Ready for School?

By Daniel Fitzsimmons and Logan Hendrix

Universal pre-kindergarten sites across Manhattan have outstanding and serious health violations, according to Health Department data. City Hall maintains that every site is safe for the start of school. This story was published Aug. 19, 2015 in Our Town. 

Next month, 70,000 New York City school kids will show up for their first day of pre-kindergarten, taking advantage of the signature policy initiative of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first term in office.

So far, 1,150 early education centers have been set up to house all of those kids. And last week, de Blasio’s office gave the green light to all of them, saying that any health violations or Department of Building concerns have been resolved.

But data collected from the Department of Health’s own website suggests that not every site is ready to receive children.

In neighborhoods throughout Manhattan, inspection reports reviewed by this newspaper reveal there are still many unresolved and serious health code violations at a half-dozen universal pre-K centers. A spokesman for the mayor’s office said despite what is reflected in the Health Department’s database, the administration stands by its claim that there are zero unresolved health violations in the most serious category at any UPK site.

“They can stay listed on our online site until such time as we’ve complete the procedural paperwork and resolution of that violation,” said de Blasio spokesperson Wiley Norvell. “But regardless of whether they’re listed on the site currently, we’ve confirmed that all the violations have been mitigated on the spot.”

But for parents about to send their 4-year-olds to their first day of school, the fact that several of the schools are still showing up as in violation could be unnerving, despite the city’s reassurances. Indeed, on Aug. 13, the day the mayor’s office announced that all priority violations at universal pre-K centers had been addressed, inspectors were out finding new violations.

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In the most serious category, violations cover conditions that may present an imminent threat to the health and safety of children, and can include infractions for things like failing to maintain constant and competent supervision of children, failing to report alleged child abuse or perform background checks on employees, or failure to properly store flammable liquids or toxic substances, among other serious offenses.

On the Upper West Side, St. Gregory the Great Preschool on West 90th Street was inspected in February and was found to have three public health hazards, which remain open, according to data on Child Care Connect. Two of those serious violations include failure to provide adequate potable water and failure to maintain the building in a safe matter, as well as the presence of pests and hazardous conditions.

In Lower Manhattan, the Hamilton Madison Swing Space on Catherine Street was hit with a public health hazard violation after an inspector observed adulterated food being served on Aug. 13, the same day de Blasio touted his claim that all priority health violations had been addressed. According to the DOH database, that violation remains unresolved.

Another inspection on Aug. 13 found that the Educational Alliance Head Start at P.S. 142 on the Lower East Side had fire extinguishers that were not inspected or maintained, a public health hazard violation that remains open, according to the Child Care Connect database.

Two preschools in the East Village have unresolved public health hazard violations. According to an inspection report from January of St. Brigid Preschool on East 7th Street, the owner or manager of the building failed to maintain its structural integrity. The report also notes the presence of pests, nuisances and hazards, and is equipped with inadequate heat ventilation and lighting.

More recently, the Virginia Day Nursery on East 10th Street underwent an inspection on Aug. 7 that found the school failed to arrange and conduct background checks for required individuals, and failed to re-clear individuals after two years. Both public health hazard violations at St. Brigid and Virginia Day remain unresolved, according to the Child Care Connect database.

In total, this newspaper found eight unresolved health hazard violations in six schools. Three of those violations came from preschools that have contracts with the NYC Administration for Children’s Services to provide subsidized childcare: Virginia Day Nursery in the East Village, the Educational Alliance Head Start at P.S. 142 on the Lower East Side, and Hamilton Madison Swing Space in Lower Manhattan.

In Chelsea, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Preschool on West 52nd Street currently has an open public health hazard violation from an inspection in late-April for failing to maintain the building in a safe manner, failing to maintain the structural integrity of the building, the presence of pests, inadequate heat ventilation and lighting, and the presence of nuisances and hazards at the time of inspection.

The next level of violation, below the public health hazard violation, are deemed “critical,” and require correction within two weeks. These can include everything from child care staff using “unacceptable forms of discipline” to a lack of signage for exits, according to the city’s health code.

