How Well Is City Enforcing Construction-Harassment Laws?

Several instances of con- struction-related harass- ment, including one where tenants in a Brooklyn building were left without cooking gas, have advocates questioning how well the city is enforcing its new laws intended to pro- tect tenants.

The 12-bill package ad- vanced by the Stand for Tenant Safety Coalition last year at- tempts to stop landlords from using construction as a way to drive out rent-stabilized ten- ants. The laws, most of which went into effect Dec. 30, in- crease the minimum penalties for doing construction work without a permit from the city Department of Buildings or in violation of a stop-work order. They also require landlords to disseminate a “Tenant Protec- tion Plan” to all occupants of any building where the depart- ment has granted a construc- tion permit and to post a “Safe Construction Bill of Rights.” Other measures in the pack- age require the Buildings De- partment to set a deadline for certifying repairs to hazardous conditions whenever it has is- sued an order for the building to be vacated.

“I don’t think the laws are really being enforced, at least as they’re written—in some cases, not at all,” observed Yo- natan Tadele, an organizer with the Cooper Square Commit- tee. He has been working with rent-stabilized tenants at 550 Broome St. in Soho, where the landlord has conducted unsafe work, including asbestos abate- ment, without a permit while tenants were living there. The city’s interagency Tenant Ha- rassment Prevention task force did issue a stop-work order and several violations after it in- spected the building, Tadele says, but did not issue viola- tions for the landlord’s failure to file a Tenant Protection Plan or to post a Safe Construction Bill of Rights.

One reason may be that the Buildings Department rarely scrutinizes landlords’ appli- cations for permits. At 550 Broome, Tadele reports, the landlord first stated that the building was neither occupied nor rent-stabilized, then certi- fied that the building was rent- stabilized but not occupied. If the department believed no one was living in the build- ing, then it wouldn’t enforce measures intended to protect occupants, such as requiring a Tenant Protection Plan.

“As much as you have in- stances where new STS laws are not being observed, there are still issues with the in- ternal auditing of permits,” Tadele says. “There are some landlords who still try to take advantage of that.”

The accuracy of permit applications is also an issue at 272 Stagg St., a six-unit rent-stabilized building in Williamsburg. Tenants began experiencing construction-re- lated harassment last Novem- ber, says St. Nick’s Alliance organizer Rolando Guzman, as their landlord began gut- ting the first-floor apartments, without permits. Soon after, he says, the landlord sought permits for alterations and renovations in those units— work far less intensive than the demolition actually taking place—and falsely stated that the building did not have rent- stabilized tenants.

By February, cooking gas had been cut off for all the tenants, and the Buildings Department had assigned a 24-hour “fire guard” to the site because fire-resistant material between the first and second floors had been removed. The department did issue viola- tions for failing to post a Safe Construction Bill of Rights in the building or file a Ten- ant Protection Plan, Guzman notes.

Tadele and Guzman are op- timistic that the Buildings De- partment will implement the legislation. One crucial need, they say, is adequately fund- ing the real-time enforcement unit mandated by another of the Stand for Tenant Safety laws, which goes into effect this month. That unit would monitor all major permitted work citywide, and must re- spond to any complaints of hazardous conditions relat- ed to work without a permit within 12 hours. STS coali- tion members estimate that it will take $8 million a year to hire, train, and dispatch an ad- equate number of inspectors.

“Our interest is the ten- ant’s interest, and we want to see these laws enforced,” Tadele says. “We do organizing around this, and we’ll continue to do it.”

For the new laws to be ef- fective, the two add, tenants need to be educated about what forms of construction are illegal and what they can do about it. “The biggest question,” says Guzman, “is what happens to tenants who don’t know their tenants’ rights, who aren’t connected to hous- ing advocacy organizations.”