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If Your Rent Is Too Damn High, Blame Anthony Weiner

Twenty-five years ago, it was unthinkable that New Yorkers would routinely pay $3,000 a month for an apartment, except maybe for a penthouse on the Upper East Side. At the time, the city still had more than 200,000 rent-stabilized apartments that rented for less than $400 a month. But on March 21, 1994, the City Council cast a vote that would begin to bring that era to an end: By a 28-18 margin, it approved a bill that let landlords take vacant apartments out of rent stabilization if their monthly rents were at least $2,000.

The council debate, which lasted less than ninety minutes, was contentious. The bill’s supporters claimed it would affect only a few wealthy people in Manhattan who didn’t deserve such a “subsidy.” Opponents argued it would fatally erode rent regulations and the tenant protections that come with them.

“The real death knell of rent stabilization is going to be the decontrol of any rent that reaches $2,000 at any time, which is what this bill does,” said Lower Manhattan councilmember Kathryn Freed. Upper West Side councilmember Ronnie Eldridge said that while $2,000 might seem like a lot at the time, soon enough middle-class apartments renting in the $1,200 to $1,400 range — where “two working professional people live with children” — would reach that threshold as well. Upper Manhattan councilmember Stanley Michels warned that it would create “a great incentive for owners to encourage vacancy” and that the unscrupulous ones would do that “by engaging in harassment.”

But Antonio Pagán, a Democrat who memorably fought on behalf of developers in his East Village district, responded that regulation of high-rent apartments was “a subsidy for people making a quarter of a million dollars a year.” John Fusco of Staten Island, one of the six Republicans then on the council, said complaints that “this is the beginning of the destruction of rent control” were “an insult to this council.” Housing Committee chair Archie Spigner of Queens noted that the average apartment in the city was under $600, and “the likelihood that it will be raised to $2,000, I think, is rather remote.”

The result was, as the bill’s critics feared, a hemorrhaging of rent-regulated apartments. The city’s Rent Guidelines Board estimated last year that New York lost more than 152,000 rent-stabilized apartments to high-rent deregulation between 1994 and 2016, peaking in 2009. Adding in co-op conversions and other means of getting apartments off the rolls, more than 284,000 apartments were legally deregulated during those years, more than double the number of units that were added via new affordable housing programs.

Those numbers don’t include apartments that were illegally deregulated. As landlords are not required to report destabilizations, “the true rate of deregulation is certainly much higher,” the Community Service Society wrote in a 2011 report. It estimated that by 2008, the city had lost more than 450,000 affordable apartments primarily because of “vacancy destabilization and excessive rent increases.”

“People assume it was the Republicans in Albany who did it, but it was Peter Vallone and the Democrats in the City Council,” says Michael McKee, one of the tenant-organization leaders who lobbied against the 1994 bill.

***

The 1994 high-rent vacancy decontrol law was the first major crack in the rent-stabilization system set up in 1974. Rent stabilization had been superimposed on the city’s older rent-control system after another vacancy-decontrol law, passed by the state in 1971, led to almost 400,000 rent-controlled apartments being deregulated within three years, with their rents increasing by more than 50 percent on average. And those rent increases failed to stop owners from abandoning thousands of buildings.

The real estate lobby and the city’s political establishment began pressing to again weaken rent stabilization in the early Nineties. In 1993, the state had deregulated vacant apartments renting for $2,000 or more, but only if they were vacant during a window of less than three months that summer. The bill the council passed would apply at any point in the future.

In today’s political climate, it would be unimaginable for an overwhelmingly Democratic City Council to vote to drastically weaken rent regulations. In 1994, however, the speaker was Vallone, a machine Democrat from Astoria who had close ties to the real estate industry. Joseph Strasburg, Vallone’s former chief of staff, had just become head of the Rent Stabilization Association landlord-advocacy group. Spigner, who during the debate on the bill claimed that fifty years of rent control had caused “vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and foreclosures,” and that rent regulations were a disincentive for people to invest in or maintain buildings, represented a mostly black homeowner area in southeast Queens. In 2000, City Limits would call him one of the councilmembers who were “sure friends of landlords.”

Antonio Pagán, the only Manhattan member to vote for deregulation, had been elected on a backlash against homeless people in the East Village, and was backed by landlords and developers in the fast-gentrifying neighborhood. The Republicans who argued for the bill were ideologically opposed to rent regulations.

Outer-borough councilmembers provided the margin of victory. Of the twenty-four Democrats who voted for the bill, eleven came from Brooklyn, seven from Queens, and five from the Bronx. The four Republicans from Queens and Staten Island voted “yes,” while the two from Manhattan voted “no.”

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“My interpretation was that it was not going to impact my district,” Martin Malavé Dilan, now a state senator, tells the Voice. Malavé Dilan at the time was a councilmember representing Bushwick and Cypress Hills, where rents averaged $400 to $500 a month; he says he saw the measure as solely affecting Manhattanites who were “taking advantage of rent-control laws that were intended to protect lower-income people.”

“I thought it would provide greater access,” adds former Brooklyn councilmember Una Clarke, who also voted for the bill. She did not elaborate.

Democratic councilmember Lucy Cruz of the Bronx said just before she voted “aye” in 1994 that she had “been assured, as my colleagues have been, that there are extensive protections.”

“Rent regulation is a complicated issue, and a lot of councilmembers didn’t bother to educate themselves about it,” says Jenny Laurie, former executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, who lobbied against the bill. “They were easy votes for the leadership.”

One of the few who “totally got it,” says McKee, was Anthony Weiner of southern Brooklyn. “Unlike most councilmembers, who had no clue, he understood that this would erode tenant protections.” The future sext maniac, he adds, voted for the bill after twice promising tenant groups that he would vote “no.”

The landlord lobby was very effective at framing the issue as about rich people living in rent-stabilized apartments, says Laurie. The Wall Street Journal in 1994 singled out actress Mia Farrow, who was paying about $2,900 a month to rent the ten-room rent-controlled apartment on Central Park West she had grown up in; the paper also cited an investor paying $350 for a two-bedroom apartment with a solarium on Park Avenue.

