Chelsea Now Tenants Fight Back in State Supreme Court by Scott Stiffler
BY EILEEN STUKANE | The tenant harassment at 264 and 266 W. 25th St. continues unabated, as a gas leak caused the NYC Fire Department and Con Edison to shut and seal gas pipes at 264 on Nov. 7. Also this month, a tenant’s intercom and phone lines were severed. As reported in Chelsea Now (Oct. 21, 2015), The Sabet Group, which owns the buildings, did not institute a Tenant Protection Plan as it went about demolishing 10 apartments in the five-story building of 17 apartments at 264 W. 25th St., and also began working on several of the 15 apartments in the five-story building next door at 266. Since demolition began, a worker fell through the bedroom ceiling of a tenant who was continuing to live in her home. Other tenants had to confront infestations of insects that included bedbugs, and leaks that led to flooding.
Last month, the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) issued a partial Stop Work Order due to plumbing issues which remains active, and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (HMH) issued a full Stop Work Order due to serious exposure of lead dust to the tenants. The landlord reportedly complied with HMH requirements, thereby lifting the Stop Work Order.
Since our Oct. 21 article, Steven Cincotta, a tenant at 266 W. 25th St., reports that there have been more DOB inspections — but the underlying construction has never stopped. He wrote in an email to Chelsea Now: “Unless DOB is willing to enter the apartments it claims it cannot get access to, things will never be better for the citizens.”
Residents have filed over 30 complaints to the DOB. When inspectors arrive, however, they are unable to gain access to apartments under construction.
As tenants have told us, an alleged lookout stationed in front of the buildings alerts workers inside to halt construction, lock doors, and prevent inspections.
Tenants have made DOB inspectors aware of a back way into the buildings to avoid notice. From the Jeanne D’Arc Residence at 253 W. 24th St., inspectors can walk through a fire exit door that opens into the backyard of 264 W. 25th, and enter the building. However, The Sabet Group recently blockaded the fire door with a door-sized sheet of plywood to prevent inspectors from gaining access. This barricade also blocks the fire exit for the women residents, which is a NYC Fire Department violation, although one has yet to be issued.
FIGHTING BACK IN SUPREME COURT
At the end of last month, Cincotta filed an injunction in the NY State Supreme Court, asking for a “Temporary Restraining Order forthwith enjoining any construction work from being performed at 264 West Twenty-Fifth Street, New York, NY.” Named in the injunction were The Sabet Group, Signature Bank, and the NYC DOB. The date for the defending parties to return to court is Nov. 18.
Cincotta has been helped by the offices of NY State Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, Councilmember Corey Johnson, and most recently, NY State Senator Brad Hoylman, who is planning to introduce legislation in Albany that would, according to a statement from his office: “codify a tenant’s clear right to bring suit in State Supreme Court to 1) compel a building owner to grant unfettered access to the building to DOB, and 2) direct the Department to inspect alleged violations at the premises.”
As Hoylman says: “Tenants like Steven Cincotta may not have standing to compel DOB to do its job. Our legislation would give them that standing and mandate that DOB pursue and expect access.” He continues, “If DOB is not going to do its job, we should allow tenants to have access to court standing and compel DOB to do its job.” This legislation is in the early stages of development, and will be introduced in the NY State Legislature in January 2016.
“We need this to correct in Supreme Court, not Housing Court,” says Hoylman, “Also keeping it in Supreme Court has a side benefit of keeping tenants off the so-called blacklist.”
HOUSING COURT’S TENANT BLACKLIST
Legitimate issues can bring a landlord to seek justice in regard to nonpaying or disruptive tenants in Housing Court. Until 2012, the names of tenants that are specified by landlords appeared in the Housing Court’s database. On the flip side, tenants who sought justice in Housing Court due to landlord harassment were also listed on the database, even if they were victorious in their cases.
Hundreds of Tenant Screening Bureaus (TSB) collect and sell consumer rental histories — from the Housing Court’s (HC) database — to landlords. No matter whether a tenant was justified or not in bringing a case to HC, once a name is in the HC database, a person can have a great deal of difficulty being approved for a new apartment. Landlords shun those on the list.
Under political pressure, in March 2012 the NY State Office of Court Administration (OCA), which was providing names and addresses to TSBs, announced that to prevent blacklisting, names and addresses would no longer appear. OCA, however, continues to feed TSBs with index numbers of new cases, and tenants’ names — unless tenants have filed under “John Doe” or initials — can be acquired through a public access computer.
In January 2015 Councilmember Benjamin Kallos spearheaded the “Anti Tenant-Blacklist” bill, which he introduced to the City Council. This bill would allow a tenant who felt discriminated against to file a complaint with the NYC Commission on Human Rights. Violations would be issued to landlords if complaints were justified.
This bill was approved by the Council in March 2015, but there is no word on whether or not it will become law. As Hoylman says, “It’s a distressing fact of daily life for a lot of tenants that their landlords want to force them out, so they can then rent to the luxury market. It’s a factor of market economics, and the market, as has been said, has no morals. What has been happening to tenants across Chelsea and the entire West Side is immoral.”