Manhattan Meeting Confronts ‘Construction as Harassment’

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, left, with Rolando Guzman, and Brandon Kilebasa. Photo by Nova Lucero.With “construction as harassment” a burgeoning problem throughout the city, about 100 people filled Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office Jan. 10 for a meeting on what to do about it. The event was organized by Stand for Tenant Safety, a coalition of more than 20 housing, legal, and neighborhood groups.

“We’re confronting the issue of landlords using construction to make the lives of tenants unbearable. This is harassment and should not be allowed. We’ve got to change our building codes and laws to make this landlord strategy obsolete,” Brewer said in a post on Facebook.

This strategy involves “hiding behind the guise of construction” to drive out rent-stabilized tenants while renovating vacant apartments to get gentrifier-level rents, explained Brandon Kielbasa, head of organizing and policy at the Cooper Square Committee. “It’s not accidental.” 

Nolita resident Hank Dombrow-ski said he was “living in relative peace” until Marolda Properties bought his building. The obvious harassment was the new owner changing the locks on the front door and not giving him a key, he said. The construction-as-harassment included electrical power being shut off for 10 days and a plumber accidentally breaking the water pipes.

Owners doing this often avoid scrutiny by claiming that the building is unoccupied or that there are no rent-stabilized tenants when they apply for construction permits, said Kielbasa. That is a felony that carries a $25,000 fine, said Kerri White, head of organizing and policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. But unlike the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, she added, the Department of Buildings can’t put a lien on the property if the owner doesn’t pay the fine.

Stand for Tenant Safety’s goal is “to reform the Buildings Department,” said Rolando Guzman of the St. Nicks Alliance in Williamsburg-Greenpoint. As of now, he said, the burden of proving that a landlord filed false papers or is doing illegal work is on the tenant, and building inspectors often don’t come until a couple weeks later, or show up during the day to check on a complaint about after-hours work.

The city does not do “targeted enforcement” aimed at construction as harassment, said Marti Weithman, supervising attorney at MFY Legal Services. Instead, said Cooper Square organizer Yonatan Tadele, its approach is “about keeping an eye on buildings, rather than being in buildings.” Only 10 percent of construction plans in residential buildings get audited, he added.

People who want to report problems caused by renovation work face a complicated patchwork of regulations, said George Tzannes, who lives in an East Village building owned by harassment king Steven Croman. What agency to call varies with the age of the building and the type of construction. Tenants who have children under 6 years old can complain to the Department of Health about dust or lead paint, he explained, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency sometimes has jurisdiction over air quality in common spaces such as hallways. 

“Don’t try to take them on by yourself,” said Dombrowski. “Organize.”

Stand for Tenant Safety is backing a package of 12 bills in the City Council intended to resolve these issues. They include measures that would require the Buildings Department to do a full inspection before allowing construction in a building that’s partially occupied; increase fines for violations and enable the city to put liens on property when owners don’t pay; require more detailed tenant-protection plans; and concentrate enforcement on buildings, owners, and contractors with a history of violations.  

“Where is the bad-landlord school?” a woman in the audience asked, wondering how so many owners have learned to use similar tactics. “This is systemic,” Tadele answered. “It’s a particular system that everybody takes advantage of.”