When Landlords Skirt the Law and Claim Buildings are Vacant Despite Tenants

Posted on: September 21st, 2015 at 9:29 am by

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Inside 102 Norfolk, July 2014

In a city rife with gentrification and the displacement it foments, greedy landlords pretty much always take advantage of the system. Especially on the Lower East Side, where shady characters like Steve Croman, Samy Mahfar, and Ben Shaoul consistently convert low-income apartment buildings to luxury. One of the most prevalent tactics employed in doing so is falsely declaring properties vacant. Not checking that box on the application lets landlords proceed without installing a “Tenants Protection Plan.” We’ve seen this time and again, including Mahfar’s 102 Norfolk Street, where tenants were reportedly subjected to toxic lead levels 3,000 times higher than the EPA-mandated limit.

The New York Times dug deeper into the trend over the weekend. Properties in other neighborhoods were highlighted, yet none around the Lower East Side.

City officials acknowledge they have no system to verify whether buildings undergoing construction are unoccupied, a blind spot that tenants and their advocates argue has helped promote a climate of lawlessness, particularly for rent-stabilized residents.

Even when the city becomes aware of an incorrect permit application, it has typically allowed landlords simply to correct the paperwork and provide the required protection plans. That does not always help, as landlords sometimes flout the plans, tenants in some of the buildings say.

Department officials say they are aware that false filings are a problem and have been working to upgrade their technology to identify potential wrongdoers. One way to do that, the department and its critics agree, is to create a system to crosscheck permits with the state’s database of rent-stabilized buildings.

Tenant groups and lawyers say false information on permits is widespread in neighborhoods where the market can sustain the transformation of rent-stabilized apartments into expensive rentals.

The department issued violations for the false filings, which carry fines of $1,200 to $4,800, as well as stop-work orders, officials said.

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