The law contained a separate provision called “luxury decontrol,” which more directly affected affluent renters, by allowing landlords to deregulate occupied apartments if the tenant was paying more than $2,000 a month and earned more than $250,000 a year. Although the state lowered that income threshold to $175,000 in 1997, only about 6,200 apartments have been taken out of rent regulation since 1994 under it, according to the Rent Guidelines Board.

“It was a fake issue, but it was effective rhetoric,” says Laurie. In reality, according to the 1993 federal Housing and Vacancy Survey, half of the 212,000 rent-stabilized tenants who were paying less than $400 had incomes below $10,000 a year, and less than 0.1 percent made over $100,000.

***

The key to the passage of the 1994 law, some councilmembers at the time argue, was Strasburg, the council insider turned landlord lobbyist. “The guy who really made it happen was Joe Strasburg,” says former Bay Ridge councilmember Sal Albanese, who voted against the bill. “Strasburg was a visionary. He knew the city was beginning to gentrify, and apartments were going to reach that threshold.”

“Politics is about relationships,” says Tom Duane, who then represented the Chelsea–Greenwich Village district, and Strasburg had good relationships with councilmembers. Albanese adds that Strasburg was very good at finding people in black and Latino communities friendly to big real estate.

A few days before the vote, McKee recalls, the bill lacked the 26 “yes” votes it needed to pass. Speaker Vallone had a reputation for twisting arms. “If you voted against a bill that was considered a ‘leadership vote,’ you’d lose your committees,” says Albanese.

Others disagree with that assessment. There was no “iron-thumb leadership,” says former Brooklyn councilmember Stephen DiBrienza, who voted “no.” You could go against the leadership, he explains, as long as you gave a good reason and didn’t surprise them.

In any event, the council’s 1994 vote would have been less momentous if not for what it inspired 150 miles to the north and three years later. In 1997, the state decontrolled vacant apartments renting for $2,000 or more, after a three-way wrestle among Albany’s “three men in a room.” With the state’s rent-stabilization laws expiring that June, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno threatened to use his control of the chamber’s Republican majority to completely block renewing them. Governor George Pataki took the more “moderate” path of wanting to weaken them, such as through complete vacancy decontrol. A few days after the deadline, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver agreed to major concessions, including vacancy decontrol, allowing a 20 percent rent increase on vacant apartments, and creating what was effectively a four-year statute of limitations on tenants’ claims that their rents had been illegally increased.

“If the council had not passed this, it may not have passed in Albany,” says Albanese. Worse yet, the 1997 state law made it impossible for the city ever to repeal its own 1994 law: A provision in the 1971 vacancy-decontrol law, commonly called the “Urstadt law,” prohibits cities with over 1 million people from enacting rent regulations stronger than the state’s. “But they can pass weaker laws,” notes Duane.

All attempts to strengthen rent regulations since then have had to go through Albany. Tenant groups gradually moved toward a strategy of trying to defeat all senate Republicans, on the grounds that even the few moderates who supported rent regulations would still vote to put the GOP leadership in control of what bills got to the floor.

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In 2008, on Barack Obama’s coattails, Democrats won a majority in the state senate for the first time since 1964. The next year, the assembly passed a bill to repeal vacancy decontrol. But the day before the Senate Housing Committee was scheduled to send it to the floor, Democratic state senator Pedro Espada, from the Bronx, switched to the Republicans, ending the Democrats’ one-seat majority. Since then, whether at the ballot box (in 2010) or via the splitting off of the Independent Democratic Conference to caucus with Republicans (starting in 2012), the senate has remained in GOP control. In the years since, the assembly has regularly passed bills to repeal vacancy decontrol and otherwise strengthen rent regulations, but none have ever made it out of committee in the senate.

The renewal of rent stabilization in 2015 raised the decontrol threshold to $2,700, adjustable for inflation; it also clarified that for apartments to be decontrolled, the previous tenant had to be paying that much before they moved out, so landlords could no longer legally deregulate them solely via hikes in legal rents following renovations and vacancy increases. (On April 26, the state’s Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that that principle didn’t apply to apartments deregulated before 2015, reversing a lower-court decision that could have re-regulated up to 100,000 apartments.)

***

Today, the threshold for vacancy decontrol is $2,733.75 a month, and there are deregulated apartments far beyond Manhattan and the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope. One real estate site advertises more than eighty two-bedroom apartments that cost more than $2,740 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Deregulated apartments can also be found in five-story walkups in Harlem and Washington Heights and 1950s-vintage buildings on Queens Boulevard. And as Duane points out, renters in deregulated apartments not only face higher rents, but they have no right to renew their leases — unlike rent-stabilized tenants, who can only be evicted for cause. That means they risk losing their homes if they complain to landlords about poor conditions.

Meanwhile, the 1994 law’s selling point that New Yorkers would never pay more than $2,000 a month to live in the outer boroughs has become ancient history. In Mott Haven — the city’s third-poorest neighborhood in 2016, with a median household income of $2,276 a month apartments in a new luxury building are now being offered for around $2,900 to $3,500. 

“Boy, were we right,” says Kathryn Freed, now a Civil Court judge.

“Looking back, it’s definitely had a negative effect on affordable rents,” says Malavé Dilan, who has co-sponsored unsuccessful attempts to repeal the state vacancy-decontrol law. “If I were clairvoyant, I would have perhaps voted ‘no.’ ”

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Getting the Lead Out

The day in 1999 when Peter Vallone spoiled the City Council’s first chance in decades to pass a law that would really protect kids from toxic lead paint remains one of infamy for the city’s tenant movement. The former Speaker tanked a progressive lead safety bill to appease the deep-pocketed real estate lobby, then turned around and slammed through a sleazy backroom bill that basically encouraged building owners to complete dangerous, quick-and-dirty cleanup jobs, while shielding them from suits by victims’ families. The decision cost Vallone all credibility with tenants during his mayoral run last year, and for many, offered a bruising account of how money-in-politics can trump even dire public health emergencies.

