The ongoing battle between Lower East Side tenants and property owner Samy Mahfar escalated yesterday, as City Council member Rosie Mendez angrily denounced an employee of Mahfar’s SMA Equities for videotaping residents during a street-side news conference.
The press event, organized by the Cooper Square Committee and a newly formed organization called the Mahfar Tenants Coalition, was meant to turn up the pressure on the embattled landlord over the handling of toxic paint in the firm’s many LES buildings. Standing in front of one of the properties, 210 Rivington St., organizers highlighted a Department of Health report completed two months ago that showed lead levels from a sample in the second floor hallway exceeded federal guidelines by five times. In October, a similar test at 102 Norfolk St., another Mahfar property, indicated lead levels 3,000 times the legal limit.
Early in the rally/news conference, resident Seth Wandersman began to describe his concerns about the environmental reports, saying he was reluctant to join earlier protests at 210 Rivington St. over living conditions during the gut-renovation of the 80-year-old building. But when he heard about what was happening in the Norfolk Street property, Wandersman explained, “I suddenly realized that these problems weren’t temporary but could stay with residents for the rest of our lives.” Mendez, who represents this part of the Lower East Side, stepped in to confront SMA Equities employee Omer Zwickel, who was recording Wandersman with his camera phone.
“That to me is a form of harassment,” Mendez asserted. “All of the construction that has been going on is a form of harassment. You coming here on behalf of the landlord… and not asking whether you can videotape (tenants) just goes to prove that Samy Mahfar is a bad actor and all his employees.” Zwickel continued the recording, prompting Mendez to hold her hand directly in front of the camera for much of the press conference.
Shahed Miah, a resident of 102 Norfolk St., said he is also worried about the presence of lead in his apartment. “I am really concerned,” he told those assembled, adding that he has three children with another one on the way. Saying residents are having to “breath unsafe air,” City Council member Margaret Chin warned, “this has to stop. Do the right thing,” she urged Mahfar, “or the city agencies will come after you.” Attorney Matthew Chachere, who’s had a long history dealing with lead paint issues in New York, pointed the finger directly at those city agencies. The Department of Health, Department of Buildings and Department of Housing Preservation and Development, he said, “act as though,” enforcing the law “is someone else’s responsibility.” Residents have reported that they were forced to file freedom of information requests when the city refused to provide them with lead reports from Lower East Side buildings.
While they weren’t present yesterday, several other elected officials were quoted in a press release put out by the Cooper Square Committee. A sampling:
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer: “I’ve been fighting landlords like Samy Mahfar all over Manhattan – those who refuse to use safe procedures, harass rent-regulated tenants, and only erratically correct HPD violations… We call on Mr. Mahfar to use proper lead mitigation techniques when doing renovations and help keep the tenants safe in their homes.”
State Sen. Daniel Squadron: “Landlords have an obligation to abate lead hazards in a way that is safe and consistent with city and state regulations. And when tenants ask for information about lead levels in their buildings, city agencies must be transparent and timely in their response. I look forward to working with (tenants, tenant advocates and city agencies) to enforce existing lead regulations and protect the safety and health of tenants.”
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver: ”It is completely unacceptable for residents to be exposed to dangerous levels of lead and the building owner must take immediate action to mitigate the danger and place the safety of tenants above all else. In order to ensure that all proper safety measures are taken, I am calling on the city to inspect the buildings in question and enforce the regulations that protect tenants from toxins.”
Elected officials met with Mahfar earlier this year in an attempt to resolve some of the issues raised by residents. In October, they publicly released a letter to Mahfar that indicated some of the issues brought up during those meetings had not been addressed.
Yesterday’s press release included two specific demands from the Mahfar Coalition. First, they asked SMA Equities to “put in place a proper lead mitigation plan that utilizes an EPA-certified abatement contractor” in all current and future renovation projects. Second, they said, “City agencies must better regulate existing lead laws, which are strong [on paper] but are rendered ineffective by poor on-the-ground enforcement.”
In a statement yesterday, SMA Equities said, “Our company is proud to be part of the Lower East Side community and wants to be a good neighbor. We are committed to abating any lead in our properties and look forward to working with elected officials to address their concerns.” Previously, Mahfar has said he’s gone to extraordinary lengths to work with tenants and local officials. In November, elected representatives and residents of 102 Norfolk St. received a lead mitigation plan” for 102 Norfolk St. from Mahfar’s company. It included tests conducted by an environmental firm hired by Mahfar showing that lead readings had returned to allowable levels. Followup tests conducted by the Department of Health at 210 Rivington St., as well as an independent firm, also showed that lead levels had come down.
Tenant advocates and elected officials say Mahfar’s efforts have been insufficient. They want to see lead mitigation plans in his buildings before any construction begins and they want those plans to be comprehensive, covering all apartments and common areas. Yesterday, Mendez vowed to keep a watchful eye on SMA Equities and to pressure city agencies to do a better job of enforcement. “I am going to work with Margaret (Chin) in the two buildings to ensure that this gets taken care of. And if (the situation is not addressed), I’m going to push (the Department of Health) to start prosecution, civil prosecution, for the failure to take care of the tenants and to work properly in this building.”