Besieged Brooklyn Loft Tenants Have High Hopes But Few Options

240 Broadway in Williamsburg, on May 8, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

This story was originally published on 5/31/19 by THE CITY. (By: Claudia Irizarry Aponte and Josefa Velasquez)

For months, residents of a Williamsburg artists’ loft have been pleading with city agencies to help them gain protection under the state’s Loft Law.

Now the Department of Buildings is finally paying heed — just as the building’s management has begun asking tenants to leave 240 Broadway.

The residents called on the Department of Buildings in January to revoke the property’s certificate of occupancy as a mixed-use building, arguing the department overlooked dangerously shoddy construction 16 years ago.

If the certificate from 2003 is yanked, the tenants believe they will be able to apply for protection under the Loft Law, which would shelter them from arbitrary eviction, inordinate rent increases and subpar living conditions.

“You just assume your sprinkler system is up to code and there are no flags,” Britta Riley, a painter who has been living in the cast-iron building for 12 years, told THE CITY. “We didn’t even know to look into the Department of Buildings’ records.”

The building’s construction permits were obtained beginning in 2003 by Henry Radusky, an architect investigated in 2002 by the Department of Buildings for questionable paperwork on another project and sanctioned with a one-year curtailment of his filing rights. Radusky did not return calls for comment.

The Department of Buildings disregarded tenants’ pleas, for months, they say — only to inspect the building on May 17 and again on May 23, after THE CITY started asking questions.

Now, an audit of the original certificate of occupancy is underway.

“Following concerns raised by the tenants and local elected officials, DOB has initiated an audit of the 2003 alteration project at 240 Broadway and the resultant Certificate of Occupancy,” the department said in a statement to THE CITY last week.

Hope for ‘a Major Victory’

Residents and their attorney only found out about the new audit only after THE CITY asked them about it.

“If this is true, and they are opening the audit, this is a major victory,” Riley said via email.

Tenants received a notice on May 8 that the 1910 building had been sold and is now under the management of Livingston Management Services, according to a letter posted on each apartment door.

And on Wednesday afternoon, at least six tenants were greeted with a 30-day vacate notices on their doors.

“Today, just now, made it really real for me,” Monika Heidemann, a musician who has been living in the building for 12 years, told THE CITY. “I’m just panicking a little.”

Most of those who received the notice were long-term tenants who had been renting month-to-month since last June, when their former landlord, Jay Zand, allegedly refused to renew their leases. Zand did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The notices, from new owner 240 Broadway LLC and signed by management agent Jonathan Bakhash, cited New York State law giving 30-day notice before termination of tenancy.

No one at the management company or at the owner’s number provided on the notices returned THE CITY’s calls.

Britta Riley is worried about being pushed out of Williamsburg if her family is evicted from the building. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“Their case needs an expedited review from the Department of Buildings. I’m hopeful they will respond,” local Councilmember Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn) told THE CITY. “They need to take a fair look at this. I’m hopeful they will be forthcoming…. This is why a Loft Law was passed in the first place: to protect longtime members of the community.”

Critical Conditions Identified

Tenant attorney Michael Kozek said he believes residents can still claim Loft Law protections. But the apparent sale of the building and the notices to vacate have shaken tenants.

“It’s sad to say it seems like these guys are going to get away with this sh–,” said Jason Nicholas, a journalist and photographer who has lived in the building for 10 years.

In a letter sent to the Buildings Department on April 1, Kozek laid out what he called the dangerous conditions in the building: a front door that is hazardous to pedestrians; lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; a handful of potential fire safety hazards; and illegal ventilation.

The agency still has not specifically responded to that letter.

City records show that the ventilation reuses indoor air, a potential health hazard. The Buildings Department said it inspected those claims on April 11 and found no unsafe conditions or violations.

Riley, a mother of two, said her 3-year-old daughter was recently diagnosed with asthma.

In 2017, Kozek represented South Slope tenants in a building that, he said, had conditions similar to 240 Broadway. DOB revoked the certificate of occupancy for 255 18th Street and its tenants obtained protection under the Loft Law, as reported by City Limits.

Loft Law Expansion Passed

The Loft Law, enacted by the state Legislature in 1982, legalizes converted warehouses for residential use in New York City and provides legal protection and rent-stabilized status to tenants. A long-awaited bill to expand eligibility beyond 2017 passed the State Senate yesterday, and heads next to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk.

A spokesperson for the governor offered no assurances on whether Cuomo would sign the proposal, saying that the administration will review the bill.

A group representing building owners called the Loft Law expansion “ill-advised,” saying it would hurt chances of a manufacturing revival and would do “nothing to help poor, struggling New Yorkers.”

Thursday’s vote “was nothing more than a classic knee-jerk political response to wealthy tenants masquerading as affordable housing victims and does not at all address a very broken and exploitive law,” the NYC Community for Improving Residential Conversions of Lofts said in a statement.

Brooklyn-based State Sen. Julia Salazar speaks about rent regulation at the Rosa Luxemburg Siftung in Midtown Manhattan, April 11, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The new loft law bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan), would broaden the types of spaces that would qualify for residential conversion by allowing basement units and those without a window facing a street or yard.

A renewed Loft Law could give the 240 Broadway tenants a chance to apply for protection, but only if they can shed the certificate of occupancy that deems their building already converted to a residence.

Gregory Louis, a Loft Law expert and program director at Brooklyn Legal Services’ Affordable Housing Program, says their situation “is not uncommon.”

“This is indicative of DOB’s not giving a rat’s tail about tenants’ lives,” he told THE CITY.

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