On the outside, nothing seems especially unusual about this 6-story walk-up building at 210 Rivington St. But inside, this 20-unit property with ground floor retail is undergoing a fairly dramatic transformation – a gut renovation. Since changing hands last summer for $7.6 million, the building has also served as one of the latest battlegrounds in the age-old struggle between rent regulated tenants and landlords in New York City.
The property, located on the northwest corner of Rivington and Pitt streets, is now owned by Samy Mahfar of SMA Equities, a firm that has become one of the largest land owners on the Lower East Side in the last few years. Mahfar focuses on purchasing and refurbishing old tenement-style buildings that, according to his firm’s website, are “under performing their potential.”
In the past week, we spoke with several tenants who have been living through the renovation project at 210 Rivington. We also spoke with Brandon Kielbasa of the Cooper Square Committee, a non-profit organization advocating on their behalf. Last year, the group along with the Urban Justice Center sued Mahfar in connection with a similar renovation project at 143 Ludlow St. (the lawsuit was settled out of court).
One resident, Megan Hustad, said workers ripping out the floor boards in an upstairs apartment have punctured her ceiling five times, sending debris raining down in her living space. “it seems that the guys were hired on the cheap,” she observed, while explaining that a single worker was handling the job at one point. The problems started in February. The most recent incident occurred just a week ago. Hustad, who has lived in a rent regulated apartment at 210 Rivington for 10 years, said, “they want to get us out but we are not just people in the way of SMA Equities getting a good return on their investment.”
Another tenant, Collette McLafferty, showed us a hole that has been patched up but that keeps re-emerging in her three bedroom unit. One of two roommates just moved out because she couldn’t take the construction noise. McLafferty, who’s a professional singer and works late nights, said the noise is particularly bad in the early mornings, when she is trying to catch up on sleep. “I don’t feel we’re being treated as human beings,” she said. McLafferty added that she was approached by a “relocation specialist” working for Mahfar who pressured her to take a buy-out.
[Once renovated, her 3-bedroom apartment which now rents for around $2100 could be worth three times that amount on the open market].
David Newell, who’s lived in a third floor apartment for the past 15 years, said that in the past week he heard a loud boom above him, so he went upstairs to check it out. Part of the ceiling in an apartment occupied by an elderly resident had collapsed. The man, he said, wasn’t home at the time. The issues in his own apartment have not been as severe, but water shutoffs, noise and an excessive amount of dust have all made living in the building an unpleasant experience.
According to Department of Buildings records, about a dozen complaints have been received since renovations began last fall. Many times, inspectors note they’re unable to gain access to the building or that no violations were found. Last fall, however, two $1600 fines were imposed – one for “work without a permit” in the lobby area and another for “electrical work without a permit.” The city slapped a “stop work” order on the building following those violations.
In an interview, Mahfar said the allegations from the tenants are, for the most part, unfounded. Mahfar said he follows city regulations in all of his renovation projects, including at 210 Rivington. The buildings he acquires, Mahfar said, are usually in very bad condition and in desperate need of repairs and rehabilitation. Mahfar said he’s dedicated to preserving them for the long-term, which he argued is obviously in the best interest of the community. While he acknowledged that rent regulated tenants are offered buy-outs, Mahfar maintained that no one is pressured to move if they want to stay in their apartment.
As for the cases of specific tenants at 210 Rivington, he said David Newell had not paid his rent in months, and that eviction proceedings were ongoing (the two sides were due in court this week). Mahfar argued that Collette McLafferty had been “trying to get a very high buy out price.” He said Megan Hustad had “legitimately experienced some accidental mishaps,’ but that the situations had been dealt with promptly. Mahfar said she asked for and received a 50% rent abatement during the construction period.
McLafferty said she only wanted a fair deal in exchange for vacating a place she’d called home for the past decade (she also had serious reservations about the conduct of the relocation firm attempting to negotiate the buy out; we’ll save that story for another time). Newell acknowledged he’d had trouble paying his rent in recent months. In his defense, Brandon Kielbasa, of the Cooper Square Committee, argued that Newell still has tenant rights, even if he’s not up to date in his rent payments. Addressing the broader issues, Kielbasa emphasized that the construction mishaps are posing a threat to the “health and safety” of the tenants at 210 Rivington St., and he maintained that most property owners manage to renovate buildings without incident. Kielbasa said the bottom line is that every tenant has a legal right to live in a habitable apartment.
Kielbasa added that there’s a “disturbing pattern” in Mahfar’s buildings throughout the Lower East Side. He said the Cooper Square Committee is just starting to organize tenants at 102 Norfolk St. (near Delancey Street), Mahfar’s latest acquisition. Construction work has already begun there. Two other organizations, CAAAV and Asian Americans for Equality, have partnered with Cooper square to represent the tenants, many of whom only speak Chinese. Kielbasa said tenants became concerned when a security guard was stationed at the front door recently. Some people are being asked for government issued identification. Others are being told they must personally escort guests to their apartments. “There are concerns about harassment and intimidation,” he explained.
Mahfar said he’s mystified about the latest complaints. Noting that his firm had been criticized in the past for lack of security, he said, “the guard is there to help people get in and out during construction. He’s there to protect the tenants.” And what about allegations that the construction accidents are part of a scheme to drive rent regulated tenants out of his buildings? Mahfar said the claims are ridiculous. “It’s obviously not deliberate,” he argued. “It costs me money and time (when projects need to be done more than once).”
“I am not trying to push anyone out,” Mahfar said. “I’m trying to refurbish (210 Rivington), get the work completed and be done.” Mahfar added that he is committed to being part of the Lower East Side community and only wants good relations with tenants as well as local advocacy organizations. Mahfar said he would welcome a constructive dialogue with the Cooper Square Committee about “how we can work together.”