The Witch’s Broome: How I Battled My Broome Street Landlord and Won [OP-ED]
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The following Op-ed was written by local comedian Jeff Lawrence, a native New Yorker, and the founder of Laughing Buddha Comedy. He has appeared on NBC, MTV Europe, The Grammy Awards, and in the New York Times, the Daily News, as well as the front pages of the the Wall Street Journal and the Tampa Bay Times.
There is something about the Lower East side that has always attracted me. Perhaps it’s my family history; my Great Grandfather settled on Forsyth St near Broome St. in 1907. Back then his dream was for our family to move out of the ghetto, which is so ironic, for now my dream is to afford it. After all, the definition of gentrification is when you move into a neighborhood and your friends are like “why are you living there?” and 10 years later the same friends say “OMG, how did you get it!”
I first moved onto Ludlow St. back in 1998, when it was well…Ludlow St. As you know, rising rents, rising assholes, so I had to vacate. At the time, I sublet a large studio with a park view above the now defunct (there is a God in heaven) 205 club. Upon the opening of the “New and Improved” 205 club in 2004, my apartment became unlivable due to the drum-and-bass thumping that forced me to sleep on an inflatable mattress in the bathroom to weather the vibration. Yes, my dream had come true, I had arrived on the Lower East Side. Then came the unannounced subway fan project on the corner of Stanton and Chrystie in 2003, forcing me out once again.
I looked at apartments in Hell Square within my budget ($1,200 to $1400 range) but had the Forsyth – I mean foresight – to know that location would be horse shit in the coming years. The realtor had a new building to offer on Broome St. at $1,600/month, but definitely above my budget. But what the Hell Square? You live once, right? Like a normal New York gay Jew, I just had to see what I couldn’t afford and I found a little gem, a little “Jade” green granite exterior building that featured a one bedroom apartment on the top floor. It featured everything that I coveted, southern exposure, a private terrace, roof access, and most of all quiet…(well Happy Endings vaporized the latter) But nevertheless, the realtor uttered the two most sought after words in apartment hunting…RENT STABILIZED. I signed the lease noticing there was no stipulation that the regulated rent would ever expire.
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Happy Ending on Broome, circa July 2010
Well, I kind of liked the grittiness of the area South of Delancey and renewed my lease in 2005 for another year at $1600. Then the building was sold by Wholesome Realty (The Congee Restaurant Mafia) to the new landlord Win Feng LLC. My rent was raised to $1,650, within rent stabilized guidelines, but the new lease did not say it was regulated. I questioned the lease, and the management company Green City Realty, assured me it was not stabilized anymore. “We are not part of that [421-A] program.” 421 A gives landlords a 10 year tax exemption in exchange for making the apartments affordable during that time span. After arguing, I signed it; battling landlords in a gentrifying area is a full time job I didn’t want.
In March of 2006, out of nowhere I received a letter under my door. “Your rent is being raised to $1,950/ month, sign here (within 13 days) or your lease will not be renewed.” I called and questioned the validity of the lease and was ensured that this building was no longer part of the 421 A Rent Stabilized program. I have a background in real estate and knew to research my building’s status through the Department of Taxation and Finance; it’s free. Sure enough the owner was benefitting from a tax break and was required to issue rent stabilized leases for a 10 year period ending in 2013/14. It was especially disturbing to note that the construction of 294 Broome came on the heels of the 9/11 tragedy, encouraging investors to build downtown. I contacted Green City Realty and spoke with a manager who assured me one last time the building was not regulated by the city.
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Guan Gong Temple, 294 Broome St.
I then realized the unscrupulous Win Feng LLC and their managing partner, were trying to strip me of my tenant rights. I had two choices: hire an attorney, or file an overcharge complaint with DHCR. After consulting with an attorney he advised me to file with DHCR, a longer process, but free, and usually with good results. I met with the DHCR office in Jamaica, Queens (known to be less incompetent than the city one) and they guided me through the overcharge forms to file.
Green City met with DHCR and subsequently told me the building was not rent stabilized. I wasn’t buying it, and I buy everything. After receiving a call from DHCR, the landlord reverted my rent back to $1650 and asked me to drop the overcharge case, which I refused. I continued for the better part of three years to pay rent stabilized increases and my rent rose to about $1900/month. Correspondence went back and forth between DHCR, myself and Green City, and then finally a break came in 2009, and a decision was near. The city had asked my landlord to prove the rent prior to my residing there; Green City responded “we don’t know because those leases were with the old landlord.” Big mistake on their part and the hammer came down.
DHCR took what would be a vacancy renewal rate of 20% and came up with a formula to calculate my $1,600/month and reverted the base rent back to $1367/month with triple damages for the previous three years, and overcharges for the others. My new rent was to be $1,367/month and with overcharges and treble damages I received over $50,000, resulting in free rent for about two years, and the balance due paid to me in cash. And one more note; my rent stabilization benefits would not expire in the tax year 2013/14; I would enjoy them as long as I resided there. Finally, I entered the promise land my Great Grandfather dreamed about. The neighborhood was no longer a ghetto, and I had apartment I could afford. The landlord filed a PAR, appealed, but subsequently lost on all counts. Their ingenious claim “we didn’t know the building was rent stabilized” was scoffed at by the DHCR administrative board of review. Translation: the best excuse the landlord could offer was, “we purchased an apartment building, and had no idea we were getting a tax break!”
DHCR also ordered the landlord to issue rent stabilized leases to all tenants on floors three through six. (The 2nd floor is zoned for office). They issued a few of those albeit at market rate, but when those tenants moved out new leases were issued to tenants and were not regulated, a clear violation of DHCR orders. So, if you have lived here at 294 Broome St. anytime between 2003 and now you may have recourse even if it is no longer your residence. If you moved into 294 Broome St within the last few years, even if you have moved out, you may certainly have a very strong case for overcharges and treble damages. In a nutshell rent laws mandate the landlord to issue rent stabilized leases to all tenants during that time frame. AND if they do not list that the rent regulation expires, you’re in luck because you cannot change the terms of a rent stabilized lease.
Since winning the case, I’ve subsequently filed two more lawsuits against “Jade”; one an HP case to force her to make necessary repairs, and another for damages for trying to evict me for non-payment of rent, lack of repairs, and a general pattern of harassment. Right, after many years of timely market rate payments I’m going to NOT pay rent and get evicted from a rent regulated apt? Yes, there was a drug ring, and a prostitution ring in the building that the landlord had no idea of? And at one time I DID put a sign up in the elevator that said “NO COME HERE FOR FUCK.” And since signage is so indigenous to the area, why not go toe to toe with Williamsburg Pizza (your pizza is good…really good…but not fuck-up-our-neighborhood-with-your-cheesy-signs good) If you live here past or present, you owe it to yourself to contact an attorney or DHCR. Landlords like this belong behind bars, or at the very least, forced to hang vertical signs from their buildings that read: