Three men who visited 50 West 93rd St. in August and September claiming to be police but thought by some to be impersonating officers were indeed members of law enforcement, according to police.
Two of the men are members of the NYPD attached to the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement while the third is a Department of Buildings inspector, said Lt. Matthew Bases of the 24th Precinct at a tenants association meeting held last week.
The men were investigating a complaint that a unit in the building was being rented illegally on AirBnB, Bases said. But the revelation, while surprising to many of the tenants at the meeting, also raised additional questions.
According to tenants, the three men showed up at the building the first time on Aug. 20 and flashed their badges at the doorman, but did not further identify themselves or state their business before heading straight to the elevators. The men questioned two rent-stabilized tenants about their residency status and about any co-tenants. The three left the building after about 15 minutes.
Surveillance images of the three later became the basis for a 24th Precinct investigation that closed in mid-September following what one police source said was a lack of leads.
The second incident occurred Sept. 17, largely along the same lines, according to tenant association president Sharon Canns.
About 40 tenants attended Thursday’s meeting, and some asked why the officers didn’t identify themselves more thoroughly to the doorman or to the tenants they questioned. Bases said it’s possible the officers did not want to divulge anything about the investigation, but did suggest that they should have identified themselves in keeping with police protocol.
“They should have identification, and you can ask, they should show you the ID,” he said. “Other than if it’s an emergency, yeah, we should identify ourselves.”
Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, who attended the meeting along with representatives of several elected officials as well officials from the state Department of Homes and Community Renewal’s newly created Tenant Protection Unit, said she received a call from the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement notifying her that the three were from that office and the Department of Buildings.
OSE was created in 2006 by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and is tasked with investigating quality of life issues, “such as lawless clubs and adult establishments and trademark counterfeiting bazaars,” according to the city’s website. OSE staff was doubled to 29 people earlier this year and provided with $2.8 million by the city council’s progressive caucus in an effort to crack down on illegal hotel operators.
“The Office of Special Enforcement takes every complaint of illegal hotel activity seriously, and conducts on-site inspections with multiple agencies to assess whether laws are being broken,” a City Hall spokesman, Wiley Norvell, said in an email. “If tenants believe that erroneous or inappropriate complaints have been lodged against them by a landlord or fellow tenant, they can call 311 to report the harassment.”
Norvell also said that as a general practice, OSE teams — which can be made up of members of several different agencies including the NYPD, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Department of Buildings — do identify themselves when conducting inspections.
Many lawmakers are opposed to AirBnB’s business model, saying the lodging website negatively affects New York’s housing stock and leads to a host of safety issues for everyday tenants. The lawmakers also say many of the short-term listings on the popular website violate New York’s 2010 illegal-hotel law, which prohibits stays of less than 30 days unless the primary resident is present.
The company casts itself as a way for New Yorkers to make a little extra cash. However, an investigation by the state Attorney General’s office last year determined that more than one-third of the site’s revenue in New York came from commercial users who rent out multiple apartments year around.
At 50 West 93rd St., tenants said they know of at least one unit in the building being rented on AirBnB. But one of the rent-stabilized tenants questioned by the three men said her apartment was not and had never been on the site and asked why she was targeted for questioning. According to the tenant, one of the three men said, “then someone in the building doesn’t like you.”
A search last week of AirBnB’s website did not reveal any listings at 50 West 93rd St.
The tenants’ meeting veered into an open-ended discussion on what tenants should do if they believe they’re being harassed by management to vacate their rent-stabilized apartments. Two tenants complained that they had received multiple, unwanted buyout offers while three others said they’ve been repeatedly taken to court with frivolous lawsuits that were later dropped but caused them to miss time off work.
The building, along with 70 West 93rd St. and 50 West 97th St., is owned by Stellar Management. In a Daily News article last year, some accused the company of harassing rent-stabilized tenants.
Sue Susman, a tenant advocate and lawyer who lives in a Stellar-owned building, said tenants have been trying to get the company on the state Tenant Protection Unit’s radar. The tenants say company tactics include frivolous lawsuits in housing court that claim tenants are not paying rent or maintain a primary residence elsewhere in violation of their rent stabilized leases.
“Tenants in Stellar-owned buildings have been concerned about efforts to displace rent-regulated tenants. Several tenants have had to fight cases that should never have been brought in the first place,” Susman said. “Fortunately, as tenants have won these cases and tenant associations have educated tenants about their rights — and urged Stellar to refrain from these cases — the frequency has died down in some buildings.”
A spokesperson for Stellar denied unequivocally that the company engages in harassment of any kind.
“The management of 50 West 93rd Street has never, in any way, engaged in harassment towards residents in the building,” said the spokesperson. “In respect to past reports regarding the illegal impersonation of law enforcement, we are pleased that the NYPD confirmed these individuals were from a New York City agency.”
The spokesperson added that Stellar worked with the 24th Precinct, officials and residents to investigate the alleged police impersonations and is satisfied the issue has been resolved.
A spokesperson from the state Department of Homes and Community Renewal, which oversees the Tenant Protection Unit — who attended the tenants’ meeting — said tenants who feel that they’re being harassed should immediately call the unit at 718-739-6400.
“Governor Cuomo created the Tenant Protection Unit in 2012 to proactively audit and investigate illegal practices including: harassing tenants, threatening to unlawfully evict them, and other instances just like what’s been alleged,” the spokesperson said. “The governor and TPU take these allegations seriously and if confirmed, will move swiftly to hold the responsible parties accountable.”