Chelsea Now: Illegal Construction, Unsafe Conditions on W. 25th St.

By Eileen Stukane, 10/21

BY EILEEN STUKANE | Four months ago, families were living normally, as they had for years, in their rent-regulated apartments at 264 and 266 W. 25th St. Today, the five-story, 17-apartment building at 264 has been transformed into a demolition and construction site, with 10 of those apartments gutted and under renovation. At 266, the five-story building next door, residents are also vacating.

Why is everybody leaving?

This summer, rent-regulated tenants were told by a new landlord that their leases would not be renewed (one resident was known to take a buyout), so they left. Only a few residents, who knew their rights, decided to stay and stand their ground amidst the dust, debris, and noise of construction work that has become an all-too-common form of tenant harassment in this city.

Out of the 17 rent-regulated apartments at 264 W. 25th St., only four are currently occupied. Tenants tell Chelsea Now that residents there, and in 266 W. 25th St. (which has nine, soon to be seven, out of its 15 rent-regulated apartments occupied), were driven away by the actions of Leor Sabet of The Sabet Group, which purchased both buildings this year. From July to October, residents have filed about 30 complaints to the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB), notifying the agency of illegal construction and unsafe conditions. In response, the DOB has sent inspectors, issued certain violations, and, this month, put a partial Stop Work Order in place.

In addition, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (HMH) issued an October Stop Work Order due to the serious health hazard of lead dust. Residents say this isn’t enough. They have never been informed about, nor have they ever experienced anything related to, the city-mandated Tenant Protection Plan that is required in occupied buildings during construction, and the harassment via construction has been relentless.

“I’m extremely proud of Chelsea’s tenants for taking a stand against abusive landlords. Real estate speculators have become increasingly aggressive in their approach and will often stop at nothing to force out tenants in affordable units. Landlords who deliberately create unlivable conditions and lie on construction permits must be held accountable for their actions,” Councilmember Corey Johnson wrote in an email to Chelsea Now.

Here’s what’s happening on the ground:

A Worker Falls Through A Ceiling: One resident, speaking anonymously, has stories that are incredulous, such as the day this person came home from work after hearing the news that a construction worker on the floor above had fallen through their bedroom ceiling.

“Every single wall in my home has damage, a hole here, a hole there, and then I get word that a worker, perhaps drunk or high, but definitely unprofessional, has fallen from the upstairs floor through my ceiling,” said the tenant, “and when I got home, I found windows open and a sloppy patch over the hole. I called the police.”

DOB permits posted at the time only allowed for work on the second floor, but demolition was ongoing on all other floors in 264 W. 25th St., activity that residents had already reported to the DOB. “There’s a lot of dust and debris everywhere, on the floor, the doors, in the air, it’s a constant thing,” the tenant added.

Then there was the rent money order, payment for this same tenant’s ceiling-damaged rent-controlled apartment, that was returned by The Sabet Group, stating that the resident was not the tenant of record, that the tenant’s mother, who had been deceased for over 30 years, was the tenant of record, and that they had no rights. This tenant had paid rent on time for decades and was the legal tenant of record at the NYC Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) since 1984 — but the burden of proof was on their shoulders.

Insects and Bedbugs: Since demolition and construction in 264 W. 25th St. began, records show that another tenant has been battling cockroaches, water bugs, beetles, flying insects, and a bedbug infestation confirmed by an extermination service. This tenant had to relocate while the apartment was being fumigated. Rats and mice were also reportedly seen in the hallway of the building.

Water Cascades Through Floors and Ceilings: Steven Cincotta, a second-floor resident of 266 W. 25th St., was awakened on a September morning at 4 a.m. by the sound of water rushing down from the ceiling in the hall outside his apartment. Discovering a flood situation, he called the fire department, which found the source of the problem several floors above him. A faucet had been left on in a fifth-floor apartment in the process of demolition, a gutting for which there was no work permit. As far as water, hot water and heat are concerned, tenants report periodic interruptions without notice.
An archive of permits, violations, photos and affidavits, chronicling what has happened at 266 W. 25th St. since it was acquired by new owners.

Hazardous Lead Particles: As stated in its report, the HMH found this month that the work in 264 W. 25th St. was “generating and dispersing paint chips, debris and dust,” and warned, “improperly performed work which disturbs lead-based paint may expose members of the public, particularly children under six years of age, to the risk of lead poisoning.”

“These tenants are just one example of people forced to live under horrendous and dangerous conditions while construction goes on around them,” Assemblymember Richard Gottfried wrote in a statement to Chelsea Now. “My office is inundated with tenants who tell horror stories about their landlords performing massive construction and renovations in buildings while tenants live there. The landlords systematically harass these tenants to get them to move out, so the rents can be increased and the apartments can be taken out of rent stabilization and rent control systems. This must stop. The Department of Buildings must aggressively protect tenants, not help the people attacking tenants and destroying affordable housing.”

