East Side, said that some shady landlords use ongoing construction as a means to harass tenants into leaving their buildings. "We counsel tons of tenants dealing with construction in their building. Aggressive landlords have learned that DOB will rarely catch them working after permitted hours or when using illegal and often dangerous construction methods," Kielbasa said. "They frequently let construction run amuck in their buildings in an effort to harass rent-stabilized tenants." Kielbasa reported speaking with dozens of tenants who said their landlords routinely exploited DOB's lack of enforcement to harass them and edge them toward buy-outs. He said that tenants were told about "lots of construction in the building in the next six months," and that the building would be a "pretty difficult place to live." The tenants, he said, were then asked if they'd be interested in money to relocate and move on. "Tenants call in complaints to 311 when they see violations; but DOB comes out two or three days later, after the landlord's crew has already finished their work, and there's nothing for the inspector to witness," Kielbasa explained. "The complaints get dismissed." He added that DOB needs a means to act quickly when dealing with some landlords. "They need a mechanism like 'Real Time Enforcement' to keep these chronic bad actors in check. New York City tenants' health, safety and general welfare are really at risk here." Councilman Dan Garodnick also expressed concern about landlords harassing tenants. "We saw landlords using a variety of means to get tenants out of their rent-stabilized apartments and there was no way for a tenant to file a lawsuit against a landlord doing this kind of thing," he said. He added that landlords, in their efforts, would cut off heat and hot water, break locks and otherwise make apartments uninhabitable or just very unpleasant. In an effort to remedy the problem, Garodnick introduced the Tenant Protection Act in 2007 to defend tenants against various types of harassment from landlords. The legislation, signed into law in 2008, covers illegal construction as well as other conditions that might force a lawful tenant to consider leaving their dwelling. Another problematic property, according to Magee, is 135 Eldridge St. by SDR Park. She said that the councilwoman has received complaints from nearby residents that "shady stuff goes on over there." While DOB records show there are illegally subdivided apartments at the location, including a partial vacate order for an illegal cellar apartment, the real complaints are from neighbors on the block who report a variety of unpleasant conditions. A neighbor who lives on Eldridge Street but declined to give her name fearing backlash, said that one key problem emanating from the building is an excess of garbage that is improperly disposed of and contributes to a severe rat and rodent issue. "The residents of 135 throw their garbage out in front of the building randomly. The amount of garbage from the building doesn't add up to the amount of people that supposedly live there," the woman said. She added that the problem with the rats is exacerbated by several local food vendors who literally sell raw fish "on the sidewalk" and without any type of license or certifications from the city to sell food. "Every night, the rats have a feast on this block," she said. Calling the street the "wild west," the woman said she can't figure out why such conditions on the street have been allowed to continue for several years despite numerous complaints to city officials and other agencies. "People do whatever they want on the block."

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