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Housing Group Identifies Buildings Being “Intentionally Neglected”

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128 Hester Street.

In Albany, the annual battle over New York’s byzantine rent laws is starting to heat up. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver might refuse to extend a tax break benefiting real estate developers unless Republicans agree to strengthen rent control legislation.

Even in the past two years (when Democrats had control of the Senate), rent reform went nowhere. Now that the GOP has retaken the chamber, prospects look bleak.  But many housing advocates are undeterred.  A prominent Chinatown organization, Asian Americans for Equality, has just released a report designed to influence the ongoing debate.

The report, “Demolition through Intentional Neglect: a tactic of predatory landlords to demolish rent-regulated Housing,” analyzed building violations throughout the city. It found that 99 buildings citywide  are “structurally compromised.” Fourteen of those buildings are in Lower Manhattan.

AAFE Executive Director Chris Kui said, “Predatory building owners are using loopholes in the laws, ignoring DOB citations, and letting foundations, walls, and other key building structures, deteriorate to the point that there is no other choice but to clear the building for the safety of the tenants.”

The two “case studies” highlighted in the report involve Lower East Side buildings (128 Hester and 11 Essex). You can read the details in the full report, which has been posted on AAFE’s web site. The organization is making several recommendations to protect tenant rights. Among them: a proactive system within the Department of Buildings to mandate regular inspections of “at-risk” buildings.  AAFE also wants to revise New York City’s Rent Stabilization Code to close demolition loopholes. And the report suggests making landlords responsible for replacing demolished rent regulated apartments.

At a news conference on Sunday, State Senator Daniel Squadron and City Councilmember Margaret Chin (a former AAFE executive) praised the report and vowed to push for stronger laws protecting residents. Squadron said he intended to re-submit legislation introduced last year that would require landlords to find alternate housing for displaced tenants.

In a brief conversation after the event, Squadron acknowledged the difficult road ahead in Albany when it comes to rent regulation. But he said there’s hope that narrowly focused legislation will have a decent shot of winning bipartisan support. There’s a lot of speculation about where Governor Andrew Cuomo stands on rent reform.  The current rent regulation law expires in June.

In the past, landlords have told us housing activists unfairly demonize them, misrepresenting what’s actually going on in their buildings. In the case of 128 Hester, for example, the landlord has argued the building was neglected by a previous owner. The new owner, William H. Su (who’s putting up a hotel next door), insists he bought the building in order to save it.  State regulators ruled against Su, ordering him to pay tenants $1 million (the matter is still tied up in the courts).

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