An archive of my work at The Daily Gazette can be found here.
Note: Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer cited this article in a March 29 letter to NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Con Edison calling for a comprehensive report and action on the 400 percent surge in natural gas shutoffs revealed in the piece. Brewer’s letter can be found here, and a related op-ed written by Straus Media’s Executive Editor Kyle Pope can be found here.
A surge of gas shutoffs, particularly for rent-stabilized tenants. This story was published in Our Town, the West Side Spirit, Chelsea News and Our Town Downtown on March 2, 2016.
Ruby Mak has been spending more money on takeout than a doctorate student mid-dissertation, and her new rice cooker is working at least as hard.
“A lot of it is just out of pocket, going out to eat a lot more,” said Mak. “When we cook at home it’s just a rice cooker. You can steam things with it, or make rice, basically.”
Last September her building joined hundreds of others across the city with no natural gas, cut off by Con Edison after an inspection blitz by the city’s Dept. of Buildings that began last April, less than a month after a fatal gas explosion in the East Village that claimed two lives.
According to statistics provided by the DOB, ConEd reported 343 shutoffs to the agency in 2015, a 400 percent increase over 2014’s 67 shutoffs. And the upward trend appears to be increasing even more: So far in 2016 there have been 157 shutoffs, according to the DOB.
“Since the spring of last year we started noticing a lot of people coming in that had no gas, either cooking gas or heat and hot water,” said Donna Chiu, director of housing and community services for Asian Americans For Equality.
Chiu called the increase “freakish,” and said AAFE is working with Mak’s building and almost a dozen others in Chinatown and the Lower East Side to restore services. And Chiu, like many housing advocates, has witnessed a pattern of exploitation by building owners who prolong service interruptions in an effort to pressure rent-stabilized tenants into leaving their apartments.
The dozen or so residents in Mak’s building, at 53 Ludlow Street, brought a Housing Part action in court – or HP in housing parlance, the part of the law used to force a landlord to make repairs or mitigate a loss of services. Under a settlement, landlord Sky Management will provide a $100/month rent abatement retroactive to Sept. 21 of last year, when the outage occurred. The landlord must also provide hot plates for tenants.
Joel Cullotta of Sky Management said the building’s gas infrastructure was simply outdated.
“The piping for the cooking gas was just very old,” said Cullotta, who added that it made more sense for the building to convert to electric from natural cooking gas, which became part of the settlement in the Housing Part case. “It would need to be replaced, and it made more sense to convert to electric.”
Cullotta also defended Sky’s handling of the shutoff, and said that they’re waiting on ConEd to install electric meters in the building’s basement.
“We worked immediately to restore the gas and heat as soon as we could,” said Cullotta, noting that the Sept. 21 outage affected the heat and hot water gas system as well, which Sky was able to restore in three days.
Cullotta would not comment on whether Sky was offering buyouts or making an effort to get existing rent stabilized tenants out of the building. He acknowledged installing 13 surveillance cameras in the building, but said “we’ve done that in most of our properties.”
Despite the hardships, Chiu said the situation at 53 Ludlow Street is one of the brighter spots in their gas shutoff caseload.
“At least at 53 Ludlow there’s been some progress,” she said concerning the HP settlement.
That’s not always the case. Housing lawyers and tenant activists throughout Manhattan confirmed over and over again the same trend of building owners opportunistically prolonging gas shutoffs to pressure rent stabilized tenants into leaving their apartments.
“I’ve got a couple tenants who haven’t had gas for months and months, and one of them in particular has a stack of receipts that’s pretty dramatic from having to go out and buy food in the neighborhood,” said Evan Hasbrook, a housing lawyer with the Legal Aid Society. “She can’t afford this.”
In his experience, said Hasbrook, the fault lies with the building owner despite their protestations to the contrary.
“In these cases the landlord has the legal responsibility to provide cooking gas and heating and the rest,” he said. “But you end up in housing court and the landlord says either that ConEd is dragging its feet … or that the tenant is not providing access to ConEd or the landlord. They try to pass the blame wherever they can and make an excuse, but legally it’s pretty clear this all falls on the landlord.”