Since the Vallone bill passed in 1999, kids have continued to be poisoned at an alarming rate. In 2000, nearly 5000 children under six were found to have elevated blood lead levels; almost 700 were seriously poisoned. High blood lead levels cause brain damage, saddling kids with learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

Two weeks ago, Councilmember Bill Perkins introduced a bill that would give kids a second chance—the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act. The bill, which has 30 sponsors, would dramatically broaden landlords’ responsibilities to make apartments lead-safe, remove the lawsuit protections, and force landlords to comply with rigorous standards to clean up not only peeling paint but also lead dust, which experts identify as a key means of exposure.

“This is our chance to step up to our responsibility to protect these children,” Perkins says. “It’s not a political or a budgetary matter. It’s a moral matter.”

But the new bill has already met with two setbacks. In 1999 community groups and advocates filed a lawsuit after the Vallone bill passed, charging that, amidst the secretive skullduggery that led to its approval, councilmembers failed to fully study its environmental impact, as required by state law. A state supreme court judge agreed and struck it down. Two weeks ago, the day after Perkins announced his new bill on the steps of city hall, an appellate judge overturned the earlier ruling. Supporters of the new bill felt that if the higher court had gone the other way and spiked the Vallone law for good, leaving no lead paint law on the books at all, the council would’ve had to act quickly on a replacement. While Perkins is still optimistic that hearings could start in late summer, others think this stalls them until winter at least.

The second setback—unnerving advocates who’d argued that, as a public health issue, the bill should go to the health committee (chaired by bill sponsor Christine Quinn)—came when Speaker Gifford Miller channeled the bill to the housing and buildings committee. Some see the choice as a gambit to give the real estate lobby more influence over its progress. Last time around, landlord lobbyists at the Rent Stabilization Association were instrumental in defeating the stronger bill. Housing committee chair Madeline Provenzano is a friend of real estate, and received $500 from the RSA for her 1997 campaign, as well as $2000 from the Real Estate Board of New York.

The committee also includes real estate pal Leroy Comrie, heir to former Queens councilmember Archie Spigner, prime sponsor of the 1999 landlord bill. Comrie got more campaign money than most from the real estate lobby in last fall’s election, netting $1500 from the RSA, $1500 from landlord lobby Neighborhood Preservation, and $1500 more from the Bronx Realty Advisory Board. Republican minority leader James Oddo and Democratic majority leader Joel Rivera, both committee members, also received substantial sums from the RSA and Neighborhood Preservation. Rivera is one of the bill’s sponsors, and it will be interesting to see if he stays one.

The debate over the bill should be something of a test of independence for real estate’s new friends in the council. The RSA’s director of governmental affairs, Frank Ricci, personally gathered nearly $7500 for David Weprin, who comes from a political family in Queens. Dennis Gallagher, Helen Sears, Maria Baez, Andrew Lanza, Michael McMahon, Eric Gioia, Peter Vallone Jr., and Miller himself have all taken money from the real estate lobby.

“When real estate kicks in, there’s a concern up and down the board,” says Councilmember Charles Barron. “I know when it gets to the full council it’s going to pass. I just hope it will not come out of the buildings committee watered down.”

One New Yorker who shares his hope for swift action is Lisa Schnell. Just last month, Schnell, 34, rushed her family out of their apartment in an old house in the Bronx, when her two-year-old son Lindsay was poisoned. Lindsay has sandy brown hair and dark brown eyes. He can say the words “stop,” “mom,” and “night-night,” but he spends much of his time at the doctor now. His mom says he is hyperactive and has a violent temper. Most recently, Schnell discovered that after the family’s escape, workers cleaning her walls of lead paint left all the furniture uncovered, contaminating everything with lead dust. The new bill would prevent this kind of hazardous work.

“I’m very angry,” Schnell says. “How much money could it take for someone to come in and check for lead? Actually they’d save money rather than waiting until someone gets hurt. And they’d save innocent people the pain and hurt of all this.”

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Caveat Renter

‘You’re gonna be dead,’ threatened one caller on the other end of Tom Sullivan’s phone. Another one menaced: ‘You’re gonna end up in the E.R.’

Who are these guys? Who is Sullivan? A low-level mafia informer? An insurgent in a corrupt union shop planning to expose wrongdoing? Neither. Sullivan is a consumer advocate of sorts.

What generates such animosity is the type of consumers he represents: tenants.

Sullivan is a cofounder of Landlord Profile, a service that provides tenants with thumbnail sketches of their current or prospective landlords. Give Sullivan and his partner, Richard Oravec, $99 and about an hour, and they’ll tell you how many housing and building code violations the city and state have registered at a particular address, whether a landlord has a history of overcharging tenants, if tenants are suing the owner, or if there are judgments filed against a landlord.

“When you rent an apartment, you give a landlord your bank account numbers, tax information,” says Sullivan. “They run a credit history; they know everything about you. But you know nothing about the landlord except what they want to tell you.”

Realistically, that wouldn’t include the fact, for instance, that one East Village landlord seeking to rent a studio for $1900 had an outstanding violation from a city agency for failing to maintain an exterior wall, along with three other less serious infractions. Or that another neighborhood owner was written up for having exposed electrical wiring. Or that a Chelsea landlord was under investigation by the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) for overcharging a tenant.

Of course such probing into landlords’ affairs provokes ire. “We get threats all the time, three or four a week,” says Sullivan. “People say they’ll sue us and worse because bad landlords are afraid this will cost them tenants. And there are other threats, physical threats, which come sporadically. They don’t identify themselves, but we feel they’re from the landlord quarter. It’s usually some small-time guy who’s got this landlord thing going on the side. It’s not like any major Manhattan landlord is going to come hit me on the head with a baseball bat. He could just sue me.”

