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.