Chiu of AAFE agreed that the blame game is a favorite pastime between ConEd and building owners. In housing court, she said, a landlord’s lawyer often claims, “’Oh it’s Con Edison, we’ve tried everything,’ so that is a story we hear all the time.”
Betsy Eichel, a tenant organizer with Housing Conservation Coordinators, said in addition to landlords prolonging the process, there’s a lack of qualified plumbers to perform and certify necessary repairs from all the shutoffs.
“I definitely noticed an uptick in gas outages after the East Village explosion,” said Eichel. “However, the quickness to turn the gas off also leads to the long outages; there’s not enough licensed plumbers to keep up with the number of buildings without gas, so a backlog is inevitable.”
Eichel said landlords are supposed to provide hot plates, but in her experience they either don’t or won’t without prodding from tenants. “We usually try to negotiate a rent abatement,” she said. “Some tenants will keep their receipts and try to get some compensation in Small Claims Court, but that isn’t as efficient as a rent abatement.”
She also agreed with colleagues at other organizations that prolonged shutoffs can be used as a “tool” to harass rent stabilized tenants.
“I don’t think any of the landlords in buildings where I work shut off gas on purpose, but they didn’t rush to turn it back on,” said Eichel. “In addition, the one thing that all the buildings I work in without gas had in common was that the outage happened amid construction; their landlords were renovating vacant units which would be rented at market rate.”
Sam Himmelstein, a housing lawyer with the tenant-only firm of Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph, said Eichel’s assessment is accurate.
“Whether you call it deliberate harassment or benign neglect, the landlord says they’ll turn the gas on when the work is completed,” said Himmelstein, of the cases he sees.
Himmelstein said his firm typically negotiates from the landlord a voluntary rent abatement of 10 to 25 percent the monthly rent, but in order for the landlord to do anything, in his experience, they must be taken to court.
“The thing I have to emphasize is that unless you bring them to court they’re going to drag their feet,” he said.
Brandon Kielbasa, director of organizing and policy at the Cooper Square Committee, is seeing the same thing Himmelstein is.
“We’ve seen a huge uptick,” he said. “Many of the buildings are those that have recently had major gut renovation construction occur in them. Many of the buildings are owned by aggressive, bad acting landlords.”
Kielbasa said cooking gas disruptions are a “huge disturbance” for tenants that are left without the means to prepare meals at home, and emphasized that tenants who organize tend to get gas restored much sooner than those that don’t.
“So, we usually urge all tenants facing cooking gas issues to quickly initiate a HP action in housing court to get gas restored,” said Kielbasa. “From our experience a housing court case is essential to open the lines of communication with a bad acting landlord and to also start putting pressure on the landlord to restore the gas in a timely way.”
And few would argue with the DOB’s overabundance of caution concerning gas leaks, and the disasters that rarely, but tragically, accompany them. The East Village explosion that occurred on March 26 of last year claimed two lives, and followed a March 2014 gas explosion in East Harlem that claimed eight lives.
But in less than a week of reporting this story, this newspaper was approached by no fewer than four advocacy organizations, one elected official’s office, and a number of housing lawyers who were eager to talk about the issue of skyrocketing gas shutoffs and how the city’s less scrupulous landlords are exploiting the situation.
All told, in three days we were informed of over 20 buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn comprising hundreds of units – many of which are rent stabilized and occupied by tenants on fixed incomes – that are enduring gas shutoff conditions.
The DOB’s own statistics illustrate the drastic increase: 67 shutoffs in 2014, 343 in 2015, and 157 in January and February of this year. The agency is inspecting five times as many buildings for faulty or illegal gas hookups than before the East Village explosion last March.
The candidate’s ownership of the carousel puts New Yorkers in a familiar bind. This story was published in Our Town on Feb. 24, 2016.
It’s late afternoon on a mild winter weekday, and kids and tourists are lining up to pay $3 for a quintessentially New York moment: a carousel ride in Central Park.
On the wall next to the entrance is a white placard with red lettering that reads, “Trump Carousel Rules and Regulations” — one of the only indications that Donald J. Trump, presidential candidate, owns and operates the carousel.
Trump’s politics have begun seeping into the carousel, as riders weigh an afternoon escape against a deeply divisive candidate.
Gemma Whiteman and Joel Hauxwell, who were on vacation from England and rode the carousel Monday, said they noticed the placard bearing Trump’s name.
