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.
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.
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.
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.
Protest outside Signature Bank meeting, April 25, 2018. Photos courtesy of ANHD.
Activist groups in New York City have a long history of fighting back against landlords intent on pushing out rent stabilized tenants. In the past couple of years they’ve also been going after banks that help developers purchase vulnerable rent regulated buildings. Case in point: a protest staged last month in Midtown Manhattan, where Signature Bank was holding its annual shareholder meeting.
Tenants from across the city and members of advocacy groups, carried signs with slogans like, “Don’t underwrite displacement,” and called on Signature to, “fully adopt responsible lending practices to protect tenants’ rights.”
Signature is not the only bank targeted by activists, but it has been a main focus of their campaign during the past year. In protracted negotiations with bank officials, they have pressed for commitments to stop granting loans that put rent regulated residents at risk of displacement and to monitor unsafe construction practices. Tenant leaders say Signature has made some concessions but has not gone nearly far enough.
One of the groups leading the charge on the issue is the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development (ANHD). In a statement, ANHD’s Jaime Weisberg said, “When banks make loans that are too large for the current rents to support, landlords have even more reason to find all possible ways to raise rents – legal, semi-legal, or illegal – all unscrupulous… We have seen this again and again. Banks may not be the only problem in these situations, but they are definitely part of the problem, and should instead become part of the solution.”
Among those attending last month’s rally was State Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, a longtime tenant advocate.
Another organization involved in the coalition is the Cooper Square Committee, which is on the front lines advocating for tenants on the Lower East Side. Several property owners with buildings in the neighborhood — including Icon Realty Management, Jared Kushner and the Sabet Group — have Signature loans.
This past fall, Sabet picked up a 20-unit walkup building at 61 East 7th St. for $8.3 million. It was not long after the transaction took place that counselors at Cooper square Committee began hearing from tenants about disruptive renovation projects in the building and questionable buyout offers. According to public records, Signature provided the Sabet Group with a loan in the amount of $6.375 million, raising suspicions among tenants that they were now living in an over-leveraged building. They grew more concerned after learning about previous legal battles between Sabet and tenants living in Chelsea.
Earlier this spring, the Tenant Harassment Protection Task Force paid a visit to the building, which resulted in a partial stop work order. In a March 23 letter to executives at Signature Bank, the tenant association detailed various problems, including the discovery that fire stopping was not used during building renovations. “Our association,” they wrote, “has been monitoring and logging the unsafe breathing levels in apartments… with soot and debris continuing to infiltrate our homes.” The tenants pleaded with the bank executives, “Please consider in the future the consequences of the money you lend to landlords (with questionable track records).”
Yonatan Tadele, a housing coordinator at Cooper Square Committee, told The Lo-Down, “Whenever rent-regulated buildings are being financed, Signature Bank must improve their lending standards across the board – from initiating loans, to dealing with problems that arise in buildings currently financed by the Bank.”
In December, Signature Bank came out with a statement, which was titled, “Our Pledge to the Community.” Among other points, Signature asserted, “The Bank’s underwriting for multi-family loans considers cash flow projections based on in-place rents and market rate projections for vacant apartments.”
“In the event building conditions affecting safety or quality of life are brought to the Bank’s attention,” the bank noted, “we will work diligently to encourage our borrowers to ameliorate those conditions.” In a statement provided to WNYC last year, Signature said, “No one and no bank is perfect. But our overall record should be applauded and not denigrated. We note some of the names in question and have worked toward encouraging positive outcomes for tenants to the extent legally possible.”
But Cooper Square Committee pointed out that Signature has still not reached and agreement with tenants and advocacy groups. The pledge, said Yonatan, “falls short of a number of key items; namely, specific protections to prevent tenant displacement and utilizing responsible tenant engagement. One such protection that would’ve made a lasting difference at 61 East 7th Street is having a defined policy that would prevent hazardous construction and ensure tenants’ safety.”
Tenants of 159 Stanton St. hold up photos showing conditions inside their building.
Tenants at 159 Stanton St. have filed a lawsuit in housing court against Steve Croman, the controversial landlord already in the cross hairs of the state attorney general. The residents say renovations in the building have made their lives miserable, and that they’ve become victims of intimidation and harassment.
They braved bitter cold temperatures this morning, gathering in front of the building near Clinton Street with organizers from the Cooper Square Committee and lawyers from the Urban Justice Center. Also on hand were State Sen. Daniel Squadron and a representative of City Council member Margaret Chin.
According to the tenant association, residents have been forced to endure collapsing ceilings, dust and debris, mold, rats and floods. The lawsuit also alleges that poor security has led to numerous burglaries.
State Sen. Daniel Squadron.
Back in 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. The notorious landlord owns more than 180 buildings in Manhattan, some of them on the Lower East Side.
Among the residents speaking today was Francis Di Donato, who moved into 159 Stanton 25 years ago. He has a 12-year-old son. Di Donato said Croman took him to court over money he did not owe. He was also, “visited by complete strangers who were really menacing,” [Croman has been accused of using unscrupulous “tenant relocators” to drive rent regulated residents out of his buildings.] Di Donato said he was offered, “pathetic amounts of money to move out.” There have been recurring leaks in the ceiling and cracks in the walls. One day he came home to find a gaping hole in the ceiling that burglars used to ransack his apartment.
Senator Squadron said, “Unfortunately we’ve seen it again and again and again with landlords whose strategy it is to drive you out of your homes, your lawfully protected homes, in order to make a quick buck, against the law and against every sense of decency and morals.” He pledged to stand with the residents as they wage a protracted fight against Croman.