That, too, has been brought up. “The RSA keeps threatening to sue me,” Sullivan says, referring to the Rent Stabilization Association, the city’s largest landlord lobby, which did not return Voice calls. “They say this is private information.”

On the contrary, it is totally public, and available to anyone, including people who are not Sullivan’s clients. Sullivan and his partner simply cruise government computer systems that document a whole host of information about buildings and their owners. “I have access to a lot of things that people don’t know they can get,” says Sullivan.

Anyone who wants to make the rounds of housing court, the buildings department, the city’s housing agency, state supreme court, and several other stops could do the work themselves. But considering the aggravation and cost of putting together the profile yourself—finding the right office, dealing with dead-eyed clerks, making futile efforts to coax archaic copying machines into action—$99 seems worth it, at least for a start.

“I can tell you from doing public research that nobody at the city wants to help you,” says Sullivan. “They want you to go away.”

But doing it yourself could produce a more meaningful report. For instance, Sullivan’s data shows whether tenants have sued a landlord, but gives no details, which are available in the courts. The reports list the number and severity of violations, but do not always reveal what they are. And while the reports are technically accurate, they may not give a full picture.

To avoid legal concerns, Sullivan says, his lawyer has told him to avoid broadly profiling a landlord, limiting inquiries to a specific address rather than researching all the properties one person owns. As a result, they may not turn up the fact that owners may have wretched conditions in some buildings but not others. Steve Croman, for instance, made the Voice‘s Ten Worst Landlord list in 1998. But his West Village properties always come up clean on Landlord Profile because they lack the decrepitude of his Little Italy holdings, where long-term tenants are pressured to vacate and make way for high-paying newcomers.

Tenants in place can also use the Landlord Profile to investigate their current landlord, most commonly to see if a landlord is overcharging them, by looking at DHCR records. If the current rent is out of whack with the last registered rent, tenants can challenge the rate, so long as they do so within four years of the time they began paying rent. “The Landlord Profile team helped me discover my ‘real rent,’ ” according to one testimonial on Landlordprofile.com. “That s.o.b. had been overcharging me for years!!!”

Sullivan says he runs about 100 reports a month now, many for parents in Connecticut or New Jersey whose children are moving to the city looking for “a $2000 one-bedroom or studio.” Sullivan’s very familiar with the market: He and Oravec were brokers for high-end residential firms.

“We’ve been in the business for 15 years and we know who’s bad and who is not,” says Sullivan. “The fact is, we know this stuff because we used to work the other side.”

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Landlords Vote With Bucks

Months ago, when it became clear that no Democratic mayoral candidate would emerge as a sure pick in the upcoming primary, the city’s real estate posse did what smart businesses do: hedged its bets. Rather than throw in with a single candidate, lobbies like the Rent Stabilization Association and the Real Estate Board of New York raised about the same amount of money for each candidate. Someone’s got to win, but when you can’t tell who it will be, best to support everyone equally.

But such base-covering has not directed the massive campaign coffers of the industry’s top donors when it comes to lesser races. A Voice analysis of the contributions of more than two dozen major real estate engines, including industrywide lobbies, residential landlords, commercial-property owners, and developers shows that in the races beyond Gracie, landlords have favorites.

Take the comptroller’s race, which pits longtime Brooklyn City Council member Herb Berman against former Board of Education head William Thompson. If real estate bucks were ballots, Berman would win this race 8 to 1. Campaign Finance Board records show Berman has taken in $80,200 in industry cash, compared to Thompson’s $10,500. The candidates share some donors, including members of the Rudin and Durst real estate empires. But Berman has amassed money from sources that have shunned Thompson, most notably the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), which is the city’s biggest lobby for residential landlords; mogul Len Litwin and his firms; and the late Bernie Mendik.

What can a comptroller do for real estate that makes the race draw cash? Not much directly. But the comptroller certainly helps set a business climate by the way he directs the office’s audit and oversight powers, how he uses his role as a fiscal watchdog, and where he steers pension fund investments. But the bankroll to Berman is based less on the job and more on the candidate. In his 26-year tenure in the council, including his chairmanship of the Finance Committee, Berman has been a central member of Council Speaker Peter Vallone’s pro-landlord “leadership” team. Compared to Berman, Thompson is an unknown quantity to landlords and developers.

The 11-way race for Public Advocate has attracted fewer industry dollars, but almost all of them have gone to former parks commissioner Betsy Gotbaum, who has netted $22,825 from the purses of Lew Rudin, the Litwin family, Tishman-Speyer, and Mendik. Scott Stringer, a pro-tenant state legislator, got a measly $4650 from Litwin and Tishman-Speyer combined, but even that amount was quadruple the pittance given to Kathryn Freed, an outgoing City Council member who got $1000 from Rudin. Former ACLU executive director Norm Siegel and outgoing Brooklyn City Council member Steve DiBrienza have the honor of receiving zero dollars from real estate’s heavy hitters.

It’s not surprising that the Public Advocate race has not drawn much cash from this sector. Why would the industry devote resources to an office that investigates complaints about businesses, including brokers, realty services, and landlords?

What is surprising is how much has been raised for borough president races. The biggest haul has gone to Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, whose $28,500 from real estate interests includes contributions from Donald Trump, HRH Construction, and the usual stable of real estate dynasties. While Fields is generally pro-tenant, she has shored up her relationship with the industry with a pro-development posture, particularly her backing of a deal that allows developers to trade air rights along Eighth Avenue in midtown.

Brooklyn beep candidate Kenny Fisher is the apparent favorite of real estate interests. His $20,500 in industry dollars includes donations from the RSA PAC and its ancillary Neighborhood Preservation PAC, Steven Ross of the Related Companies, and Tishman-Speyer. In Queens, Democrats Carol Gresser and Shelly Leffler are vying to take over the post long held by Claire Shulman. More surprising than the fact that Gresser has raised $16,950 from sources like the RSA, the Real Estate Board, and Lew Rudin is that Leffler, who has a reputation as a gadfly, got any money at all ($2000), including $500 from Trump and $1500 from Litwin firms.

