Friday, February 12, 2016

BDB & RE: Is it worse than we thought?

Recently, real estate-centric rag, The Real Deal, ran an article discussing the industry's love/hate relationship with Mayor de Blasio, focusing predominantly on that perspective--as one would expect. It included a comment from the DM for housing and economic development who said their relationship was improving, "I think it's changed in the sense that with each month or quarter that goes by, the industry is even more satisfied with the [administration's] ability to get deals done." This quote was presumably offered without any irony intended, given this little gem.

Any mention of opposition to the mayor's affordable housing and zoning plans was perfunctory at best, and completely ignored perhaps the most important and most overlooked concern--the impact these plans will have on NYC's communities. More on this later.

As I've written quite extensively on Ethics Ain't Pretty, to the surprise and now disappointment of many New Yorkers, the de Blasio administration has turned out to be more like Bloomberg redux than anyone expected. Quite simply, when it comes to the all-consuming power of big real estate, the status quo, and watching our beloved city surpass the threshold of progress into generic and homogeneous, the situation has reached Defcon 5.

Really, we shouldn't be that surprised given his history: supporting the massive developer giveaway known as Atlantic Yards that destroyed a viable neighborhood and countless small businesses; in favor of building condos in Brooklyn Bridge Park and NYU's latest land grab. NYU--the university who already decimated a neighborhood--and with whom many high-ranking BDB officials were once affiliated.

These were on the record during the mayoral race. But Bill de Blasio was a very lucky man with good timing who was never thoroughly vetted. In everyone's (necessary) myopia of 'Anyone but Quinn,' these facts were ignored for a multitude of reasons which are too complex to examine for this post.

While in the Council, de Blasio supported the 'Small Business Jobs Survival Act,' (SBJSA) as a means to right economic disparity and injustice--the eventual theme of his Tale of Two Cities mayoral run. But, as Public Advocate and now Mayor, it's been radio silence except to propagate the real estate- friendly narrative that fines, fees and lack of access to capital are the reasons NYC mom and pops close, despite a plethora of data and statistics proving otherwise.

Even considering these facts, it's still rather shocking what's gone on with the sale of the Brooklyn Heights library branch--an issue de Blasio actually campaigned against while running for mayor. Yet a few short years later, it's been a 180 change; in fact, the aforementioned DM assumed responsibility to ensure the deal went through. 

The last time something so egregious occurred was in 1996 when Rudy Giuliani unilaterally sold the license for WNYC-TV. It was only when he then wanted to also sell off the city's water supply that there was a backlash, but too late for the station (at which i worked). To this day, NYC doesn't have its own public TV station. (Look it up.)

Unfortunately, many of my fellow professionals have utterly failed in covering this issue.

Citizens Defending Libraries founders Michael D.D. White and Caroline McIntyre discuss the administration's push to sell city assets to a private developer for a pittance on WBAI's The Morning Show, which I produced. Naturally, a new luxury tower is in the works. 

The entire process exposes how co opted so many public officials have become by big real estate's largess; it also reveals widespread conflicts-of-interest running rampant throughout executive boards which affect public welfare in some way--including the Brooklyn Public Library's Board of Trustees--and amongst employees of various government entities. 

Now back to the impact question. John Fisher, creator of, tells WBAI why the expiration of the controversial developer incentive plan known as 421a isn't a bad thing. Fisher discusses what much of the media, politicians and even tenant groups have ignored in the debate--the impact of such a program and others like it including inclusionary zoning--a cornerstone of de Blasio's affordable housing plan. 

Fisher noted that no matter how much "affordable" housing is included--25, 35, even 50%--it still means the rest will be luxury, translating into inevitable primary and secondary displacement of residents and businesses alike. This is a pattern we've seen for years, particularly under the Bloomberg rezonings-on-steroids. 

Arguments in favor of deeper affordability and using an AMI that better reflects NYC, according to Fisher, are red herrings because the sheer volume and density of the market-rate housing created will ultimately supersede everything else and continue swallowing up community after community.

Moreover, current owners see these giant profits and want to get it on the action, often employing illegal tactics to push out long-term tenants. A reasonable person might be able to recognize something like a chronic lack of repairs, consistent lack of hot water and/or heat, or tenants being groundlessly hauled into housing court as forms of harassment, but the city's housing agency is still grappling with the definition

And it's not as if ANY law enforcement office--not the five DA's or AG's offices etc.--or relevant agencies in charge of oversight take these issues seriously enough to prosecute most wrongdoers for the criminal fraud and other illegal activity. At best, there's a slew of press releases and a lot of promises made, but in reality the wheels of landlord corruption continue to spin.