“It was in my head,” said Whiteman, when asked if the realization gave her pause. “He’s not very liked in England, so in my head I was a bit like, ‘Do I want to give money to this guy’s company?’”
In the end, said Whiteman, she and Hauxwell were in New York on vacation, and it mattered more that they went on the carousel.
“If it had been something like picking which shop or café to go in, I would’ve picked one that wasn’t Trump,” said Whiteman.
Sarah Orza, who was pushing a stroller with a toddler in tow after exiting the ride, said Trump’s ownership of the ride took a backseat to the experience. “It doesn’t matter to me, not with a three-year-old.”
Does she support Trump’s candidacy? “No, just the carousel.”
One woman, who was in New York for a job interview with a major media company and asked not to be identified because it might hurt her chances, said after she and her friend bought tickets they saw the sign indicating Trump operated the carousel.
“We bought the tickets too soon,” said her friend, Rafael Manna, who had he known Trump was involved, “would’ve given it a second thought.” But, said Manna, “Why the hell not? It’s been 25 years since I rode a carousel.”
It is a political calculus New Yorkers navigate everyday when it comes to one of their more contentious local characters. As Trump’s presidential campaign has gathered steam, locals have had to figure out how to separate Trump’s politics from the fact that he is a high-profile figure woven into the fabric of the city, from Trump apartment buildings and hotels to the ownership of two ice skating rinks close to the carousel in the park.
It’s not at all clear that the city relishes its relationship with Trump. Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration was looking for ways to terminate the city’s contracts with Trump, after the presidential candidate referred to Mexicans as rapists during a speech in June when he announced his candidacy.
A selection of his other greatest hits include calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, criticizing Ariz. Sen. John McCain for getting captured in Vietnam, and blasting Megyn Kelly of Fox News for her performance during a GOP debate she moderated for the network.
After the comment about Mexicans, City Councilmember Mark Levine, chair of the parks committee, immediately called on the Parks Dept. to cut ties with Trump, who also has license agreements with the agency to run Lasker and Wollman rinks in Central Park and the Ferry Point Golf Club in the Bronx.
“Mr. Trump’s racist comments are despicable even by his already low standards,” Levine said. “Our parks are public spaces where everyone should feel welcome and an association with Mr. Trump directly contradicts this spirit.”
Levine noted that all of Trump’s license agreements with the city include terminate-at-will clauses. This newspaper filed a freedom of information request for the license agreements on all four concessions, and found that indeed they do contain such clauses, provided that the termination is not “arbitrary and capricious.”
De Blasio spokesperson Karen Hinton said in July that the city was discreetly reviewing their contracts with Trump, but a city official said last week the effort hit a wall in August.
“We reviewed the city’s existing contracts with Donald Trump and found no legal way to cancel these contracts,” said spokesperson Monica Klein. “In the future, however, the mayor said he would not go out of his way to do any business with Mr. Trump.”
At least when it comes to the carousel, business for Trump has been good. Revenue reports filed with the NYC Parks Dept. show Trump has grossed $1.72 million since 2013 on the carousel.
Ron Lieberman, a former NYC Parks official who is now an executive at the Trump Organization, said getting involved with the carousel was never a money-making proposition for Trump.
“It wasn’t from a money standpoint that [Trump] got involved in this, it was because this is a great New York City landmark,” said Lieberman. “Donald is a very important New Yorker and he did this because he wanted to do something to give back to New York City.”
Lieberman stressed that funds generated by the carousel and other Trump attractions in New York City are not used on his campaign.
“[The carousel] has nothing to do with the campaign,” said Lieberman. “The business and the campaign are completely and entirely separate.”
Lieberman said he doesn’t even know if the carousel is profitable.
“Honestly I don’t even know,” said Lieberman. “I told you, Donald got into this not from a money-making position, it was more to give back to New York City.”
Trump’s lease on the carousel runs through March 2020, and his annual payments to the city increase to $300,000 in 2018 and peak in the final year at $325,000. In March 2011, at the start of the license agreement, the annual fee was $250,000. Trump will wind up paying the city $2.725 million over the 10 years.