In the race to replace Fernando Ferrer in the Bronx, term-limited council members Adolfo Carrion Jr. leads June Eisland in real estate money with $8500 from a variety of donors. Eisland has $4500.

Even council races are drawing industry dollars. The RSA gave the maximum possible donation of $2500 to Brooklyn’s Lewis Fidler, who wants to fill Berman’s old council seat. Ditto for two Bronx contenders, Maria Baez, who is running for Carrion’s seat, and Michael Benjamin, running in Morrisania and Melrose.

And while the dead can’t vote, they can donate. Mario Torres, a vice president at the Battery Park City Authority who is running in Upper Manhattan, says his 13 years “at the table when real estate deals are brokered” explain the backing he’s won from the RSA, the Bronx Realty Advisory Board PAC, Len Litwin, and host of others. Torres not only netted $400 from former RSA chair Sheldon Katz, now retired in Arizona, he also earned $200 from the estate of Katz’s brother Leon.


For a tenants’ voter guide, visit www.tenantspac.org.

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Deciphering the City’s Hidden Code

At first glance, the photograph at the Storefront for Art & Architecture gallery looks like an aerial view of a beautiful dark slate mountain surrounded by gray stony valleys, and run through with rivers so shiny they seem black.

A second glance—and a look at the caption—changes everything. What was a remote spectacle of nature is instead an everyday, literally pedestrian object: a scrap of worn sidewalk, cracked and repeatedly mended with veins of tar. In a city with 11,000 sidewalk miles, a bumpy patch hardly merits mention in an art gallery. But this one illustrates a legal issue known as a “sidewalk trip hazard.”

It is one of dozens of commonplace urban items—fire escapes, accessibility ramps, violation notices—that are used to explain the arcane and impenetrable rules that shape ordinary New York experiences, in a show called “Building Codes: The Programmable City”.

“We designed this with two points in mind,” says Rosten Woo of the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), who with the Storefront, curated this show, which opened July 19. “We wanted to disseminate information and to provide a sense that these things are in fact knowable. This is about the whole history of political struggle that has changed the built environment.”

The installation includes about two dozen exhibits on topics ranging from the 1901 Tenement House Act to the Rent Guidelines Board to zoning laws. Lucite models, for instance, demonstrate a crucial planning guideline called floor-area-ratio (FAR), the mathematical formula that determines how bulky a building can be, and sheds light on why some are low, ugly cubes while others tower. If you’re wondering how Donald Trump got to build his monstrous 90-story edifice near the United Nations, check out the installation on transferable development rights. They allow a developer to buy “air rights” from neighbors and erect structures of a scale that would otherwise be illegal.

Or maybe you’re curious about what motivates businesses like Sony or IBM to cede precious midtown real estate and provide mini parks for the public. Corporate goodwill? It’s more about the city forcing some manners on the altitudinally greedy. “Incentive zoning” allows excess height and bulk, provided the public gets a treat. The corporations let us idle in their atria; the city lets them pierce the sky and block the sun.

While the show covers much more than the actual city building code (the 724-page tome that includes everything from barbecues to dry-wall specifications), it treats the word code literally, exploring how laws and regulations encrypt society’s minimum and maximum standards. The 1901 Tenement House Act, for instance, made it mandatory that landlords provide one indoor toilet for every two families. The entire rent-regulation system is a codification of the belief that the city is in a housing emergency that requires government intervention.

The show is not only pedagogic. Among its most interesting features is the section on proposals, which range from the sensible plan of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development to commit at least $10 billion over the next decade to construct 100,000 affordable apartments, to the radical goal of the city’s largest landlord lobby, the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), for “the gradual elimination of rent regulations through vacancy decontrol.” Here is also the project of artist-activist Michael Rakowitz, called paraSITE.

From December 1999 until April 2001, Rakowitz built 14 “inflatable” homeless shelters by taping together plastic bags that were in turn attached to the heating systems of buildings, siphoning warm air into cardboard boxes. Defining a parasite in biological terms—an organism that exploits the energy of a host—Rakowitz makes it clear that paraSITE is not an artist’s stab at policy. “This project does not present itself as a solution,” Rakowitz wrote. “It is not a proposal for affordable housing.” Instead, the shelters were “a station of dissent and empowerment.”

Like a school lesson, “Building Codes” has a vocabulary component. Those who want to expand their bureaucratese can stop by the “Lexicon” installation and study laminated cards drawn from building codes and legal documents. My favorite word is curtilage—sharing intimate space with people who have little relationship to you. Think outhouses, down-the-hall toilets, and even common-walls apartment buildings, which unnerved early upper-class New Yorkers used to townhouses. The show even has a pamphlet on “The Revanchist City.” I had to look that up, too.

Less semantically challenging is the 48-minute video that juxtaposes interviews with 18 building experts—architects, supers, tenant advocates, landlord lobbyists, city commissioners—covering an array as broad as the exhibit itself. Jack Freund of the RSA complains that housing court and rent agencies “set up all these forums for contests, and every time you create one of them you create a forum for animosity” between landlords and tenants. Tenants, on the other hand, “are deathly afraid of landlords,” says tenant Sandra Rutherford, “and landlords know it.”

Architect and critic Michael Sorkin susses out the relative design importance of government codes versus “the whole set of corporate and commercial codings that influence the shape of things.” Architects are probably more attentive, says Sorkin, to “the way Wal-Mart predicts what space is going to be developed in Taiwan” than to municipal rules. Brooklyn College sociology professor Sharon Zukin dismisses the jargon of codes. “You never want to take a walk with me,” she warns. “I could tell you what was on a site before, or what it was used for, or why it was built there. My research takes away the mystery of the city.”

Most poetic is artist Martha Rosler’s parallel between her childhood awareness of her body and her growing understanding of the physical city. “I realized that my body was not a solid thing but had structural elements that were hidden from view. . . . And I remember I used to be amazed when they excavated the sidewalk and there was dirt underneath. And then you begin to realize that there are counterparts in terms of policy to the fact that something is paved over. . . . You can’t help but feel that you are implicated in an incredibly complex socio-mechanical system.”