Underscoring Fisher's position is this interview I produced with a representative of CASA/New Settlement Apartments, who discusses community opposition to the mayor's proposed rezoning of 73 blocks along the Bronx's Jerome Avenue corridor--a stretch included in the nation's poorest urban Congressional District.

Carmen Rivera Vega tells how she and her neighbors spent a year engaging to create an alternative to the city's, after too many times actual residents--the ones who have been and would be directly affected---were again left out of area development plans. 

Rivera said the median income is under $25,000 per year with many residents spending more than 50% of income on rent, yet the city is relying on an AMI of more than $63,000 to be eligible for its planned "affordable" units. The area is also home to many automotive-related businesses and related jobs the city seems bent on forcing out.

With the City Council not only voting to approve a giant pay raise--but one significantly higher than was recommended--I was reminded of something. In 1999-2000, I worked for then- CM Kathryn Freed who represented lower Manhattan. This was definitely not a job for me and as I was leaving, the Council's salary was raised to $90,000 for this "part-time" job. Over 16 years, that salary will now become $148,500, a $36,000 pay raise since 2006. Considering annual rates of inflation or even COLA increases--or freezes as is the case this year--the word disproportionate is an understatement. 

It's especially important because, as my current CM pointed out, Council employees tend to make paltry incomes, and this $36,000 raise is often more than what many earn in a given year. As a working journalist who regularly interacts with many of these staffers, it's pretty clear these days the 'best and the brightest' aren't generally flocking to, or staying at, the Council for jobs, and invariably the low salary is a giant factor. The staffs also seem to be a lot younger and more inexperienced.

Frankly, I needed a job at the time that gave me some stability, having burned out from the constant state of panic that comes with freelancing--especially in broadcast in the late 90's, and I knew and respected Kathryn. 

With a Masters degree, I earned $32,000; a colleague who started the same time earned $31,000 and he had a Masters in transportation planning.  My salary was insufficient for me to survive in New York City, if i hadn't lived in a rent-stabilized unit AND had a roommate. From what I've seen, this salary situation hasn't changed much after all these years, and Council staff are not represented by any municipal union.

Furthermore, my salary would have excluded me as too high for the very low end of city-sponsored affordable units AND from the vast majority of what's being currently proposed because it was too low.

Also of note: 60 Hudson Street--the building associated with last week's crane collapse--was already a major neighborhood concern in 1999. I inherited the relevant folder from the previous staffer, meaning this building was an issue even earlier. Yet, at last week's mayoral presser, the administration somehow seemed unaware of this. (And as a personal peeve, not one reporter inquired as to whether or not the crane crew was non-union.)

I love this picture, and it brings out my Mod side; I feel sorry for you if you don't know who it is!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

BDB Uses RE Insiders to Sell RE-Friendly Housing Plans, Surprised By Rejection

Extinct NYC stores as seen on Seinfeld reruns: Champagne Video, Pasta Vicci...

Dec. 16. Update: Lynn Ellsworth, co-founder of New Yorkers for a Human-Scale City and chair of the Tribeca Trust discusses on WBAI radio the need for a citywide coalition to fight overdevelopment, the massive power of the real estate industry, and the fight against the mayor's housing and upzoning plans. This includes their petition calling out the way the city has completely capitulated to developers in the struggle to preserve historic neighborhoods and allowing them to  "seize our commonly shared light, air, gardens and iconic views for private consumption."

By now, it's safe to assume anyone who reads Ethics Ain't Pretty is the kind of person who has a sense of what's going on in the city. So, you already know the mayor's Affordable Housing Plan (AHP) with its Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning component, and his citywide upzoning plan are not exactly going over like gangbusters. (I'm not going to get into some of the media misrepresentations or inaccuracies in coverage. They are worthy of a post unto themselves.)

This opposition has spread across the city. It seems like almost everyday, another Community Board votes against the mayor, and the Borough Board votes are also piling up.

Most interestingly, the neighborhoods the de Blasio administration first targeted for development--like East Harlem, Brooklyn's East New York and the Jerome Corridor in the Bronx--are among the most vociferously opposed. And they are organized.

I recently produced this segment for WBAI interviewing Jill Dowling, a member of the organizing committee with Movement for Justice in El Barrio.

There are two key overall suspicions undermining what the administration keeps preaching. The first is if the plans would actually ever manifest in sufficient numbers of AH at all--without even getting into its widening of who is eligible and therefore asking the perennial question, 'affordable for whom?' 

The second is concern about direct displacement caused by all those luxury towers, and the subsequent result of a loss of too much existing affordable stock. 

