Tenants at 113 Stanton St. have taken their landlord, Samy Mahfar of SMA Equities, to housing court. In a lawsuit filed Feb. 19 by the Urban Justice Center, the residents said their lives are being endangered due to unsafe renovation work. On Friday, a judge lifted a temporary restraining order that had put a stop to construction, but according to tenant advocates, ordered Mahfar to adhere to building safety guidelines and to his own lead mitigation plan.
The building, purchased by Mahfar last fall for $5.2 million, is the third property owned by the controversial developer to come under scrutiny for problems with toxic paint. In December, local Council members Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin sharply criticized SMA Equities for its tactics and vowed to pressure city agencies to enforce safety laws at Mahfar’s Lower East Side buildings.
A Department of Health inspector visited 113 Stanton St. on Feb. 3. In a report, the inspector concluded, “Construction dust and debris (was) observed in all building common areas due to debris being removed unsafely… Conditions created by such work… are dangerous to human life.” Tests showed that 11 out of 12 samples collected throughout the building had unsafe amounts of lead.
Attorney Garrett Wright asked the housing court judge to stop “illegal construction,” which he said was “creating a hazardous environment and endangering (the tenants’) health and safety.” In January, work began on a vacant fifth floor apartment and in common areas. A lead mitigation plan was given to tenants in the building’s other three apartments.
According to the lawsuit, Mahfar “violated every single health and safety protocol” in the plan. There were “clouds of toxic lead dust in common areas,” Wright alleged, “and dangerously high concentrations of lead dust and debris” throughout the building. The work, he argued, was not just careless but part of a “campaign of harassment in order to make the building so uncomfortable and unsafe that tenants will vacate their rent-stabilized apartments.”
Among the alleged violations listed in the court documents: the lack of a Buildings Department permit for work being done in the basement, construction equipment and debris blocking hallways, water and heat outages, improper and unsafe disposal of debris and intolerable noise. In one instance, a tenant reported being chastised by building management for calling 311 to file complaints. The lawsuit claims that SMA Equities’ practices in the building are part of a pattern also experienced by tenants at 210 Rivington St. and 102 Norfolk St.
For the first time, Mahfar is fighting allegations from tenants through Connelly, McLaughlin & Woloz, a public relations company. Here’s the statement we received Friday evening from Karen Imas, a managing director of the firm:
The lawsuit filed by (the) tenants at 113 Stanton Street is riddled with inaccuracies and false allegations. We are confident the truth will prevail. We are pleased with today’s decision by the Court to lift the temporary injunction which stopped work. It is unfortunate that the Petitioners have repeatedly refused to cooperate directly with management through our multiple communication channels. We have been and remain ready to act to make any necessary repairs, while the Petitioners have denied access to their apartments for that purpose. SMA Equities currently has no violations on record at 113 Stanton regarding any issues related to lead safety or sufficient heat and hot water. We have used, and continue to use, EPA-certified contractors to ensure the safety of all occupants of the Building, and have worked with all City agencies with oversight of the project to insure compliance, which includes remedying any conditions found by DOH or DOB in an extremely expeditious manner. We have been cleared by those agencies with respect to lead safety. Recognizing the importance of lead safety, SMA Equities has retained one of New York City’s top environmental consulting firms to provide oversight on this project moving forward. SMA Equities takes great pride in our commitment to health and safety of all of our tenants and to improving the quality of life in the Lower East Side. We look forward to working with the tenants to resolve this matter expeditiously.
One building tenant. Sergio Alarcon, released a statement of his own after Friday’s hearing:
We believe that Samy Mahfar [SMA] is what is sometimes referred to as a “predatory landlord.” Considering his well-documented history involving a number of buildings he owns on the Lower East Side & what we are experiencing in our building [113 Stanton Street], a pattern seems to emerge: As the term implies, Mr. Mahfar’s standard “predatory” business model is to buy buildings occupied by rent-regulated tenants and then immediately begin hazardous and extremely disruptive gut-renovation/construction projects on units while conducting regular building-wide shut-downs of heat and water, etc… We believe this is in an effort to create such sub-standard living conditions in his buildings that rent-regulated tenants eventually give up, maybe accept very low buy-out offers, or simply leave.
Two other residents, both of whom asked not to be identified, spoke with us in the hallway of the courthouse last week as they waited for the hearing to begin. One of them, a 12-year tenant of 113 Stanton St., said it has been “constant chaos” since SMA Equities took over the building. Potentially hazardous debris, they said, has been thrown in their personal garbage cans. Last week, the tenants explained, the heat went off after two risers were knocked out. As of Friday, it had been a week-and-a-half without heat on some of the coldest nights of the winter. “It’s an intimidating environment,” one tenant asserted.
In 2013, residents of 143 Ludlow St. also sued Mahfar, eventually settling their case. Some time ago, the Cooper Square Committee, a longstanding tenant advocacy organization, helped people in several Lower East Side buildings form the Mahfar Tenants Alliance. Brandon Kielbasa, Cooper Square’s lead organizer told us, “Mahfar has now been put on notice that we are going to throw everything we have at him… The Mahfar Tenants Alliance is a great group and they are not afraid to take things to the next level.”
The two sides are due back in court Friday morning.