Tenants in a building near Penn Station got a pleasant surprise after they held a rally Jan. 14 to demand that their landlord stop renovation work on six vacant apartments that had produced clouds of dust and brought strangers in during a peak of the COVID-19 epidemic.
The construction stopped. “The landlord got the message,” Micheal Castaldo, who has lived in the building at 308 West 30th St. for 26 years and helped organize the rally, said two weeks later. “They stopped working. That day was their last. We’ve had two weeks of peace and quiet.”
The landlord, Joel Wiener’s Pinnacle Management Group, began work on the six vacant apartments December 28, with two days notice, tenants say. Part of a long-term plan to convert the building to condominiums, it was gut renovation — which, Castaldo told the rally, means “all the walls are coming down.”
Tenants complained about dust, noise, and contractors not following COVID safety protocols, such as not wearing masks and nor sanitizing surfaces in common areas. They said they’d never seen a copy of the owner’s safety plan for work during the pandemic. On January 11, the city Department of Buildings issued six violations for failing to post and distribute a “safe construction bill of rights” and a tenant protection plan. On Jan. 14, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer asked the department to issue an immediate emergency stop-work order for the duration of the COVID health emergency, for violating the state’s interim guidelines for construction during the pandemic.
There’s no guarantee the work won’t resume, however. The interim guidelines, issued in June when Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted an emergency moratorium on nonessential construction during the pandemic, make no distinction between indoor and outdoor work, residential and commercial buildings, tenants note.
They are demanding that he suspend “nonessential indoor construction in occupied residential buildings” for the duration of the pandemic.
“We just don’t know when it’s going to start again,” says Denise Yaney, a Broadway and off-Broadway stage manager who has lived there for more than 40 years. “The law is against us.”
Predatory-equity firm returns
Pinnacle became notorious during the housing bubble of the 2000s as one of the landlords who pioneered “predatory equity” — private-equity firms that bought up buildings they considered “undervalued assets,” because they could bring in a lot more money if the rent-stabilized tenants were forced out. It amassed buildings containing 22,000 apartments, and within two and a half years, filed eviction cases against more than 5,000 residents.
Tenants filed a class-action suit against the company in federal court in 2007, alleging that its harassment of tenants, “meritless” eviction cases, and scams used to raise rents illegally were so massive and systematic that they violated the racketeer-influenced and corrupt organizations law. That suit, settled in 2011, and the real-estate crash of 2008 deflated the predatory-equity business model somewhat, but Pinnacle continued to own and buy properties all over the city.
It acquired 308 West 30th St. in 2006, and announced plans to convert it into condominiums in 2012. The 11-story, 61-unit building, with carved stone garlands and waves over the doors and windows, was constructed in 1925 as a hotel and a residence for nurses and nuns at the former French Hospital down the block. In the 1960s, it was converted to rent-stabilized apartments for people working in theatre, says Castaldo, a producer and composer for Broadway shows.
Tenants describe the six years from 2012 to 2017, in which 31 vacant apartments were gut-renovated, as a nightmare of noise, jackhammering, and toxic dust. At one point, they went six months without cooking gas, says Yaney.
Only 20 rent-stabilized tenants are left in the building, but Castaldo says they’re not being obviously harassed; it’s “very sly and under the radar.” Four of the six currently vacant apartments are empty because their tenants died, he adds, but in the other two, they moved out because they’d had enough.
Castaldo, a Broadway producer and composer, and his wife, a scientist, went on rent strike in 2012. In January 2020, they won a rent abatement. Housing Court Judge Jack Stoller ordering Pinnacle to pay the couple about $44,000.
Judge Stoller increased the amount of the abatement because of an “aggravating factor”: Pinnacle had falsified information when applying for construction permits from the Department of Buildings. The form, called a PW1, asks if the building is occupied, and if there are any rent-stabilized tenants. On the applications for 29 out of the 31 vacant apartments, Pinnacle answered no to both questions — falsely.
It’s the first time a tenant has won a court case against Pinnacle, Castaldo says proudly. The company settled numerous previous suits, including the massive class-action suit filed by the tenants it harassed, out of court.
State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), speaking at the Jan. 14 rally, noted that on the day Gov. Cuomo lifted the construction pause, New York State reported 2,603 new cases of COVID and 35 deaths. On Jan. 13, there were 14,704 new cases and 172 deaths.
After the rally, Yaney says, building management “flooded the area with signage,” but it hasn’t yet provided “what we want to see” — the safety plan that would show how they’re protecting residents during the work. Tenants fear that resuming work would particularly endanger the building’s elderly residents, children, and people who have chronic health conditions or immune systems suppressed by going through chemotherapy, she adds.
“It’s unlike every other construction activity,” Yaney says. “It’s our home. We are at risk in our homes.”