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.
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.”
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.”
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.