Carousel admission is set to increase in 2017 to $3.25 and peak at $3.50 in 2020. Trump is also allowed to sell food, beverages and merchandise at the carousel, according to the license agreement.
He’s also required to invest a minimum of $400,000 in capital improvements and repairs at the carousel over the life of the agreement, for things such as restoring the wooden horses and installing new lighting. A Parks Dept. spokesperson said Trump has so far followed the capital improvement schedule laid out in the agreement, which required him to spend a minimum of $260,000 on repairs and upgrades by April 2013.
According to the revenue reports, the most lucrative months at the carousel are between April and August, when over the last three years he’s grossed anywhere from $65,000 to almost $90,000 during those months.
But Lieberman reinforced his point that Trump didn’t get into these agreements for the money.
“If you know anything about the carousel, you know since Donald took it over, it’s been an incredible success story for New York City,” said Lieberman. “Before Trump got involved the carousel did not look at all what it looks like today. It was not properly maintained, was in disrepair, it was awful, and it’s such a beautiful landmark for New York City.”
When contacted last week, however, Levine reinforced his own position that the city should not be doing business with Trump.
“I don’t think New York City should be affording those privileges to people that could potentially damage our reputation,” he said.
Asked if there’s any political will in the city council to work on ending these agreements, Levine spokesperson Tyrone Stevens said it’s really up to the administration.
“This really isn’t about political will in the council since this would have to be taken up by the administration,” said Stevens. “Though I think there is widespread agreement that these contracts are less than ideal, members, including Mark, recognize the very real difficulty for the city to escape them.”
Tenants say a gas shut-off is the latest in an ongoing building battle with landlord. This story was published in the Chelsea News on Jan. 14, 2016.
Cooking gas service has been restored at a rent stabilized apartment building in Chelsea after a nearly three-month outage, and after inquires were made to Con Edison by this newspaper and Councilmember Corey Johnson’s office.
But residents still fear a continuation of service disruptions and other issues dating back to 2014 amid tensions between tenants and management at the building.
Multiple residents confirmed to this newspaper that between April and November of 2014 the entire building – comprising 246 units, about 205 of which are rent stabilized – was without cooking gas. Then on Oct. 20 of last year another service disruption occurred affecting 18-25 mostly rent stabilized apartments, which extended through Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“[Management] suggested that in the meantime, since the Thanksgiving holiday was coming, I should knock on the door of a neighbor and ask to use their stove if I need to cook something,” said resident Franco Gulli, who has lived in a rent stabilized studio at 220 W. 24th St. since 2002. He contacted the building’s superintendent soon after the outage in October began.
Gulli said he was fearful that the most recent outage would turn into another eight-month ordeal like the one in 2014, and that in both cases management at the building had declined to get specific about why the gas was shut off or when it would return.
Calls and emails to the building’s owner, Atlas Capital Group, went unreturned. During the 2014 outage the building was owned by Dermot Realty Management, but the on-site manager, Joel Ornstein, remained in charge of the building after it changed hands. Ornstein did not return a request for comment.
Residents, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said during both outages that management provided hot plates to replace their stoves, but in many cases the appliances were in poor working condition. Residents also said notices went up about the cooking gas outages in 2014 and 2015 but details were hard to come by.
“I just got no answers from anyone,” said a resident named Joe who asked that his last name not be published. He’s lived in a rent stabilized apartment at the building since 1989, and noted that renovations of previously rent stabilized units in the building have been ongoing for a number of years.
Gulli estimated there are currently about 40 market rate units in the building. He doesn’t know for sure if the outages or their prolonged nature are related to any attempt to encourage stabilized tenants to move out, but, “I tend to think it is,” he said.
Other residents agreed.
“There’s an overall feeling of harassment, the last time we had a tenants meeting we were videotaped,” said Joe, who noted one of the doormen brought a handheld video recorder and used it at a meeting called by tenants.
Another tenant who helped organize the meeting but did not wish to be identified said management initially refused to let tenants use the building’s lobby for the meeting. Management eventually relented, said the tenant, but as an act of retribution, she believes, videotaped the meeting. That tenant, however, said the bar for proving tenant harassment is high and that market rate units in the building were also affected by both gas outages. Nevertheless, she said she’s urging neighbors to document interactions with management that appear to be unfair.