One recent article describes how a Greenpoint group has been travelling the city, "sharing that story as a cautionary tale of how rezoning can spur development of pricey glass towers, but promises made to residents for new parks and other amenities go unkept," and they should know, having endured Bloomberg's rezoning-on-steroids. They fault DCP for essentially destroying their community, "You've left Greenpoint lying in gentrification's waste....Ours was a working-class neighborhood, and now it's unaffordable to most people," said one of the organizers.

For the sake of brevity, I'll put aside the mayor's Zoning for Quality and Affordability (ZQA) plan, which is inherently a slap in the face to those neighborhoods who struggled--often for years and at great personal expense--to protect their communities. (Because the system is already so stacked against them, the fact that this proposal would supersede those long hard-fought battles in areas that have been contextually or down-zoned goes beyond hubris.)

It seems glaring to me that perhaps the mayor wouldn't have so much difficulty persuading community after community that these plans might be um, kosher, if he hadn't loaded up his admin with real estate insiders. As written extensively on EAP, on every single de Blasio appointment that deals with land use, his repertoire has been extremely limited.

I contend he would have considerably more credibility and maybe even given the benefit of the doubt if the officials principally tasked with selling these plans to the general public didn't have distinctive track records almost exclusively working on behalf of developers or big real estate.

And frankly, the mayor and his team haven't exactly done much to dissuade this public perception since he took office, if only symbolically. He also doesn't serve himself well by patronizing the opposition or by diminishing their arguments.

One of the most serious and accurate criticisms against Michael Bloomberg was that he was such an elitist, he was only comfortable rubbing shoulders with other members of the ruling class, putting him in such a bubble he couldn't (or wouldn't) relate to the plight of the average New Yorker.

Mayor de Blasio has his own elitism--in the form of a myopic delusion that somehow publicly-funded private developers will be the magic solution to the city's desperate need for affordable housing by jiggering a few more units here and there. He continues to hold this belief in the face of a plethora of evidence this way is too little, too late while simultaneously jeopardizing the very thing he says he wants to preserve--existing affordable housing stock.


Here is another segment of WBAI's The Morning Show I produced discussing de Blasio's housing and development policies. Though not specifically about either the ZQA or AHP and aired in October, it does focus on gentrification and the city's almost sociopathic reliance on 421a benefits allowing luxury development to produce an iota of questionably affordable units.

David Tieu, from the Coalition to save Chinatown and the Lower East Side, also talks about the 2008 "racist" rezoning which protected parts of the whiter, more affluent district in the East Village--though I personally can't speak to the more affluent categorization, nor can anyone I know who still lives here--while permitting the lower-income, predominantly areas of color to be left open to precisely what's now going on: rampant luxury out-of-scale development, which is displacing existing tenants, encouraging harassment and overcrowding an already overtaxed infrastructure. Just think of the 80 story Extell tower coming to the former site of a community grocery store.

Some 60 organizations--whom I believe to be more legitimate stakeholders than are the slew of developers currently enriching themselves--have offered the city's its own solution, known as the Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan but have been dismissed by DCP as unrealistic.

The coalition
 is holding a public meeting this Saturday Dec. 5th, inviting "Mayor de Blasio to Face the People at a Town Hall Meeting Against Displacement," from 4-6pm at Seward High School, between Ludlow and Essex Streets.

They are also staging another rally against displacement and in opposition to the mayor's citywide zoning plans on Wednesday, Dec. 16th at 4pm in front of Gracie Mansion.


So, to end this otherwise depressing post with something joyful and fun, here is video that's both wonderful and terrible, simultaneously. Oh, those dresses, the knee socks, the hats...The mod in me is doing the pony as I listen to the dulcet tones of the great Tom Jones. If this doesn't make you at least smile, well, you just don't get it.

Correction: The girls aren't wearing knee socks--they are a hybrid go-go boot/spat! So groovy, I want my own pair!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

ASSORTED: Animals getting sicker in city shelters; Verizon fails; BX Small Biz Forum; Fair Housing Act

More extinct NYC as seen on Seinfeld re-runs: H and H bagels on the UWS; Bolo restaurant....

Just in case anyone thought the mass closings of the city's small businesses had somehow been resolved--what with all the very recent attention and some proposed action by certain legislators--it hasn't. Just read this post on Jeremiah's Vanishing New York. Using this anecdote, apply it against every neighborhood in the city. Because it isn't exaggeration or hyperbole to state the obvious: mom and pops are being pushed out in every community in every borough, and it's been happening for decades. 

