Steve Croman’s Tenants Deliver a Message They Hope He’ll Receive in Prison

Local activists hang a banner from 141 Ridge St. Photo courtesy of Cooper Square Committee.

Local activists hang a banner from 141 Ridge St. Photo courtesy of Cooper Square Committee.

Notorious Manhattan landlord Steven Croman isn’t expected to be released from prison until next month, but some of his tenants on the Lower East Side last week decided to give him an early welcome home present.

On Thursday, May 17, they hung a banner from 141 Ridge St. that read, “No cooking gas for nine months while Croman builds his mansion. LES tenants united!” They were joined by community organizers from the Cooper Square Committee and by several elected officials. After holding a brief press conference, they marched around the corner to 159 Stanton St., another Croman property, which had also been draped with a protest banner. The message: Tenants and their allies are on high alert for a new burst of illegal construction activity and harassment upon Croman’s release from his jail cell at the Manhattan Detention Complex.

Last year, Croman pleaded guilty to fraudulently refinancing loans and committing tax fraud. He was sentenced to one year in prison and ordered to pay $5 million in fines. In a separate civil case, he agreed to pay tenants $8 million and accept a court-ordered monitor for his real estate empire. Tenants and advocacy groups battled Croman for years, accusing him of harassment, illegal renovations and other tactics meant to force rent stabilized residents from their homes.

Silvana Jakich spoke outside her building last week.

Silvana Jakich spoke outside her building last week.

At 141 Ridge St., Silvana Jakich said tenants’ own investigation found that Croman’s work crews used improper piping, leading Con Edison to shut off gas service to the entire building in September of last year. Pleas for a resumption of service and a rent abatement were ignored, she said. As a result, tenants went on a rent strike and took their landlord to court. Croman responded by filing a counter lawsuit for non-payment of rent. 

“He’s playing the same games with tenants that he did before he was incarcerated,” said Jakich. “The only thing that’s changed is that Croman is markedly more aggressive than before. We’re all shocked that nothing’s changed for the better in our case… We’re out here today to show Croman we won’t be worn down on this gas and rent rebate issue.” 

Tenants, elected officials outside 159 Stanton St. Photo courtesy of the Cooper Square Committee.

Tenants, elected officials outside 159 Stanton St. Photo courtesy of the Cooper Square Committee.

A short distance away, at 159 Stanton St. resident Kit Brauer said he and his neighbors have endured dangerous demolition projects and serious security issues. The front door lock has been broken off-and-on for years, with various construction crews coming and going.

For the past three years, the front doors of two apartments have been sealed in plastic and duct tape. After demolition, no renovation work occurred in those units. Residents fear work is about to resume, producing dangerous dust, noise and potentially cratering ceilings (these are all impacts they have experienced during previous “building improvement” ventures). “We stand together,” said Brauer. “Today is a demonstration of solidarity and strength. We will not accept construction as harassment.”

Elected officials standing side-by-side with tenants last week included State Assembly members Yuh-Line Niou and Harvey Epstein and City Council members Margaret Chin and Carlina Rivera.

“I’ve been in these apartments,” said Niou, “I’ve been in the homes of our neighbors, and the conditions are deplorable.” She noted that the Assembly recently approved several pieces of legislation to strengthen the city’s rent regulations. “We’re trying to make sure we’re not incentivizing bad landlords to harass tenants in order to get them out,” explained Niou. But she quickly added that the prospects for the legislation appear dim. “Unfortunately on the state level,” she lamented, “the Senate and the governor’s office have not actually helped us in passing these regulations to make sure we can protect our tenants better.”

Until his recent election, Epstein headed the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project, which has represented many New York City residents in legal cases against landlords. “Cooper Square (Committee) came to us and said, ‘We have these problems.’ We went building by building, talked about the problems, and that’s why Croman is in jail today. So we need to think about the work that Cooper did, the information they gave to the attorney general that allowed us to get the documents necessary to put predatory landlords like Croman in prison.” He went on to say, “To the tenants who are struggling so much, it is a shame what’s happening in your building and in our neighborhood, and we all have responsibilities to change (the status quo).”

Epstein noted that the Legislature in 1993 and 1997 weakened the city’s rent protections. “They allowed people like Croman to try to get tenants out because they thought the golden ticket of the market rate apartment was available to them,” said Epstein. “We need to correct our mistakes.” He added, “The system is broken… It’s set up to benefit landlords, private equity, predatory landlords.”

An apartment at 159 Stanton St. sealed in plastic.

An apartment at 159 Stanton St. sealed in plastic.

Chin praised the Stand for Tenant Safety Coalition, a group that pressed hard for a package of 12 bills in the City Council to beef up enforcement in rent stabilized buildings. She noted that 75 new Department of Buildings inspectors are being hired. But she conceded that more work needs to be done. “The conditions here that the tenants are facing is unacceptable,” said Chin. “How can you still have a front door that doesn’t lock? The only way to fight back is to get them every single time. We cannot let them get away with anything.”

Rivera said, “Croman is a name that is synonymous with harassment, illegal activity and exploitation,” adding that after a year in prison, “He has learned nothing.”