Public records show that Atlas Capital Group bought the property, which also has an address of 225 West 23rd Street, in August of last year for $72.9 million. Deed documents list Andrew B. Cohen and Jeffrey Goldberger as the principals at Atlas who completed the transaction. Calls and emails to Goldberger went unreturned. Cohen could not be reached for comment.
In response to the complaints, this newspaper reached out to Johnson’s office, which contacted Con Edison on Friday for a status update on the outages at the building. Gulli said he was told by the building’s manager, Ornstein, that due to the recent holidays service requests at Con Edison were backed up and that the soonest service would be returned to the building was next week. By Sunday, however, cooking gas service was mostly restored, though one tenant reported his apartment was still without cooking gas.
Con Edison could not be reached for comment on this story. Tenants who contacted the company said they refused to discuss gas issues in the building with anyone other than management. When Johnson’s office called, however, a status update was provided to the council member’s team and forwarded on to this newspaper.
Con Edison told Johnson’s office that the most recent outage occurred because of a leak in an overhead pipe in the cellar of the building. Details about the 2014 outage could not be obtained.
Johnson’s chief of staff, Erik Bottcher, said Johnson’s office will be holding a meeting with tenants next week, “to take a comprehensive look at all the issues they’re facing and strategize on how to address each one of them,” he said.
These issues include a new construction rider tenants said are attached to lease renewals and appear to indemnify Atlas Capital Group from any liability in connection with past or future renovation work in the building. Gulli, who provided a copy of the rider to the Chelsea News, said he forwarded it on to the NYS Attorney General’s Office for review and doesn’t believe it’s enforceable.
Johnson’s office also said that according to Con Edison, management at 220 West 24th Street made a service request in mid-November, weeks after the Oct. 20 shutoff. The gap between the shutoff and the request for service gave Gulli pause.
“They cut our gas off Oct. 20,” he said. “Why would it take so long to submit the request from building management?”
There’s also the question of whether tenants are entitled to a rent reduction due to the decrease in cooking gas service. Atlas did offer a five percent rent reduction after the 8-month outage in 2014, according to residents, but those same residents believe the reduction did not adequately make up for the loss of cooking gas for two-thirds of a year.
“A five percent reduction in rent hardly cuts it,” said one rent stabilized tenant in an email last week before the cooking gas service was restored. “I checked my food costs and I spent over [three times] what I normally spend when I have gas. This far exceeds my budget.”
The tenant added that despite the outages she renewed her lease because she couldn’t find a comparable studio apartment in Chelsea at the same price without paying a broker’s fee, which she could not afford.
“This has me at my wits end. I feel like I am on the verge of a breakdown,” said the tenant. “Between not having gas and the financial burden it imposes, it’s just too much for me.”
One market rate tenant who left the building due to the gas outage in October said the hot plate she was supplied with was outdated and she was “wary to even plug it in.”
“When I left there was another notice that the gas would be out for at least another 30 days,” said the former tenant. “I called 311 twice and I don’t even know if it did anything.”
The former tenant said she wrote Atlas Capital Group a letter requesting a rent abatement for the decrease in services, “and it was never answered and no abatement was given. I spent a substantial amount of extra money on ordering out or buying ready-made food. Money I didn’t exactly have to spend.”
The tenant who preferred to be called by his first name, Joe, said there’s a feeling in the building that relations between tenants and management will only deteriorate further.
“I certainly have a feeling that this is just the beginning, and things are about to get worse, and all of my neighbors have the same kind of feeling when we get together,” he said.
Officials debate cause of a 150% increase in reported rapes in the neighborhood. This article was first published in the Chelsea News on Nov. 17, 2015.
Crime statistics in Chelsea show a 150 percent rise in reports of rape in the neighborhood, but it’s unclear whether attacks are increasing or if the spike is attributable to more victims coming forward to report the crime.
The NYPD’s 10th Precinct, in a recent weekly statistical analysis, revealed that there have been 10 reported cases of rape in Chelsea through Nov. 1, compared to four reported cases this time last year. Last year there were seven reported cases of rape in total in the 10th Precinct, which covers 14th Street to 43rd Street west of 7th Avenue in the southern half of the precinct and west of 9th Avenue in the northern half.