At Hamilton Madison Swing Space in Lower Manhattan, for instance, there are currently three unresolved critical violations for things such as a lack of running water or water that exceeded 115 degrees Fahrenheit, a lack of storage areas for children’s outer garments and a lack of signage for points of egress.

At the St. Brigid School in the East Village, one of two unresolved critical violations from an inspection on Aug. 7 was for staff being allowed to perform their duties while unhealthy or incapable.

The least pressing category is a general or minor violation, which covers offenses such as unclean conditions and child care staff caring for children while unhealthy.

When presented with the data, Norvell said in some cases schools contest their violation status, which is maintained on the city’s database until it has been adjudicated. Norvell reinforced the administration’s stance that all priority health violations have been dealt with, and that if any universal pre-K site has an outstanding public health hazard they will be prevented from opening on the first day of school.

But in touting its claim that the most serious of violations have been cleared up three weeks before the school year starts, the mayor’s office urged parents to review their program’s health and safety history, which as of Monday, included many serious violations that appear to be unresolved.

As of Monday, Aug. 17, the eight public health hazard violations mentioned above remain open and require re-inspection, according to the Child Care Connect database. Norvell said in the case of St. Gregory the Great Preschool on the Upper West Side and St. Brigid, the violations have been fully resolved in the field and will be reflected in the database on its next update.

“Even as we’re dealing with adjudicating [the public health hazard violations], and whether they stay on the books or not, the actual hazard that exists on the ground in the center has been corrected,” said Norvell, who also noted that public health hazard violations require on-the-spot mitigation, and schools that fail in this regard are prohibited from opening.

Donna Gabella, the principal of St. Gregory the Great Preschool, confirmed the violations were resolved.

“They have been resolved, yes,” said Gabella. “I know I have been working very closely with the Dept. of Education to address any issues, and that’s been going on all summer.”

Norvell aalso said the language of health code violations often sounds ominous, but is often less so in reality. For instance, when it was found at St. Gregory that “at the time of inspection, it was determined that [an] individual associated with child care service….[was] involved in an act detrimental to health and safety,” in reality, a child care worker left a bottle of cleaning fluid on the counter, according to case notes.

In another example of ominous-sounding violations being less than perilous, Fran Davies, the Associate Superintendent for Communications with the Archdiocese of New York, attributed the public health hazard violation at Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ Preschool in Chelsea to a burned out lightbulb.

“What we’re discussing here at Sacred Heart is basically a light bulb that had burned out in an exit sign that was found in an April general annual [Dept. of Health] inspection,” said Davies. “It has been repaired, and the inspector is now confirming that repair was made within a week if its reporting.”

Norvell also confirmed that the violation at Sacred Heart had been resolved.

An official at Hamilton-Madison House, which is in temporary quarters at 80 Catherine St., said administrators had addressed shortcomings – improper food service being the most serious – cited by the Health Department.

“We sent a corrective action plan sent to the Department of Health immediately,” said Vicki Mehmel, director of facilities, purchasing and contract management with Hamilton-Madison. “We make an effort to correct violations, no matter how small.”

Mehmel said the deficiencies were mostly attributable to the temporary space the program was occupying. The Hamilton-Madison program is moving back to its permanent space, at 60 Catherine, within a few weeks, once gas-line work at its NYCHA facility is complete, she said.

“We corrected every violation that was under our control,” she said.

A person answering the phone at Virginia Day Nursery in the East Village, which city records noted had failed to arrange and conduct criminal background clearance checks for certain required staff, among other violations, said she was not authorized to speak with the media. The person said she would forward a message to a public relations official.

No one answered the phone at the Educational Alliance on Attorney Street.

Norvell said in the cases of Virginia Day Nursery, Hamilton Madison Swing Space and Educational Alliance Head Start at P.S. 142, those violations occurred during inspections immediately prior to or after the mayor’s office announced all priority health violations had been addressed.

“We have inspectors in the field every day continually monitoring sites, and will continue repeated inspections through the first day of school and throughout the year,” said Norvell, who noted at the Aug. 13 press briefing, city officials raised the possibility of health violations being found in the immediate weeks leading up to the start of school. “That’s the nature of enforcement, it’s an ongoing and constant process,” he said. Norvell added that for violations where it was found that background checks had not been completed as required, such as at Virginia Day Nursery, the staff members in question are put on leave until the checks are carried out.