EAP readers know I've been covering this issue for a very long time, and not only on this blog. I was reporting about this before it became a pseudo-cause celebre. And, you'll also know that what makes this situation particularly tragic is the fact that our city government has been doing all it could and can to perpetuate this problem, which makes absolutely no sense given the city's small businesses are NYC's main employer, especially critical in immigrant communities.

So, TakeBackNYC will be holding another forum, this time in the Bronx. For the most part, TakeBack has eschewed having elected officials involved in these town halls because, they perceive, so many are compromised by the power and money of the real estate industry--and too often they would be right. I think it's safe to declare few of our city's electeds are familiar with Profiles in Courage--either the book or the concept.

However, they are making an exception at this week's meeting because the current prime sponsor of 'The Small Business Jobs Survival Act'--what many consider to be the best solution, albeit about fifteen years too late--represents the Bronx.  Here are the details:

Bronx Small Biz Forum
Wednesday, September 30, 7-9pm
Hellenic Orthodox Community Church, 3573 Bruckner Blvd., parking in rear or take IRT to Pelham Bay Park Station;
Sponsors include Bronx Times, Bronx Merchants Coalition and Townsquared-NYC.

Also, here are several more WBAI Morning Show segments I produced. These are a bit more diverse than the ones listed in my last post, ranging from having the state divest from fossil fuel holdings, to the miserable failing of Verizon after receiving an exclusive city contract to bring broadband to every portion of the city, to the overlooked SCOTUS decision upholding the 1968 Fair Housing Act. 

Finally, because this is also one of those issues I've covered (almost exclusively) for years, an update on what's going on at the city's "independent" animal shelter system. The latest concern stems from sometimes preventable diseases spreading like wildfire among animals in ACC 'care.' Because of the still-unsanitary conditions and overcrowding, these diseases are deadlier and spread faster. Even worse, not only is the organization in denial about the extent of the problem, they're adopting out sick animals without disclosing the extent of illness to rescue groups, who often then have to spend their very limited resources to care for the animal.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause-NY, discusses the abject failure of telecom company Verizon to bring fiber optic services called FIOS to all of NYC by 2014, as codified in a 2008 city contract. Yet, a recent city audit found up to 75% of NYC still doesn't have access to Fios. Why again is the general consensus that Mike Bloomberg is such a great businessman?

NY State Senator Liz Krueger talks about sponsoring the "Fossil Fuel Divestment Act," which if passed, will direct the state comptroller to withdraw state pension funds from fossil fuel holdings. She also explains why she signed on to a lawsuit against the state Board of Elections for not closing the notorious LLC loophole, a way the real estate industry in particular has circumvented campaign finance limits.

Esther Koslow, pres. and chair of Shelter Reform Action Committee, gives an update on what's going on at the city's animal shelters.  Most alarming is the rampant and virulent strains of diseases putting animals in their care at great risk, diseases that could be curable and preventable, but are often caused by poor conditions and overcrowding. The city and DOH still refuse to build shelters in every borough, despite a 2000 law passed by the City Council, but overrun by former Speaker Christine Quinn while she continued her mission to do the bidding of former Mayor Bloomberg. And, Koslow discusses the inherent problems and contradiction in continuing to allow DOH to oversee issues relating to animals while claiming ACC is "independent" though all funding and key decisions are made by DOH.

The NAACP-LDF discusses the importance of the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Fair Housing Act,  Although somewhat overshadowed  in the mainstream press, this decision based on the 'disparate impact' standard is as critical to civil rights in America as is more well known legislation like the Voting Rights Act (already gutted by SCOTUS).

Monday, September 14, 2015

THE POWER OF BIG REAL ESTATE IN NYC: Permeating throughout all levels of government--case studies

Another very recent extinct (at least at its 40 year location) NYC site as seen on Seinfeld reruns: Trash & Vaudeville, the last remnant of NYC's original punk neighborhood and my now-extinguished longtime spiritual home.
Because of other projects and family commitments, I haven't found much time to write over the summer, into the fall even. However, I have continued producing segments for WBAI radio's Morning Show. Here are several dealing with land-use, development and real estate in New York City.
Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, discusses the anti-landmarking moves in the "progressive" NYC Council, widely seen by preservationists as a massive land-grab by the real estate industry. Noting more than half of the city's current landmarked sites and districts would not have met the proposed deadlines including the Empire State building, Berman said the bill removes any discretion from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Since the hearing, the source for REBNY'S anti-landmarking report has refuted the powerful real estate organization's findings, and in fact, said rent-regulated apartments are "better preserved in landmarked areas."