Most of “Building Codes” is not so lofty. There is the fanciful: Staffers from CUP and the Storefront worked with Art Start, a program for homeless kids aged five to 12, to design buildings using crates. Pipe cleaners and felt squares designate rooftop playgrounds and pools; one child appropriated the entire top floor of a five-story building for a single occupant and dubbed it the “millionaire home floor.”

The exhibit’s last installation, tucked into a narrow corner, speaks volumes about codes and cultures. It is a 12-minute videotape by Francisca Benitez documenting the annual installation of sukkah booths among the Satmar Jews of Williamsburg who, each autumn, fulfill a Talmudic order by living outdoors for seven days. The urban application of this ancient dictum means the construction of hundreds of temporary plywood shacks, most affixed to balconies or fire escapes. They do not meet the city code; in fact, Benitez says, they “drive the fire department nuts” because they block egress.

Benitez describes her video as “a portrait of an ephemeral city that appears within the ‘permanent city.’ ” In following the ancient religious codes of the Talmud, secular rules give way.


“Building Codes” runs through August 25 at the Storefront, 97 Kenmare Street.

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Failing to Get the Lead Out

For a new member of the City Council, Mike Nelson of Brooklyn seems to already have the knack. Campaigning last winter in a special election, Nelson promised voters at a candidate forum that he would oppose any weakening of the laws protecting children against lead-paint poisoning. In June, with the council in the throes of a roiling battle over a lead-paint bill that was drafted by and for landlords, Nelson won praise from New York Post columnist Jack Newfield, who reported that the newcomer had announced he would buck the system and vote against the bill.


But just nine days later, with barely four months of elective office under his belt, Nelson demonstrated his apparently innate talent for doing what comes naturally, at least to politicians: He caved. Nelson reversed himself, voting for the landlords’ lead bill, which also happened to be the bill of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Council Speaker Peter Vallone. And later in the summer, Nelson pulled a prank that showed the true level of his political prowess: He sent out campaign literature claiming that he “forced the City Council to protect tenants and stop the landlord’s lead-paint bill.”


Such impressive duplicity is usually attempted only by seasoned back-roomers. But Nelson, facing a November 2 election, apparently feels up to the tactic. He is running again because his February election put him in the council only temporarily, to fill the seat that was vacated when Anthony Weiner took Chuck Schumer’s old congressional post. If Nelson wins in November, he will be elected to represent Midwood, Manhattan Beach, and Sheepshead Bay, and parts of Flatbush, for two years.


“For Mike Nelson to say he forced the council to do anything good on lead paint is totally bogus,” says Michael McKee, associate director of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition, which got candidate Nelson to commit to a strong stand on lead-paint laws in his winter campaign. “He had taken a very forthright position, and after he was elected I sent him a letter of congratulations and reminded him of his promise. He’s being totally disingenuous.”


Nelson did not return calls for this story. His campaign literature claims that among the improvements he won is a “firm and legally enforceable” timetable in which landlords must remove lead paint and “forcing landlords to use approved safe work practices.” But the fact is that Nelson voted against 14 amendments that could have turned the landlord-drafted bill into a truly protective law for children who live in lead-painted apartments. Instead, the bill that Nelson did support allows landlords great leeway in how and when they remediate lead-paint violations, and perhaps worst of all, severely limits the rights of lead-paint poisoned children and their families in court.


Council sources say Nelson was heavily leaned upon particularly by Vallone’s chief of staff, Bruce Bender. “Word was that Nelson wanted to vote against the bill so he could represent his constituents, but because his ties to leadership are so strong, he was forced to vote with them and smart enough to realize he had to vote with them.” Bender, who did not return calls, and Nelson both hail from Brooklyn’s famous Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club, which still flexes muscle as other political clubs are retrenching.


It’s that political pedigree that could make Nelson a victor in next week’s race. His opponent is Sonya Ostrom, a longtime teacher in New York City’s public schools and president of the Metro Peace Action Council. Ostrom is the candidate of two parties that only last year won status on New York ballots: the Green Party and the Working Families Party. She supports living-wage and union jobs and increased arts funding, and opposes the sale of public hospitals.


Ostrom says she has so far raised about $10,000 and won endorsements from the United Auto Workers, a musicians’ local, NOW, and several tenant groups. Since he began campaigning for his February election, Nelson has raised nearly $40,000, plus another $75,350 in public matching funds. While he has no contributions from heavyweight landlord lobbies like the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), his donors include property managers and landlords. Nelson’s campaign committee was chastised by the Campaign Finance Board in February for its sloppy reports, and he could face trouble for a $50,000 loan he made to his own campaign in November 1998 but did not pay back, as required, by the time of the election. An unpaid loan is considered a contribution, and a $50,000 contribution would greatly exceed the $3750 limit for a special election.


Tenants citywide see the Brooklyn race as a bellwether for the council’s upcoming vote on extending rent laws, which must be renewed by March 31, 2000. While there’s little doubt that the laws will be renewed, the vote presents an opportunity to harm tenants, which is exactly what Vallone did with the lead-paint bill. If voters reject Nelson because of his lead-paint ballot, that could send a sign to the council that tampering with rent laws would be unwise.


Tenants’ greatest fear is that Vallone will continue his earlier scheme of rent deregulation. In 1994, Vallone’s council passed a bill allowing rent-regulated apartments to be decontrolled for tenants whose income exceeds $250,000 for two consecutive years if their rent is $2000 or higher; he also allowed for the decontrol of vacant regulated apartments if the rent reaches $2000. In 1997, the state legislature lowered the income threshold to $175,000. RSA president Joseph Strasburg, who served for years as Vallone’s chief of staff, has said his goal in the council is to further the “successes that occurred in Albany” in 1997.