She mentioned that the Council has stepped up its funding of local groups that help tenants organize against bad landlords.  “But we also need oversight and investigation,” said Rivera. “We need to stop the banks that are lending these landlords money and allowing them to compile these portfolios of buildings… and really just take over and exacerbate the gentrification and the adverse effects on all of our communities.”

9300 Realty, Croman’s firm, released a statement last week. It read:

We have been working diligently to restore cooking gas at 141 Ridge St. The gas service cannot legally be restored without approval from both city officials and the utility companies – and due to circumstances out of our control, we have not yet been granted the necessary permits and approvals following our requests. We have already taken steps to address this issue and will continue to request the permits and approvals that are legally required in order to restore gas service.

A spokesperson, Sam Spokony, declined to comment more generally regarding last Thursday’s protest.

Tenants Relocated After City Declares Apartments at 159 Stanton St. Unsafe (Updated)

159 Stanton St.

159 Stanton St.

The Department of Buildings issued a partial “vacate order” today for 159 Stanton St., a building owned by notorious landlord Steve Croman. Now the residents of two apartments are having to relocate until unsafe conditions in the tenement are rectified. The Red Cross was on the scene this morning to help tenants find temporary housing.

A notice pasted to the front door reads, “Do Not Enter… The Department of Buildings has determined that conditions in this premises are immediately perilous to life.” In the building’s online file, a DOB inspector added, “Construction activity in third floor apartments has caused the ceilings in apartment 1 and 2 on (the) second floor to become dislodged and in danger of further collapse.”

159 stanton vacate notice

This past December, the tenants sued Croman in housing court, saying he was subjecting them to unsafe conditions and harassment. They were back in court for a hearing this past Thursday. We were alerted to today’s developments by the Cooper Square Committee and City Council member Margaret Chin.

This afternoon we spoke with Francis Di Donato, who has lived in the building for 25 years, and has now been forced from his home, at least temporarily. The Red Cross has found accommodations for him tonight at a YMCA facility on 47th Street, but he’ll have to find longer-term housing after the weekend. “Croman follows the same script in all of his buildings,” said Di Donato. “He makes everyone’s lives so miserable that they want to give up.” Di Donato has a 12-year-old son who goes to school in the neighborhood. He’s obviously unhappy about having to uproot him.

Another tenant, who asked not to be identified, said she noticed cracks in the ceiling Thursday afternoon. The tenant was so concerned that she didn’t stay in the apartment last night. In this week’s hearing, the judge declined to take action that would have forced Croman to make immediate repairs. “I feel very resentful,” said the tenant, “that the judge didn’t listen on Thursday and there was no adequate tenant protection plan… I was left unprotected.”

On the scene this afternoon was Sherief Gaber, an attorney with the Urban Justice Center. He’s representing the tenants in housing court. He noted that DOB inspectors singled out Croman’s construction crews for working without a permit and performing illegal electrical work. The inspectors observed sagging ceilings, which were being supported by a temporary joist. While a loose schedule was established for the repairs, the judge refused to issue an order which would have held Croman to a tighter timeline, said Gaber. As for the displaced tenants, Gaber asserted, “I believe the landlord should bear the cost of relocation.”

Last May, Croman was arrested and charged in criminal court with multiple felonies, including grand larceny, criminal tax fraud and falsifying business records. He’s being prosecuted by the State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is also suing Croman in civil court.

Just four days ago, local elected officials sent a letter to Croman about “deplorable housing conditions” at 159 Stanton St. They demanded that he, “address all repair and safety issues right away.”

In a statement this afternoon, Chin said, “I am saddened and angered by the plight of these families who have been forced to vacate their homes today as a result of the irresponsible actions of their landlord. I am calling on that landlord, Steve Croman, to stop using construction to harass and victimize his hardworking tenants.”

Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou added in a separate statement, “It is unacceptable and infuriating that Steve Croman continues to push tenants out of their homes here on the Lower East Side… The pattern of tenant harassment at 159 Stanton is clear, and we now have tenants being ordered to vacate their homes due to unsafe conditions.”

We have contacted Croman’s press representatives for comment. This story will be updated if and when they respond.

UPDATE 2/26: A spokesperson for Croman’s company, 9300 Realty, responded with the following statement:

After we rejected a tenant-requested buyout of $300,000 per apartment, these tenants chose to call the Department of Buildings and media to complain about repairs before calling the landlord. The Department of Buildings’ inspection of the entire building on February 17th did not note any issues in these apartments and both tenants have blocked access both in and out of court to complete routine maintenance. If the tenants are genuinely motivated to get these repairs done and grant us access to these apartments, we are happy to assess and fix these issues as soon as possible.

Residents, in turn, came out with a statement of their own late last night:

Court-ordered repairs were made to these apartments in January and February, and we tenants welcomed them. Now we look forward to more repairs ordered by DOB being made so that we can return to our homes, and can live in a safe, secure, and structurally sound building. We have endured a well-documented rash of problems since Steve Croman bought the building. These problems are the reason for the HP action, including being one of the first instances of the use of the new city code for harassment of tenants. We tenants as a group made no solicitation of a buyout, and are unaware of any such attempt, so this allegation is a red herring meant to distract from the real issue of disregard for human safety in 9300 Realty buildings, including fire hazards and physical dangers like collapsing ceilings,” said the 159 Stanton Street Tenants Association.