But without input from the police, who did not return multiple requests for more information, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the rise in reported cases of rape in the neighborhood.
Amy Edelstein, the Staten Island director of community programs for Safe Horizon, an organization that provides crisis recovery services for victims of violence, including sexual assault and rape victims, attributes the spike to a positive change in the reporting process for rape victims.
“It doesn’t seem to be that sexual assault is happening at a greater number,” said Edelstein. “There are lots of factors that can cause those numbers to go up.”
Those factors include an improved response protocol from the NYPD in which members of the department’s special victims squad, who are trained to work with sexual assault and rape victims, are on call 24 hours a day to respond to reports of sex crimes.
Mary Haviland, the executive director of the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault, isn’t sure what to make of the increased reports of sexual assault in Chelsea.
“It’s so hard to tell whether it’s reporting or attacks [that are increasing],” she said. “We’ve been pushing reporting for the last few years and there’s been a lot of coverage of sexual assault and I think it’s less shameful and I hope a little less dangerous to come forward, in terms of your reputation or the possibility of being re-traumatized.”
Haviland said she checked with officials at the Lenox Hill Healthplex, on 7th Avenue and West 13th Street, and was told they’ve seen an increase in rape victims during the month of November.
“They have noticed an uptick in [rape] cases. They usually get one a month or so and in the last few weeks they got four,” said Haviland.
The Lenox Hill Healthplex, which provides services for sexual assault victims through their rape crisis center, could not be reached directly for comment by press time.
Haviland said she’s in regular contact with the head of the NYPD’s special victims division, “and he’s of the opinion that a lot of this is an increase in reporting rather than an increase in incidents. And the [NYPD] is making a significant effort to try to increase the reporting and to make sure they’re charging people accurately.”
The NYPD on Monday announced the arrest of a serial sexual predator operating on the Lower East Side, who allegedly attacked three women in a single day, including the attempted rape of one of the women.
That area of Manhattan seems to be at the epicenter of an even larger spike in reported cases of rape. The 5th Precinct, which covers the neighborhoods of Two Bridges, Chinatown and Little Italy, reported a 200 percent spike in reported cases of rape over the same time last year. According to 5th Precinct statistics there have been nine reported cases compared to three the same time last year.
The man arrested Monday for the sexual assault spree police say occurred on Nov. 12 attacked women on Broome Street and James Street, though none of the crimes police say he committed would be included in the crime statistics report ending Nov. 1.
And the fifth and tenth precincts are hardly alone in showing a rise in reported cases of rape. Three out of the four precincts adjacent to the 10th Precinct in Chelsea are all showing moderate to sharp increases in such reports, anywhere from 30 percent in the Midtown South Precinct, covering the Garment District and Koreatown, to 56 percent in the Midtown North Precinct, which covers the Theater District and the West Side.
With 17 reported rapes through Nov. 1 of this year, the 13th Precinct, which covers Union Square, Gramercy Park and Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, is showing a 55 percent increase over the same time period last year, in which 11 were reported. There were a total of 12 reported rapes in the 13th Precinct last year.
Councilmember Corey Johnson, who represents Chelsea, said it’s important for victims of sexual violence to seek help, and pointed to Safe Horizon’s hotline at 1-800-621-HOPE as well as the Center for Anti-Violence Education, which can be reached at 718-788-1775.
“Rape is a most heinous crime and we must use every tool at our disposal to combat it,” said Johnson. “Our strategies must include education, outreach, empowerment, law enforcement and support services for survivors.”
Edelstein of Safe Horizon said there are several reasons why victims of sexual violence don’t come forward.
“They fear not being believed,” she said. “They may have had a negative experience disclosing the situation to people they know or police in the past.”
Edelstein said victims can also have a fear of being retaliated upon, as the vast majority of rape victims know their attacker, or a fear of being re-traumatized by law enforcement during the reporting process. However, the reporting process, from the hospital or trauma center to law enforcement, has improved along with attitudes towards victims of sexual assault.
“I’d say there’s been a shift in attitudes,” she said, noting especially an increased awareness and acceptance that intimate partner violence exists. “People are becoming more tolerant of hearing about that.”
“But we’re not anywhere near where we should be,” she added. “I think we still see some of the same challenges as to why people aren’t reporting.”