152 W. 14th St facade being taken down by city. - Viktor Luna

152 W. 14th St facade being taken down by city. - Viktor Luna

Tenants living in rent-regulated apartments lost their homes a few weeks ago when New York City deemed the building’s structure unsafe from a collapsing façade. Unfortunately for the tenants – who have been in homeless shelters, staying at friends and given shelter by the Red Cross – the city ordered the front facade completely removed after issuing previous violations that the landlord Stanley Wasserman ignored, and won't let the tenants move back in until the facade is completely restored.

“There is a lack of maintenance that [Wasserman] is known for but ours is structurally damaged,” Viktor Luna said last Thursday in housing court as he and other tenants try to force a resolution to the loss of their homes. “We are also human beings that pay rent and doing this to us is inhumane.”

The problem of the façade started in 2007 when Mr. Wasserman received his first violation for it buckling, but refused to take action. Then in March of 2009 the city vacated just the front of the building, issuing another violation and he still refused to take action to fix the problem. Mr. Wasserman continually ignored the city until they insisted on May 7th, 2009, that he remove the façade at the price of $140,000, and displaced the entire building.

The Department of Buildings, a city regulatory agency that looks for code violations, issued the order to Mr. Wasserman, but according to the tenants’ lawyer Shafaq Islam, the department cannot force violators to fix a building’s problems. Only a judge in housing court can force a landlord, and in the case of the tenants only Honorable Judge David B. Cohen can force Mr. Wasserman to fix the façade.

So far the tenants have received a rent reduction from the city applied to their apartments, they currently only have to pay one dollar a month for a place they can’t live in, preventing Mr. Wasserman from evicting them for not paying rent. A few of the tenants who have brought the lawsuit against Mr. Wasserman have been offered housing in another SRO building down the street (Mr. Wasserman owns three SRO buildings on 14th Street), after having preliminary hearings in front of the judge, who recommended that Wasserman find the tenants housing.

For the tenants to get placed in the new building, however, they must agree to certain terms of Mr. Wasserman that one tenant, who prefers to remain anonymous, feels he cannot accept. These include permanently giving up any claims to his previous apartment, and dropping the lawsuit against Mr. Wasserman.

“If we do accept new tenancy here in the other building, we are afraid that we will end up in the same situation of being forced to vacate down the road,” said the tenant. “Inside the place they want us to move is in very bad condition, the stairways and such are in very bad condition.”

Susanna Blankley, a tenant organizer for the West Side SRO Law Project that helps protect tenants from predatory landlords, said that for Mr. Wasserman, a wealthy landlord, a violation means very little and only helps him remove tenants from his buildings due to poor living conditions.

Mr. Wasserman, a real estate mogul who in 2003 owned 70 or so multi-family dwellings in Manhattan and the Bronx, with most if not all of his income coming from his other properties, effectively evicted all of his tenants in the case of the collapsing façade. Ms. Blankley speculates that if Mr. Wasserman gets the building cited as structurally unsound, he can demolish the building and replace the rent-regulated, single-room occupancy (SRO) units with high-end, luxury rentals.

In a downtown Manhattan area like 14th Street, Mr .Wasserman could make a large profit with luxury rentals, at least a significant profit over what he currently makes owning an SRO building. SRO buildings often act as housing of last resort to keep people off the street. Rents rarely exceed $400 a month, and the city limits the amount of rent that a landlord may raise each your for the unit through rent regulation. With 24 units currently in Wasserman’s building, half of them purposely held vacant, he makes little if no profit currently.

Mr. Wasserman, nor his lawyers have been available for comment. Last Thursday in court Mr. Wasserman’s lawyer Martin Meltzer said he felt it inappropriate to comment since the case currently is in litigation.

Currently Mr. Wasserman won’t replace the front façade until he gets the building inspected, making sure that it is structurally sound. The Department of Buildings did a visual inspection and they believe the building to be fine, but still Mr. Wasserman wants his own inspection that he believes could take up to two months. During that time the tenants have no home.

David Arthur-Simon who lives in yet another SRO building of Wasserman too worries that the same fate of losing his home looms in his future. His building recently received a citation from the city for cracks in its façade, a similar violation to the original one in 2007 that displaced the tenants in 152 W. 14th Street. He worries that Mr. Wasserman plans to let the façade go without fixing the violation.

“They don’t come here at all to deal with this stuff,” said Mr. Arthur-Simon, who remembers one Christmas not having heat for a week. “People call up for repairs all the time and the never get help.”