There’s no doubt that the RSA will be key in Vallone’s anticipated 2001 mayoral race, nor that it will be the sole source of landlord dollars for the campaign. Just two weeks ago, Steve Spinola, president of the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, made an unprecedented appeal to REBNY members on Vallone’s behalf; sources say Vallone has asked REBNY for $15 million. Asked by Crain’sNew York why REBNY was soliciting for Vallone, Spinola explained, “Peter has been a friend of the industry.”

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Peter’s Poisoned Pen

Peter Vallone may boast that his City Council passed its budget on time, but what the Speaker accomplished in efficiency could be totally trashed by his last-minute maneuvering that threatens to literally poison children citywide. In an effort to deliver a favor to the real estate industry, Vallone is planning to tank a widely supported lead-paint bill in favor of a landlord-friendly measure.

Vallone has drafted a bill that gives landlords a dangerously generous amount of time to remove lead paint, allows them in some cases to abandon safety standards, and limits legal recourse for families whose children are poisoned. “This is a disaster, worse than anything we’d ever imagined,” says Andrew Goldberg, an attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group who has worked for years on lead-paint litigation. “It turns public health on its head.”

Late last week, before Vallone and the mayor shook hands on a budget deal, the Speaker appeared poised to pressure councilmembers into supporting his lead-paint scheme by threatening to take away their “member items”— money for projects in each council district that typically reward loyal constituents or pay for popular programs. Fierce opposition by lead-paint protection advocates, including some councilmembers, persuaded the Speaker to hold off on linking lead paint with the budget, convincing him that such an approach was too baldly political. Even so, Vallone staffers insist the bill will have a hearing and a vote within a matter of days. At press time, sources said the hearing was likely to be held Friday, June 11. A Vallone spokesperson would comment only that “we are still in discussion and do not have a bill yet.”

The Vallone-directed bill was drafted in opposition to a measure introduced by Manhattan councilmember Stanley Michels, who called for aggressive lead-paint “remediation” in apartment buildings, schools, public playgrounds, and day care centers. Vallone’s bill addresses only apartments and allows landlords in some instances to ignore the city’s Department of Health standards in removing lead paint; in fact, Vallone’s plan would encourage substandard remediation.

Under the draft bill, when a city inspector finds that a landlord has peeling lead paint in an apartment occupied by a child under six years old, the landlord has 21 days to “clean up.” During that time, landlords need not follow strict DOH guidelines, which spell out procedures for sealing off lead-contaminated rooms, wet-scraping the affected area, thoroughly cleaning up, and wipe-testing by laboratories to ensure that lead dust and particles have indeed been removed. (Children become lead poisoned not only by eating paint chips but also by breathing lead dust.) Landlords who fail to do that have another 30 days to correct the situation, but by then, they must follow DOH standards.

“It’s absurd,” says Micheal McKee, associate director of the New York Tenants & Neighbors Coalition. “This gives landlords an inducement to do a quick-and-dirty job, on the threat that if they don’t, they have to comply with the health code.” Unlike Michels’s version, Vallone’s draft bill applies only to paint that is actually peeling; does nothing to address problems that lead to peeling paint, like water damage; and prohibits dangerous dry-scraping of paint but provides no sanctions for landlords who use that method.

The Vallone plan’s central fault, opponents say, is a two-tiered system that gives landlords their most coveted win: it forbids housing
inspectors from writing a formal notice of violation upon first discovering peeling lead paint, allowing a violation only if the problem is not remedied. Owners say such a provision is
essential because such a notice could profoundly increase their liability in civil cases brought on behalf of lead-paint poisoned children.

Opponents are outraged not only by the substance of Vallone’s measure but also by the process that created it: several of his staffers held a daylong meeting last week with leaders and a lawyer from the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents the city’s largest landlords, to draft the bill. Present were RSA president Joe Strasburg, who worked as Vallone’s top aide before going to the RSA in 1994 and who wrote the current lead-paint law in 1982, and RSA government-affairs director Frank Ricci. Neither returned calls for this story. The only advocate for stronger measures Vallone allowed at the meeting was Michels, who has been tremendously pressured to go along with the Vallone bill, and to signal his support to other councilmembers.

At press time Monday, Michels was
reluctant to comment until a final version is drafted. “We’ll sit down and negotiate and, depending on what the draft looks like and how terrible it is and what we can do about it, we’ll see. All I can say now is that our objective is to make sure that we reduce substantially the number of kids that are lead poisoned, and that has to be done by putting in a law that is doable.”

Michels’s bill— introduced in 1997— has the support of 34 of the council’s 51 members and was expected to pass easily, but Vallone never let it out of committee. Instead, he straddled the
issue for two years and in 1998 made lead-paint protection— along with other tenant issues— central themes in his gubernatorial campaign. Vallone’s bid failed miserably, and now his eye is on a mayoral race, an ambition that needs the backing of the city’s real estate industry.

Eager to please the RSA and to appease the mayor’s office, which wants weaker lead-paint rules in part because many city-owned buildings are affected, Vallone rushed his measure, citing a June 30 deadline on a court-ordered settlement. Goldberg, however, points out that the plaintiffs in that settlement offered to extend the deadline until October 15 to accommodate debate.

“They want to orchestrate a crisis, but it’s not real,” says Matthew Chachère, staff attorney for the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, which represents plaintiffs in a long-standling class-action suit regarding lead poisoning. “If they felt good about what they were doing, they wouldn’t do it this way.”

While politicians play with lead-paint laws, children continue to be poisoned. At any given time, there are about 30,000 lead-poisoned
children under the age of seven citywide. Each year, between 1200 and 1500 more become poisoned. Lead poisoning is entirely preventable but insidious if not halted; symptoms are subtle, but effects are severe and long-lasting. Lead-poisoned children can suffer central nervous system damage, learning disabilities, and, in extreme cases, coma and even death.

Most lead-paint poisoned children live in the city’s “lead belt,” with some of the highest percentages found in Fort Greene, Bushwick, Jamaica, Mott Haven, and Washington Heights. A 1996 health department chart shows that more than 80 percent of poisoned children are black and Latino; only 6 percent white. “If this chart were reversed,” says Goldberg, “we would have settled this issue years ago.”