Assemblymember Gottfried’s office has been actively working to help tenants find legal recourse.

LEGALITIES AND THE NEED FOR ACTION

Leor Sabet of The Sabet Group, which purchased 264 and 266 W. 25th St. this year, checked off “No” on the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) PW1 permit application, indicating that 264 W. 25th St. — which had families in their homes — was vacant. Once again, men, women and children who called their apartments home, were all invisible on the new owner’s falsified PW1 application for construction this summer. Chelsea’s Community & Residents Protection Working Group (CRP) has made the community aware that an unoccupied building does not require a Tenant Protection Plan — so residents who are not recognized are subject to unsafe conditions, and then the predictable landlord pressure is exerted to motivate them to move out.

Not understanding their rights as rent-controlled or rent-stabilized tenants, not wanting to endure life on a construction site, and being notified by the new landlord that he would not renew their leases, the majority of families on W. 25th St. did what many do — they relocated. Demolition began full force within apartments at 264 W. 25th St., and to a lesser degree at 266 W. 25th.

Chelsea Now spoke with Leor Sabet by phone and asked what the plans were for the buildings. Were the apartments to be turned into condos? No response. When asked about the accuracy of tenants’ statements that no Tenant Protection Plan was in place, the response from Mr. Sabet was: “There’s no comment. Thank you for the call, but no comment,” and he hung up.

Alex Schnell, a spokesperson for the DOB, noted in an email: “On a 9/15/15 visit [to 264-266 W. 25th St.], inspector was provided documentation showing tenant protection plan.” According to Schnell, the tenant protection documentation would have been on the work plans for the buildings, but regardless of what might have been indicated on paper, tenants have not experienced a Tenant Protection Plan.

A number of work permits were issued in relation to the second-floor demolition in 264 W. 25th St., but then the demolition spread to other apartments. Eventually permits were issued for specific work in other apartments in the building, and construction has been undertaken in the common areas of both buildings. The owner noted on DOB applications that work would not involve more than 50 percent of a building — but at 264 W. 25th St., 10 out of 17 apartments gutted is certainly more than 50 percent of the building.

Cincotta also questions whether the Certificate of Occupancy in the buildings, which states that there are 10 habitable rooms per floor, is being violated. He discovered that the apartments being renovated have increased numbers of rooms.

“Where there were two bedrooms, there will be three. Where there were three bedrooms, there will be four,” he said, and notes that the bedrooms are small with attached bathrooms, as if dormitory or hotel living were being created, which would change the living environment of the building.

LOOKING TO THE CITY AND COURTS FOR HELP

Residents who want to continue living in their homes at 264 and 266 W. 25th St., filed over 30 complaints to the DOB. When DOB inspectors arrived to investigate illegal construction and falsified applications, work came to a halt, doors were locked, and inspectors were often denied the access they needed — according to tenants, who suspect that an alleged lookout stationed in front of their buildings alerted workers. Action that might have been taken to file violations was, thus, delayed.

Nevertheless, to their credit, the DOB inspectors did issue violations, including the latest Stop Work Order for plumbing issues. Eight DOB violations remain outstanding, and two of them are for different work permit applications that falsely noted there was no rent-controlled or rent-stabilized occupied housing in either 264 or 266 W. 25th St. The violations at the respective addresses carry penalties of $2,400 and $4,830.

What seems a glitch in the system, however, is that last summer’s falsified PW1 application for construction at 264 W. 25th St., after a violation was issued, was resubmitted with the notation: “Respectfully Requesting Approval of Amended Schedule ‘B’ and Plans,” an amendment which corrected the occupancy status in the building. This amended application was requested and approved in September, with what appears to be no further challenge by the DOB. In addition to open DOB violations, the two addresses on W. 25th St. have a combined 19 open NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) violations filed in the last half of 2015.

Although the current DOB Stop Work Order for plumbing and the HMH Stop Work Order for lead contamination have given the tenants a little breathing space, they are far from satisfied. Their friends and neighbors are gone. What often happens is that by the time city agencies become aware, tenants have chosen to move away rather than suffer through harassment. The affordable housing that existed is gone and the neighborhood environment is changed.

Gottfried and Johnson are both working to stem this particular tide. “We need to use every tool at our disposal to fight back and protect tenants, and the package of legislation that my City Council colleagues and I introduced last week will give the City broader enforcement power,” Johnson emailed Chelsea Now, adding that he was “pleased that the Department of Buildings and the Department of Heath issued Stop Work Orders at these properties, and I look forward to working with our city agencies until full accountability is reached.”

The tenants at 264 and 266 W. 25th St. want the entire workplace closed down by a complete Stop Work Order that ends their harassment, allows DOB full access, and brings in an on-site superintendent (which the buildings currently do not have). That The Sabet Group refuses to issue renewals to rent-regulated tenants, and delays in depositing rent payments, questions legality. Tenants would rather go to court than be forced to move out, and that is just what they are ready to do.