Michael Kramer from 'Save Our Seaport' on the National Trust for Historic Preservation naming the Seaport Historic District as one of the nation's top endangered sites, on the backroom deal between the NYCEDC and a private developer rife with conflicts-of-interest, and the effect of mega development on the historic district and the anti-flood plan for Lower Manhattan/Brooklyn.

Alicia Boyd, founder of the Movement to Protect the People discusses the rigged process and widespread corruption amongst local elected officials and the community board evident in the city's plans to upzone the minuscule commercial district for mixed use. That means, according to Boyd, "affordable housing" that's not really affordable in the only African American area abutting Prospect Park which will cause massive commercial and residential displacement, and those valuable park views.

Louis Flores, publisher of the online news site Progress Queens, has consistently covered NYCHA issues in an in-depth way often ignored or avoided by the mainstream media.  His interview includes discussion of the lack of governmental NYCHA oversight by those officials and offices tasked with such responsibilities; insider deals the city has made to sell Section 8 buildings with well-connected developers who have track records of shoddy work; selling city assets ie land at NYCHA complexes with no ULURP as mandated by the city charter. This interview was conducted before the city announced plans to develop market rate housing on NYCHA property.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

WBAI Avella interview on Willets Point; TakeBackNYC interview; Reflections on the Rent Laws Battle & RGB

UPDATE: This is a segment I produced for WBAI radio with Queens State Senator Tony Avella discussing their successful lawsuit vs. NYC over the Willets Point giant (private) development plan, questionable practices by the NYCEDC, and how the city treats its small businesses. 

More extinct NYC as seen on Seinfeld: The Reggae Lounge, Metro movie theater....

TakeBackNYC is holding a small biz forum tonight night, Wednesday 7/22/17, @ the Malcolm X Ballroom, Broadway & 165th Street, 7-9 pm, this time in Washington Heights. This is a neighborhood that's been hard hit by escalating rents as evidenced by the countless number of vacant storefronts. It's also a heavily immigrant-populated community, who are the primary owners of the city's small businesses and therefore the primary employers of NYC's jobs. They are also notoriously vulnerable to illegal extortion by landlords.

Here's another WBAI radio segment I produced with Steve Null, who wrote the original SBJSA language with then-CM Ruth Messinger. He's currently an advisor to TakeBackNYC.

For those who don't already know, TakeBackNYC is a 
"direct action political lobbying organization" comprised of a coalition of actual small business owners, residents and advocacy groups who are trying to stop the mass closings that have been ongoing over the last twenty years, aided and abetted by city and state governmental policies. I have several prior EAP entries explaining the history. They supplement the work of SaveNYC, which now concentrates less on the political process.

The TakeBackNYC forums are meant to present an alternative to the official government response of assorted roundtables to promote the status quo (ie the real estate industry) under the guise of saving small businesses, according to many small business advocates. Their primary proposal--referred to as the 'landlords' bill when it originated during the Koch days--is considered misguided and incomplete: it only covers retail establishments, mediation is non-binding, the lease term is for one year only, and it does nothing to prevent extortion.

One of the main elected officials touting this approach initially proposed to get Albany--already a questionable proposition--to pass a law PAYING landlords not to rent gouge commercial tenants. As if owners don't already benefit from an array of incentives, abatements and actual subsidies not including programs like the perpetual increase of an MCI, j51 and the notoriously corrupt 421a......and as opposed to rent regulations, which too many in the press still refer to as some form of subsidy program when in fact no money is ever exchanged. 

Let's also not ignore willfully lax enforcement by prosecutors and the relevant underfunded government agencies, ultimately permitting harassment of tenants (sometimes to the point of them being forced out), sub par living conditions and unlimited examples of illegally decontrolled regulated apartments. 

While I was writing my rent regulation series in June, more than a few tenant organizers confided in me on background that while Gov. Cuomo should be blamed for the way everything unfolded and for the lack of success, there is no shortage of culprits.

Specifically, Mayor de Blasio was singled out for beginning his 'renew and strengthen' the rent regs campaign much too late. Though the laws were set to expire mid June 2015--a date that was commonly knows for several years--the mayor really didn't start his discussion in earnest until this May--just a month before they would sunset. If he had been as committed to bolstering tenant protections as he has been to his universal pre-K policy, they noted for example, he would have started much sooner, the City Council would have been much more coordinated and organized, and more resources would have been dedicated to the cause.

Albany Democrats--especially in the Assembly including new Speaker Heastie--must also receive their share as they totally capitulated. Rather than digging in their heels and calling the Senate Republicans' bluff--especially given how badly the GOP wanted a 421a renewal--in the end, all those months of tough talk and rhetoric was seemingly all bluster. 

