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NY Times: Construction in Buildings Declared Vacant Surprises Some: The Tenants

By Mireya Navarro, 9/18

The complaints to the city from 292 Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, read like dispatches from chaos.

“They have huge piles of dust and concrete, which is getting tenants sick,” one said.

“Caller’s apartment is vibrating, and he is afraid his ceiling will drop,” said another.

When New York property owners plan to do work on their buildings, they are required to tell the city if people are living there and, if so, to submit plans to protect them from dust, blocked exits and other perils. But at 292 Bedford and numerous other occupied work sites, the city allowed work to proceed even though owners or their agents asserted the buildings were empty, claims that could be easily disproved through public databases, or by simply pressing the buzzers outside the front doors.

City officials acknowledge they have no system to verify whether buildings undergoing construction are unoccupied, a blind spot that tenants and their advocates argue has helped promote a climate of lawlessness, particularly for rent-stabilized residents.

Even as Mayor Bill de Blasio has made preserving and creating rent-stabilized apartments a focus of his administration, tenants and some elected officials say that some landlords have exploited the lack of enforcement to harass these residents into leaving their apartments, freeing them to be rented out for more money.

“They have made our lives unbearable to see how long we can take it before we leave,” said Maribel Rosario, 43, an executive secretary at a hospital who said she and her husband had rejected repeated buyout offers from the landlord at 292 Bedford. She said her young son and daughter had constant flulike symptoms and allergies during the construction.

Even when the city becomes aware of an incorrect permit application, it has typically allowed landlords simply to correct the paperwork and provide the required protection plans. That does not always help, as landlords sometimes flout the plans, tenants in some of the buildings say.

“Certainly the Buildings Department has been really falling down on the job,” said State Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Democrat who is among several elected officials who met with the department on Friday over the issue. They want the department to do more to verify occupancy status and impose more severe penalties, especially for repeat offenders.

“Not only are landlords and developers defrauding the Buildings Department with these filings,” Mr. Gottfried said, “but they’re also endangering the lives and safety of tenants, as well as working to destroy affordable housing.”

Department officials say they are aware that false filings are a problem and have been working to upgrade their technology to identify potential wrongdoers. One way to do that, the department and its critics agree, is to create a system to crosscheck permits with the state’s database of rent-stabilized buildings.

But Timothy E. Hogan, the deputy commissioner of enforcement, said that “just because there’s construction it doesn’t mean there’s tenant harassment.” Mr. Hogan said some of the inaccurate information, which can be filled in by engineers, architects, property managers and the owners themselves, may stem from innocent mistakes, like erroneously listing the building as vacant because the proposed renovation is limited to a vacant floor.

He added, though, that it was “really incumbent on these licensed professionals to be truthful.” And department officials say they are now considering more aggressively penalizing owners who submit false information.

The problem appears to be so endemic that even buildings undergoing cosmetic work sometimes give inaccurate information. The building on the Upper West Side where City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer rents an apartment, for instance, was recently approved for $284,100 worth of facade repairs, even though it listed the building as unoccupied. (The building’s management did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.)

Tenant groups and lawyers say false information on permits is widespread in neighborhoods where the market can sustain the transformation of rent-stabilized apartments into expensive rentals.

A neighborhood group in Chelsea known as Community Residents Protection compiled a list of several dozen occupied buildings where it suspected permit falsifications, and city building officials have so far confirmed 41 had incorrect filings. The department issued violations for the false filings, which carry fines of $1,200 to $4,800, as well as stop-work orders, officials said.

Only one case was considered tenant harassment, building officials said; that case was referred to a city-state tenant protection task force.

At 292 Bedford, the city did not issue violations related to the permit application and many other complaints until this year, after the building’s manager, Isaac Rosenberg, 27, was charged in February with bribing city housing inspectors to dismiss violations for mold, lack of heat and other problems there and elsewhere.

Mr. Rosenberg has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer, Kevin Keating, said he would not comment on the charges or the false filings.

The incorrect permit applications, first filed in 2013, were signed by Cheski Weiss (also listed on a permit application as Cheskie Weisz), a managing member of the corporation that owns the building. Mr. Weiss did not return calls for comment.

Violations involving false permit applications are infrequent — about 100 were issued last year out of more than 77,000 permits for residential work. Building officials say the sheer number of applications makes it unfeasible to verify the occupancy status for each one.

Prosecutions are even rarer, and usually involve a pattern of antitenant behavior.

In two criminal cases brought against Brooklyn landlords and one engineer this year — and in a civil case against a Manhattan landlord settled out of court — owners who were accused of lying about occupancy on permits were also accused of actions such as cutting off heat and other essential services, exposing residents to excessive dust, noise and lead, and wrecking kitchens and bathrooms, all to force tenants to leave.

“Lying on forms that are designed to protect tenants is a very serious offense, whether on its own or as part of a larger scheme to harass and evict New Yorkers,” the attorney general’s office, which brought charges in one of the criminal cases, said in a statement.

Residents at another building, 15 West 55th Street in Manhattan, who are mostly elderly rent-stabilized tenants, have complained to the city of unpermitted work, damage to walls and floors and drilling “for hours” as sections of the building are being turned into a members-only club for the designer Domenico Vacca.

Some permit applications for the work listed the building as vacant, but in July a liaison from the Buildings Department told tenant representatives that the paperwork had been corrected and that a tenant protection plan would be in effect to limit noise, restrict construction hours to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and keep debris, dirt and dust “at a minimum.”

Weeks later, though, tenants said that the plan had not been enforced, and that noise and work outside the scope of the permit continues.

“I feel they just give them carte blanche on the permits,” said Marilyn Hemery, 78, a legal secretary who came home recently to find a hole in her bathroom floor that allowed her to see through to the vacant apartment below.

The building’s owner, the developer Salim Assa, said through a spokeswoman that “the architect made a mistake” when filing the original paperwork for the permit.

In an Aug. 14 response to a letter sent by Mr. Gottfried and other elected officials on behalf of the tenants, a department official, Reynaldo Cabrera, officer of a new office created this year to pursue complaints against building owners, said the department “continues to investigate the matter.”

But Building Department officials said they had checked out the numerous complaints and issued violations when warranted. However, the department said in a statement, “there are numerous unsubstantiated complaints at this property where the owner had the proper permits, and was not engaged in any unsafe construction at the time of inspection.”

Across the street from Mr. Stringer’s building on the Upper West Side, tenants have organized to battle gut renovations and scaffolding that deprived them of their use of terraces and exposed them to construction dust with lead. The building, which is owned by the Brodsky Organization, led by Daniel Brodsky, chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was ordered by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to clean up the dust and minimize it in the future.

The permit applications said the building was unoccupied. The Buildings Department issued stop-work orders and violations this summer for work done without permits and for the false tenant information claims, but found no harassment. The owners corrected the permits and put in a tenant protection plan, officials said.

In a statement, the Brodsky Organization said, “We continue to maintain a safe building first and foremost, and are correcting any permitting issues that have occurred in the building.”

The building, known as the South Pierre, has 302 units, of which 138 are rent-stabilized, a spokeswoman said. Tenants said they feared the construction was part of an effort to try to get more rent-stabilized tenants out.

“The city is not as vigilant as it could be,” Susan Schwartz, a tenant leader in the building, said. “When the tenants are complaining, it doesn’t seem to carry a lot of weight.”