Two bills that would double the fines on landlords for illegal construction are now before the City Council. Intended to give tenants and advocates tools to end construction as harassment and reform the Department of Buildings, they are part of a 12-bill package being presented by the coalition Stand for Tenant Safety and 11 Councilmembers..
Intro 0940 would double the penalties for the first violation of a stop-work order, from the current $5,000 fine to $10,000, with $20,000 for subsequent violations. Intro 0939 would double the penalties for work without a permit on a one- or two-family dwelling from four times the amount of the fee for such a permit to eight times as much, and from 14 times the permit fee to 28 times for work without a permit on larger buildings. Both are sponsored by Brooklyn Democrat Antonio Reynoso, who represents the Williamsburg-Bushwick neighborhood where the infamous Israel brothers were arrested for demolishing their tenant’s kitchen and bathrooms.
As the city’s gentrification crisis worsens, landlords are undertaking extensive gut renovations in empty units as a means to deregulate apartments and raise rents. Under the current rent laws, Individual Apartment Improvements can be used to raise the rent for the next tenant by 1/40th to 1/60th of the cost of renovations, depending on the building size.
Construction can also be used to make life miserable for long-term rent-regulated tenants whose apartments would rent for much more if they left, from excessive noise to serious health risks.
“Aggressive and dangerous construction work in residential buildings can rise to the level of harassment,” Stand for Tenant Safety says. “In rent-regulated units, landlords use construction and harassment as a tool to constructively evict long-term tenants, convert apartments into luxury rentals, and permanently remove apartments from rent regulation.” The fines are much lower than the potential profits, and the city has a poor track record of collecting them.
At a Council hearing Dec. 10, tenants recounted their experiences of construction harassment. “Every tenant regardless of tenancy status received generic 30-day notices to vacate the building or face eviction,” Cher Carden of Chelsea said in testimony submitted about what happened in her building in 2014. “A month later construction workers began to arrive daily to begin demolition of each apartment as scared tenants began to flee from the building. Workers jackhammered the stairs, hallways and foyer removing the old floor and installing new tiles. One day the loud noise from the jackhammer sent me running out of the room crying. Later that day as I walked up the stairs, flying debris flew into my face as the workers demolished the stairwell tile.”
Her landlord was issued three stop-work orders for violations, yet it persisted to disregard the law by removing firewalls or installing a roof deck without the proper permits, including one for a crane to lift the wood to the roof. The construction crew removed large windows and the front doors to the building for weeks at a time, leaving residents vulnerable to robbery, trespassers, or worse dangers.
“The elected officials for my area supported us by attending our rallies and meeting with our landlord in an effort to improve relations between the management and the tenants,” Carden’s statement continued. “The officials were met with one lie after another from the management. Their hands were tied because the fines were not high enough to stop this dangerous behavior.” No matter how often the city buildings or housing departments answered 311 calls, she added, “the landlord persisted with the same egregious behavior.”
In Orlando Cotto’s Harlem building, gut renovations have been going on non-stop in vacant units while occupied apartments go without vital repairs. “Right now my landlord is doing illegal gut renovations in four apartments in my building with no regard to the safety of the tenants,” Cotto told the Council. “It is hard to breathe in the building due to white powder in the air, and the construction company is carrying supplies up and down stairs and making it hard for tenants to pass by. In 2013 the bathroom ceiling collapsed on me due to illegal renovation. Till this day the Buildings Department has not stepped in to issue a stop-work order or fines. Right now construction is happening in the apartment above me, and I wait outside because I am scared of the ceiling collapsing again.”
He urged the Council to pass the two bills, saying he hoped it would “send a clear message to landlords to stop doing work in the building without the proper permits.”