Honorable mention must also be given to those non-profits who provided elected officials with political cover for either political cowardice, expedience, or outright dishonesty. The fact that many of these organizations receive funding through these offices makes it impossible to ignore a potential ethical conflict-of-interest.

Regarding the recent RGB's final vote, two things I think are of note. The first is how everyone appeared to ignore the fact the Board approved two percent increases on two-year lease renewals, because this news was overshadowed by the first ever rent freeze.

Keep in mind, the RGB's own data revealed landlords' operating costs were estimated to increase by only about 0.5 percent. If one were to be generous, an increase of 1.5 percent would have been appropriate. So, already, the Board has given owners yet another gift, after so many years of disproportionately high increases. It's followed by last year's 2.75% increase for two-year leases, also excessively high and ignored by the press.

The other thing of note is the way the vote came down. Out of nine members, all but the two owner reps voted in favor. This includes the public members, who are supposed to be independent--except it has rarely worked out that way. This is an article I wrote about a former public member who was punished for actually being independent.

What the vote implies is that City Hall maneuvered everything before the members actually voted, perhaps in reaction to way things unfolded last year. 

But this represents an inherent problem with the RGB and the system itself, and it's not exclusive to any single administration. Because all the members are appointed by the mayor, there are no checks and balances, no oversight and no accountability. Just because the numbers were not as egregious as in past years doesn't mean the process itself is a good one.

Monday, June 15, 2015

UPDATED SERIES ON RENT REGULATIONS: DHCR Enforcement & Timeline of Failure

Today's article in City & State:

After the Deal: Concerns About How Rent Regs Will be Enforced


Today's article in City Limits:

Timeline of Failure: How NYS Got to the Brink of Rent Laws' Lapse

Friday's article, #5 with more to come:

Reform, Interrupted: Study Up for Round 2 of Debate Over 421-a

#4 in the City Limits series:

Where is Jeff Klein in the Rent Regulations Debate?

#3 in the series for City Limits:

Loss of 333,000 Apartments Seen

Here's the second article, about today's tenant rally in Albany and regulations affecting residents outside of NYC:

Rent Regulation Affects Tenants Outside New York City

Here's the first article in a series on I'm writing on rent regulations/negotiations this week for City Limits.

Cuomo's Power Tested on Rent Regulations

FYI: Community Board Public Hearings on Citywide Upzoning Plan June 10th:

Monday, June 1, 2015


UPDATE: Guess who is baaaack: THE ROOFERS!! The makings of scaffolding were spotted in the building earlier this week, and for the last few days the stomping, banging and associated noises can be heard both overhead and through the windows.

What's more, the tenants have just received new MCI applications, but not for the roof. One is for an unnecessary TV/security system worth more than $10,000. By unnecessary, I mean in the 20 years we've been together, I can't recall an incident of theft, robbery or the like--though there has been a problem with teenagers in the building smoking pot in the stairwells during the winter months. Installing a security system now is particularly ironic because during the heyday of the crack epidemic, the area was considered a ground zero for its sale. The landlord took no precautions to safeguard either the building or tenants then, but now that the neighborhood is gentrifying and "safer," it's clearly appropriate to step up security.

This another of the scams inherent in the MCI process--owners are permitted to make "improvements" whether they are needed or not, and regardless of what tenants may want. Anything to keep bumping up those base rents...

The second application (so far) is for a backflow preventer installed in 2013, allegedly at a cost of almost $14,000. I'm not sure what that is, but why wasn't it included along with the smorgasbord of other applications submitted in 2013? 

This highlights more system-wide weaknesses: how easy it is for landlords to get away with fraud. Despite what the agency says publicly, DHCR only really goes by check copies submitted by owners to verify work. With technology being what it currently is, it doesn't take much to make things up but still look official. It's also well known DHCR regularly ignores its own regulations.

And then there's self-certification, where DHCR relies on what an owner states to have done, but because of massive underfunding, too few inspectors and a lack of political will from the Governor, it's extremely difficult if not impossible to ensure the work occurred as described in the MCI application. And, we all know how well self-cert has worked within the city since Giuliani instituted it: crane and building collapses, illegal gas siphoning, an escalation in construction worker deaths due to unsafe conditions, developers building in excess of zoning limits....

More extinct NYC sites as seen on Seinfeld reruns: La Reserve restaurant, Gladiator Gym....
Even though I'm in the early stages of two different articles, I wanted to post this anecdote:

Recently, my boyfriend's rent-stabilized building underwent serious upheaval. The most current issues stem from roof work beginning late last October. From the very first day--the day the roofers literally just put equipment out--most if not all the apartments on the top floor began experiencing cracks in their ceilings. 