According to a press release from Cooper square Committee, “Nearly half the apartments are vacant and were demolished more than a year ago – they are now sitting gutted, vacant, and unsecured – leaving tenants vulnerable to crime and vermin.”
Cooper Square Committee and Urban Justice Center have successfully used housing court lawsuits to win settlements for local tenants against other property owners. Tenant organizers helped form the Stop Croman Coalition, which is made up of residents from many buildings throughout the city.
We have been in touch with a spokesperson for Croman. We’ll update this story if a statement is provided to us.
UPDATE 12/16 Here’s a statement received today from a spokesperson for 9300 Realty, Croman’s company:
9300 has been very responsive to the Cooper Square Committee and the tenants at 159 Stanton St. The communication is well documented and our good faith efforts are very transparent. We have reached out to the tenants of 159 Stanton and the Cooper Square Committee on multiple occasions offering to immediately address any open issues at the building and in tenants’ apartments. Management has not been informed of any open repair items in tenant apartments, however we remain willing to immediately address any such issues as they are brought to our attention. Additionally, past repair issues have been addressed promptly. We have copied city officials on our past correspondence with these tenants (and the Cooper Square Committee) as our good faith efforts are well documented.
Tenants and advocacy organizations held a protest outside 210 Rivington St. in December of 2014.
A lengthy battle between Lower East Side property owner Samy Mahfar and residents in four buildings is over, at least for now.
In the past year, they took Mahfar to housing court, accusing the local landlord of exposing them to toxic dust during building renovations, cutting off vital services and harassing them with the intention of forcing rent stabilized tenants out of their homes. Now the two sides have settled cases at 22 Spring St., 210 Rivington St., 102 Norfolk St. and 113 Stanton St. The tenants were represented by the Urban Justice Center. Two advocacy groups, Cooper Square Committee and CAAAV, have helped the residents organize against Mahfar.
In the four buildings, Mahfar agreed to pay 23 tenants who brought the lawsuits about $205,000 in rent abatements. According to the settlement documents, “the rent abatements are intended as reimbursement of past rent paid based on demolition and construction conditions (in the buildings) that allegedly deprived (the tenants) of full use and occupancy of their apartments…”
City Council member Margaret Chin speaks in support of tenants in Samy Mahfar’s buildings on April 20, 2015.
Council member Rosie Mendez confronts a Mahfar employee at 210 Rivington St. in December of 2014.
The agreements also require Mahfar’s firm, SMA Equities, to follow all city regulations, safe building practices and EPA procedures for handling lead-based paint. They compel the real estate management firm to clear all violations recorded by the city’s Department of Buildings and to submit buyout offers to tenants only in writing. In the past, tenants have complained about being harassed by outside “tenant relocation specialists.” The agreement requires tenants to provide access to their apartments by work and maintenance crews, as long as proper notice has been given.
In a statement, Mahfar said, “I am pleased we were able to reach amicable agreements, and appreciate the efforts made by the tenants, elected representatives and the court. This resolution allows us to continue improving the housing stock for working New Yorkers and allows the tenants to move forward with their lives.”
Mahfar sold 210 Rivington St. last spring for $12.5 million. He purchased it two years earlier for $7.6 million.
Tenants of 118 East 4th St. are back in New York City Housing Court this morning in their continuing battle with landlord Jared Kushner.
They’re being backed up by MFY Legal Services and Cooper Square Committee. The residents say a gas outage has prevented them from cooking for nearly five months. They’ve also been without heat and say the building is in disarray. They’ve complained about garbage being strewn about and of a serious rat problem. A lawsuit was filed against Kushner in January. A press release from Cooper Square Committee included statements of support from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Sen. Brad Hoylman and City Council member Rosie Mendez.
Based on Jared Kushner’s current and past actions, I can only conclude that he is constructively evicting tenants from his buildings to deregulate rent stabilized apartments. Someone who owns as many buildings as he does should not have so many problems in addressing simple and/or complex repairs. The tenants of 118 East 4th Street have not had gas service for 5 months. Last year, tenants at 170-174 East 2nd Street didn’t have gas for over a year. I can only believe after all the problems at East 2nd Street that what is happening at East 4th Street is just a willful disregard for the tenants right to a safe and habitable apartment. So the question really is whether he can’t do repairs in a timely way or doesn’t want to. Based on all the work my office did with the East 2nd Street buildings, I believe that he doesn’t want to!
EV Grieve has some of the background on this building (located between 1st and 2nd Avenues):
We received an email overnight from the Cooper Square Committee, which has been fighting to save the St. Mark’s Bookshop. They’re using today’s inauguration of Jamshed Bharucha, Cooper Union’s new president, as an opportunity to continue pressing the school to give the beloved bookstore a rent break.
As lawmakers in Albany wrangle over the final details of new legislation to replace the rent regulations that expired June 15, politicians and community leaders are weighing in on the pros and cons.
Yesterday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver called the agreement “a huge relief for tenants.”
“Working with Gov. Cuomo, we have saved the rent laws and expanded their protections for the first time in nearly two decades,” Silver said in prepared statement. “This is an important victory in our ongoing effort to support working families and ease the affordable housing crisis.”
We also asked local affordable housing advocates for their take on the situation, and compiled their responses.
Steve Herrick, executive director of the Cooper Square Committee, passed along info about the organization’s big gala coming up Monday night:
The Cooper Square Committee, a non-profit tenants rights and housing preservation organization, is holding our 51st Anniversary Fundraising Gala titled “Celebrating East 4th Street” on Monday, October 25th, from 6 pm – 9 pm at 59-61 East 4th Street, 4th floor loft.