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Down in the Old Hotel

On the Upper West Side, landlords converting an old rooming house into a tourist hotel are doing so much demolition work, the remaining tenants wear hardhats to the bathroom. In another building, on Amsterdam Avenue, tenants in a single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel say their landlord has offered them cash, hoping they will make way for a higher-paying clientele. And on West 94th Street, prosecutors are investigating the April death of a disabled man who succumbed to burns after workers turned off sprinklers while illegally converting the SRO to a tourist-class hotel.


Throughout Manhattan, SRO tenants face an onslaught of pressure from landlords who want them to move and be replaced with more lucrative renters, usually students or tourists happy to pay $100 a night for a room. Along with demolition and co-op and condo conversions, budget hotels are slicing into the already-diminished stock of SROs, the city’s most affordable private housing. Fewer than 45,000 rooms remain, down from 53,000 in 1985. That depletion threatens SRO renters, many of whom are elderly or disabled, and most of whom have incomes under $10,000 a year. Astonishingly, nearly a third pay 80 percent of their income for rent.


“These tenants basically have no options because landlords aren’t renting at those levels any more,” says Betsy Kane of the West Side SRO Law Project. “They can move to the outer boroughs, or with relatives, or become homeless.”


Fifteen years ago, the city passed laws to preserve SRO housing. But now, some owners find the lure of a bustling economy and record tourism so irresistible, they break that law. Worse, the city itself often ignores it.


“It’s the market that’s destroying SRO housing,” says Terry Poe, an organizer in Kane’s office. “All you have to do to ensure that that happens is to simply not interfere. That’s exactly what the city has done.”


Under a 1983 city law, SRO owners can-not do major alterations until they win a “certificate of no harassment” from the department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD); with no certificate, landlords cannot get necessary permits from the Department of Buildings (DOB). The law often fails, partly because DOB relies on landlords to report if a building is an SRO–a fact permit applicants sometimes falsify. That provision would be scrapped under a City Council bill introduced last year by Councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge. Her measure would require–rather than allow–DOB to issue stop-work orders when permits are not in place and to revoke improperly granted permits.


For most of last year, Eldridge’s bill languished in the council’s housing committee. But earlier this month, SRO advocates were encouraged when committee chair Archie Spigner scheduled a hearing on the bill for September 18. But at the last minute, the hearing was canceled.


Spigner’s staff says the hearing was “deferred” because their boss was out of town. But sources wonder if two calls to Spigner opposing the bill–one from DOB and one from the city’s largest landlord group–influenced the hearing’s fate.


“I know Archie heard from DOB and the RSA,” the Rent Stabilization Association, a powerful landlord lobby, says one council source. “But we always knew they were op-posed. So I’m confused why we went through this little exercise.”


Frank Ricci, the RSA’s governmental-affairs director, told the Voice he doubted Spigner canned the hearing–which has not been rescheduled–because of a call from the RSA. Says Ricci, “What they choose to do with our comments is their business.” The RSA opposes the bill because it could hurt owners of small buildings with SRO units. “Everything in this bill, the DOB commissioner already had in his power to do,” Ricci adds. “I think this is just squashing a fly with a cannonball.”


Last October, DOB commissioner Gaston Silva testified that the measure was “draconian” in limiting DOB’s discretion, though sources complain that the agency rarely exercises its options. “DOB is very pro-development,” says one SRO attorney. “It wants to give away the store.”


Indeed, even HPD appears frustrated by DOB. An internal HPD memo says the Eldridge bill would help overcome “DOB’s resistance” to enforcing the current law. But the bill does nothing to prevent DOB from granting permits based on wrong information, including false claims by owners that buildings are not SROs. And sometimes DOB records say owners have won a certificate of no harassment when HPD has not granted one.


A five-story building at 340 Amsterdam is such an example. This summer, workers began tearing up the 35-unit SRO, combining rooms and adding new plumbing for private bathrooms, without any DOB permit. On June 5, HPD issued a stop-work order. But 20 days later, DOB granted an alteration permit. DOB spokesman Ted Birkhahn says a preliminary check of agency records indicates that owners had a no-harassment certificate; HPD sources say they have never received an application for the certificate. Birkhahn says DOB is investigating whether the certificate is valid.


Pedro Ruiz, a retired restaurant worker, is one of only seven tenants who remain in the building. Through an interpreter, Ruiz, 77, said he has lived in the same tiny room with no kitchen and a shared bathroom since 1977, and would like to stay since the $119.60 rent is affordable on his pension. In the past few months, however, his landlord has offered him $14,000 to leave.


So far, Ruiz said, his landlord treats him “fine. But I’m afraid that sooner or later, he will put pressure on me if all the other rooms are nice and I’m the only one left.”


The building was bought earlier this year by Jack Avid and managed by Ron Oved. Oved is involved with SROs throughout Manhattan and is charged in one lawsuit with harassing tenants out of a 14th Street SRO. Neither Avid nor Oved responded to calls for this story.


Ironically, the city not only seems uninterested in enforcing its own laws; in some cases, it goes out of its way to reward the very landlords who break them. On its list of low-rate Manhattan hotels, the Convention and Visitors Bureau names 20 SROs, including at least seven that have undergone illegal conversions. Amazingly, some have even been the targets of city lawsuits alleging illegal conversions.


Perhaps the most tragic consequence of the city’s lack of enforcement came on April 6, when 55-year-old James Downey was fatally burned in a fire that broke out in his room in the St. Louis Hotel on West 94th Street. (See Voice, April 21.) Workers had turned off the sprinkler system–without required permission–to accommodate what DOB later called “completely illegal” construction. Tenants say the landlord, Rubin Margules, is turning the SRO into a tourist hotel.


Prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office are investigating Downey’s death. SRO tenants and advocates dubbed Eldridge’s bill the James Downey Bill.