Because the city allows non-emergency work to commence as early as 7am, every morning started with what sounded like the workers throwing heavy equipment across the roof, that they were jumping in place over our heads--and then the banging and drilling started. The rooms shook. This continued for months, with breaks only for inclement weather.

The work permits posted listed several jobs including asbestos removal that are valid until August 2015, all the while management kept telling tenants the work would only continue for a few weeks or months. They seemingly stopped about three weeks ago. The perennial question, of course, is who on earth begins roof work going into winter?

The Friday after Thanksgiving turned into a debacle. Whatever the roofers had already done left the roof extremely vulnerable to water seepage. His apartment was so deluged with water because that happened to be a rainy day, that there were about 10 receptacles set up to collect the leaks, including at least four 55-gallon garbage pails the super lent him. We're talking about mini-gushers in some spots. Of course, his apartment was not an isolated case.

There were leaks in every room, water damage in most, and the phone line shorted out. Eventually, so did an electrical outlet. 

Plaster and bits of ceiling began falling, first as crumbles but eventually in small-to-medium sized chunks. It got so bad, he went around with a ladder, broom and scraper to poke out the water and air pockets to limit the potential of what could fall. He ended up filling two of those 55-gallon cans with debris.

Many complaints were lodged with 311 and online from a myriad of tenants. They ranged from reports of the damage and destruction; to a growing number of cracks throughout individual apartments as well as building-wide; to the fact the roof team often worked well past weekday hours (sometimes as late as 10pm) and on Saturdays. There was also considerable concern about whether the leaking water was asbestos-tainted, as well as what if any safety precautions were undertaken while they removed asbestos or to limit asbestos dust from tracking throughout the building. Some also filed 'dimunition of services for individual apartments' forms with the NYS Division of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR).

Mind you, his apartment and others were repaired and painted in 2012, because of even earlier roof work which was also the direct cause of leaks, cracks and general chaos. Portions of walls had to be torn out in his apartment and in the one directly below due to widespread mold caused by the leaks. In fact, extensive repairs had to be made to the roof itself to correct the damage done from the first go-round, about seven years ago (which means it took them four to make the 2012 repairs). 

Still, the damage was much greater from the work commenced last year.

The landlord received giant Major Capital Improvement (MCI) increases for which he applied in 2013 and was granted in 2014 for jobs that included the roof, facade, partial parapet work, and some pointing. As a result of DHCR's action, the rent jumped by more than $200 per month, separate from any RGB increases.

In total, this means three attempts to "fix" the roof.

A letter from management dated December 2014, said, "The building has needed a significant amount of repairs in recent years, and we had hoped that the facade and parapet work would address the leaks that you and others on the 6th floor had been experiencing.

Unfortunately, while some of the leaks were addressed, several were not and the replacement of the entire roof could not be delayed any longer. The existing roof deck is constructed of wood planks. Several of the wood planks were found rotted and in need of replacement...[which] was not anticipated when this project initiated." 

This is significant as his apartment and others never had leaks until the initial roof work; furthermore, how is it the landlord was unaware the wood planks were rotted (at least in part) after the repairs just two years earlier?

"While working into the evening is not ideal, the roof deck cannot be left exposed or uncovered..." Except it clearly was, because if you had seen the leakage, you'd know there was virtually nothing standing in between the roof and the ceilings.

"The conditions of the original parapets and bulkheads below the roof line have also required a significant amount of repair." Again, for which they received MCIs in 2014. Clearly, as maintained by the tenants in response to the 2013 application, the work was either incomplete or poorly done.

"Even with best efforts to cover them, the heavy rain rain breached the protective sheets and caused the recent leaks. As of November 28th, the roof has been made completely watertight and there have been no further leaks into any area of the building." Except that there were additional leaks after the 28th, including the one that caused an electrical outlet to short out in the kitchen.

The neighbors were finally galvanized to organize and hire an attorney after they received the 2013 MCI applications, which is unfortunately the only real recourse tenants have. The lawyer is primarily focusing on challenging the haphazard parapet work. The state's rent stabilization code requires "complete replacement," which was clearly not the case. 

For whatever reason, they decided not to challenge the MCI granted for whatever was done to the roof. (Of course, the case could be made shoddy work should be automatically challenged, but the landlord-friendly system doesn't work that way.)

There is widespread concern the landlord will file another MCI application for the latest work because--the owner claims--as cited a few paragraphs earlier, repairs alone will not fix the problems. And, DHCR permits total rehabs.

