Before we get too far into May, let’s backtrack a couple of weeks to a news conference held to announce three new lawsuits against controversial Lower East Side landlord Samy Mahfar. A similar lawsuit at 113 Stanton St. was the cover story of our April print magazine.
On April 20, tenants at 210 Rivington St., 22 Spring St. and 102 Norfolk St. took Mahfar’s SMA Equities to court, alleging harassment, unsafe lead mitigation, dangerous gut renovations and repeated heat and hot water outages. They’re being supported by several advocacy and legal non-profits, including the Cooper Square Committee, CAAAV, the Urban Justice Center and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
The allegations are very familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the LES tenant/landlord wars. Today, we’re going to zero in on a couple of issues that jumped out at us as tenants and elected officials spoke.
At the news conference, longtime 22 Spring resident Kenny Mai told reporters, “We didn’t choose this landlord but we did choose our politicians. Let’s all work together and put a stop to this unscrupulous landlord.” He was expressing a sense of frustration that local elected representatives are also apparently feeling. In spite of their frequent public statements and personal pleas to city agencies, enforcement continues to be lacking. Tenants are counseled to call 311 to report problems in their buildings. While building inspectors generally respond to these complaints, on-site checks oftentimes are not conducted in a timely manner. Many times, inspectors fail to gain access to buildings are unable to investigate even pressing problems.
City Council member Margaret Chin called for “comprehensive reform of the Buildings Department” and urged city agencies to work more closely. “Why is the health department not working together with the buildings department to do (toxic lead) testing?” she asked. City Council member Rosie Mendez agreed, saying, “I don’t understand why it takes so much energy… to get the city agencies to work together. It shouldn’t be this hard.” A new tenant task force was created earlier this year to better coordinate efforts. It remains to be seen whether the city-state collaboration will be effective. But within the City Council, there’s a growing consensus that new legislation — not simply pleading and cajoling — will be necessary to get the agencies’ attention.
State Sen. Daniel Squadron referred to the upcoming battle in Albany over the renewal of New York’s rent regulation law. He noted that anti-harassment provisions are often watered down because “big money (often) speaks louder than individuals.” But he said a stronger law is essential to combat the types of real estate speculators being seen in the city today:
There is a business model, gotta be honest, a business model out there. You buy some buildings, you modernize them… and you drive people out of their homes even though the law in New York does not allow that and this is how you make a return on the building. There is a problem with that business model. One, it’s immoral. Two, it’s illegal. So when you are buying up buildings – and the message needs to go out across the city – and your path to profit is to kick people out of their homes, is to harass them, is to do work that puts them and their kids at risk, we will be here to say, “no way.” It is a bad business model. It is an immoral business model and it is an illegal one.
The lawsuits filed last month argue that Samy Mahfar “paid an excessive amount” for the three buildings and he “overleveraged the debt on” the properties. Just this week, it appears, he made the business model pay off handsomely. According to public records, SMA Equities sold 210 Rivington St. for $12.5 million. The firm bought the 20-unit walkup at the intersection of Rivington and Pitt streets in 2013 for $7.6 million.
Mahfar’s response? We reached out to Connelly McLaughlin & Woloz, a public relations firm he hired earlier this year. Karen Imas. managing director, informed us that her company no longer represents SMA Equities. Mahfar did not reply to direct inquiries from The Lo-Down.