Wednesday, May 20, 2009

When is a Facade Really Just a Facade?

Published: Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tenants living in rent-regulated apartments on W. 14th Street lost their homes two weeks ago when New York City deemed their building’s structure unsafe from a collapsing façade.

Unfortunately for the tenants – who have been in homeless shelters, staying at friends and given shelter by the Red Cross – the city ordered the front facade completely removed and won’t let the tenants move back in until Stanley Wasserman, the owner of 152 W. 14th Street, replaces the façade. (more photos at Curbed. According to DOB records, 150 W. 14th, also well known for violations and disrepair, is not owned by Stanley Wasserman. Both buildings have been ordered evacuated.)

“There is a lack of maintenance that [Stanley] is known for but ours is structurally damaged,” Viktor Luna said last Thursday in housing court as he and other tenants try to force a resolution to the loss of their homes. “We are also human beings that pay rent and doing this to us is inhumane.”

The DOB complaint log on 150 West 14th Street is online here. Among others, you can see in 2007 a violation was issued for: "VIOLATION FILED FOR FAILURE TO MAINTAIN FRONT FACADE BULGING AND BUCKLING AT VARIOUS LOCATIONS THROUGTOUT" [sic]

The Department of Buildings, a city regulatory agency that looks for code violations, issued the order to Mr. Wasserman, but according to the tenants’ lawyer Shafaq Islam, the department cannot force violators to fix a building’s problems. Only a judge in housing court can force a landlord, and in the case of the tenants only Honorable Judge David B. Cohen can force Mr. Wasserman to fix the façade.

So far the tenants have received a rent reduction from the city applied to their apartments, they currently only have to pay one dollar a month for a place they can’t live in, preventing Mr. Wasserman from evicting them for not paying rent. A few of the tenants who have brought the lawsuit against Mr. Wasserman have been offered housing in another SRO building down the street (Mr. Wasserman owns three SRO buildings on 14th Street) after having preliminary hearings in front of the judge, who recommended that Wasserman find the tenants housing.

For tenants to get placed in the new building however, they must agree to certain terms that Mr. Wasserman set. Terms that one tenant, who prefers to remain anonymous, feels he cannot accept. These include permanently giving up any claims to his previous apartment, and dropping the lawsuit against Mr. Wasserman.

“If we do accept new tenancy here in the other building, we are afraid that we will end up in the same situation of being forced to vacate down the road,” said the tenant. “Inside the place they want us to move is in very bad condition, the stairways and such are in very bad condition.”

Susanna Blankley, a tenant organizer for the West Side SRO Law Project that helps protect tenants from predatory landlords, said that for a wealthy landlord, a violation means very little and only helps him remove tenants from his buildings due to poor living conditions.

Mr. Wasserman, who in 2003 owned 70 or so multi-family dwellings in Manhattan and the Bronx, with most if not all of his income coming from his other properties, effectively evicted all of his tenants in the case of the collapsing façade. Ms. Blankley speculates that if Mr. Wasserman gets the building cited as structurally unsound, he can demolish the building and replace the rent-regulated, single-room occupancy (SRO) units with high-end, luxury rentals.

In a downtown Manhattan area like 14th Street, Mr .Wasserman could make a significantly larger profit with luxury rentals, over what he currently makes owning an SRO building. SRO buildings often act as housing of last resort to keep people off the street. Rents rarely exceed $400 a month, and the city sets a percentage limit that the landlord may raise the rent each year through rent regulation. With 24 units currently in the building with the removed facade, half of them held vacant by Mr. Wasserman, he makes little if no profit.

Mr. Wasserman, nor his lawyers have been available for comment. Last Thursday in court Mr. Wasserman’s lawyer Martin Meltzer said he felt it inappropriate to comment since the case currently rests in litigation.

However, with the problem of the façade starting in 2007 when he received a violation but refused to take action, and then in 2009 when the city vacated just the front of the building and he still refused to take action to fix the problem, Mr. Wasserman continually ignored the city until they insisted on May 7th, 2009, that he remove the façade at the price of $140,000, and displaced the entire building.

Currently Mr. Wasserman won’t replace the front façade until he gets the building inspected, making sure that it is structurally sound. The Department of Buildings did a visual inspection and they believe the building to be fine, but still Mr. Wasserman wants his own inspection that he believes could take up to two months. During that time the tenants have no home.

David Arthur-Simon lives in yet another SRO building of Wasserman, and worries that the same fate of losing his home looms in his future. His building recently received a citation from the city for cracks in its façade, a similar violation to the original one in 2007 that displaced the tenants in 150 W. 14th Street. He worries that Mr. Wasserman plans to let the façade go without fixing the violation.

“They don’t come here at all to deal with this stuff,” said Mr. Arthur-Simon, who remembers one Christmas not having heat for a week. “People call up for repairs all the time and the never get help.”

(Photo at top by Jeremy Holmes. All links added by Paolo Mastrangelo.)
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