This is a hugely controversial facet of the MCI program, because very often, owners deliberately allow conditions to deteriorate so considerably simple repairs won't suffice, as described in an article I wrote last December. It's effectively a perverse incentive to reward doing the absolutely wrong thing.

By the way, when HPD finally did send an inspector earlier this year (who miraculously appeared to be a diligent and dedicated worker), we discovered all the complaints should have been lodged about the roof itself and not about the apartment. The laundry list of complaints were, therefore, dismissed on a technicality--even though many were made over the telephone with an employee from either HPD or DOB, who could have apprised him of this at any point because conversations were had in each case. Frankly, who would have ever thought to do this, as the damage was inside the apartment?

DHCR has yet to respond or send anyone.

I can't omit that the walk through with the managing agent and contractor included talk the work would involve sheet rock to cover the damage, and then plaster. Yet, when the workers appeared, no sheet rock materialized, so he now worries whatever mending was done will be insufficient to prevent a recurrence. Also, my boyfriend was adamant about not allowing the repairs to even start before the roof was complete because he wanted to ensure everything was dry, though management lobbied him repeatedly.

And, it's not as if he was or will ever be compensated for the amount of time and energy he spent cleaning up the water damage, going around the apartment preemptively popping air and water pockets, and twice having to single-handedly move furniture from room to room to allow for the repairs
He managed to fill another 55-gallon can with water-soaked wall paper he personally stripped because otherwise they would have just painted over the paper. 

He will never get back the hours wasted trying to negotiate when the repairs would be made with both the managing agent and then the contractors. Nor for the work he had to turn down to be available for either management or the days work was done, because he didn't trust them to do a competent job unsupervised--given the track record, would you?

The point of this tale is two-fold:

1. Not only to give a glimpse into the not-uncommon pressures under which regulated tenants are forced to live, but to underscore something my boyfriend told me. Your home, he said, is supposed to be your safe place away from the enormous stresses already placed on our day-to-day lives as New Yorkers. To instead have this respite be the source of them--for eight long months--was almost too much for him to bear. 

One can only imagine what the physical state or mindset must be of tenants who face seriously dangerous conditions like toxic mold or no heat in winter everyday.

Whatever your view of rent regulations may be, we're still talking about tenants who are contractually obligated to pay rent in return for a safe place to live. NY State's warrant of habitability is supposed to guarantee a certain standard of just that--habitability. 

However, DHCR--which oversees most regulated-related issues including MCIs--and the city's housing agency, HPD, give landlords enormous latitude and flexibility to circumvent these commitments. There are also countless existing loopholes to facilitate this kind of activity.

Both agencies are notorious for looking the other way--or worse--time and time again when tenants are living in sub par conditions. As recounted previously on Ethics Ain't Pretty, HPD can barely recognize what might be considered harassment, even though it's reached epic proportions. 

2. The other is to remind readers the state's rent laws are set to expire mid-June. Extending the current laws alone will not suffice in helping tenants. An important tenet of what activists are advocating is to reform the MCI system--not only in what can be considered an MCI, but in the way tenants pay for these "improvements" in perpetuity, long after a landlord has recouped the initial investment (because after all, it IS an investment to keep your property in working order.) 

Even though DHCR initially granted a $200 per month increase, the agency later modified the ruling to about $60. However, despite the modification, that $200 still applies to the base rent and all future increases will be calculated with that amount as the starting point. All part of the game...

Every NYC regulated tenant--and anyone who cares about fairness and keeping the city remotely diverse, whether economically or racially--must convey this message to their state legislators and the governor

TakeBackNYC, a new coalition of small business owners, residents and community organizations will be hosting a forum on Thursday, June 4th, 2015 @ 7pm at St. Joseph’s High School, 80 Willoughby Street. 

As was the case with a March forum, the goal is to allow different stakeholders to learn about and bring awareness to the problem, and its root cause: exorbitant rents and a lack of rights for commercial tenants. I've recounted ad nauseum on this blog about the situation and how political it is, mainly because it involves REBNY and big real estate--who want to maintain their unfettered ability to make the largest profits as possible, facilitated by our city's government.

They'll also discuss the different proposals currently under consideration in the City Council. That there are even multiple "solutions" and now acknowledgement of an actual crises of mass closings is in itself a minor victory for the small business community. Among them is the 'Small Business Jobs Survival Act,' which is the solution most supported by real small business owners and activists. 

There's also a #SAVENYC event scheduled for Saturday, June 6, featuring The Rocksteady 7. Doors open @8pm, Hank's Saloon, 46 Third Avenue at Atlantic, Brooklyn, NY.