Editor’s Note

This report examined inspection data on the Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Child Care Connect website for private early education centers that were approved for universal pre-K. These reports cover both full- and half-day programs that have received UPK permits from the Dept. of Education. The Dept. of Education is also partnering with 700 public schools to provide space for UPK students, but any health code violations at those sites are not examined here.

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The Flaws in Cooper’s Law

Only two people have had their licenses suspended since a high-profile law aimed at slowing pedestrian-traffic deaths went into effect. This article was originally published June 10 in the West Side Spirit.

Dana Lerner embraces Jonathan Hume, who along with his twin brother Jacob, eulogized their former classmate Cooper Stock at a recent street renaming ceremony. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

Dana Lerner embraces Jonathan Hume, who along with his twin brother Jacob, eulogized their former classmate Cooper Stock at a recent street renaming ceremony. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

Most of Cooper Stock’s friends were able to hold it together during a street renaming ceremony last week at 97th Street and West End Avenue, where the nine-year-old was killed by a reckless cab driver last January. Jacob Hume, age 10, wasn’t one of them.

“Cooper was the kind of person who made you feel good about yourself,” said Hume, a classmate of Cooper’s at the Calhoun School. “It’s devastating. I miss Cooper every day of my life.”

As Hume spoke, Cooper’s mother, Dana Lerner, broke down, choking back sobs. The two embraced after Hume finished, and cried softly together.

“I love what you guys said, it meant so much,” said Lerner, as she hugged the rest of his class, now in fourth grade.

Last week, students at the Calhoun School marched from their building on 81st Street up to Cooper Stock Way to remember their classmate and draw attention to the issue of pedestrian safety. Cooper and his father, Richard Stock, were struck by cabbie Koffi Komlani as they crossed 97th Street with the green light. After Cooper’s death, Komlani was charged with a traffic violation and issued a $500 fine by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office.

In the months following the tragedy, Lerner devoted herself to advocating for pedestrian safety and railing against reckless driving. Her efforts led to the passage of Cooper’s Law, which revokes a cab or livery driver’s license if they are found guilty of committing a traffic violation resulting in the death or critical injury of another person. Under the law, if a driver licensed by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission is issued a violation or summons for an accident where someone is killed or critically injured, their TLC license is immediately suspended pending an investigation. If, during the investigation, the driver is found guilty of the violation or summons, their TLC license is permanently revoked.

The bill was signed into law last June and was part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s slate of pedestrian-friendly Vision Zero laws, which included lowering the citywide speed limit to 25 m.p.h and other measures.

Calhoun School students march in memory of former classmate Cooper Stock, who was killed by a reckless cab driver last January. The students called themselves "Cooper's Troopers" and carried homemade signs highlighting safe driving. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

Calhoun School students march in memory of former classmate Cooper Stock, who was killed by a reckless cab driver last January. The students called themselves “Cooper’s Troopers” and carried homemade signs highlighting safe driving. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

But despite the attention that the issue has received, and the high profile of Cooper’s death, the impact of the law named after him has been disappointing: According to the TLC, in the almost nine months since the law went into effect, only two drivers have had their licenses suspended under Cooper’s Law — and none have been permanently revoked.

Lerner said she was “horrified” to learn that her son’s law had only been used twice, information that came through a Freedom of Information Law request filed by this newspaper.

“The point is there’s too many reckless drivers out there,” said Lerner in an interview. “Cooper’s Law is a way for the TLC to do something about this, and clearly they’re not. Things are falling through the cracks.”

Helen Rosenthal, the New York city councilmember who championed Cooper’s Law, was not aware that the law had been applied so infrequently, and said that, as a result, she is considering tweaks to the legislation.

An analysis of the law reveals two critical weaknesses. One is that in order for it to be triggered, the driver must be issued a summons or violation at the scene of the accident, or retroactively. Out of dozens of NYPD accident reports examined by this paper that were part of the FOIL request, only two TLC licensees were issued summonses or charged with crimes. In one case the charges were dropped.

In the other case, that of livery car driver Joseph Mergile, who was arrested in January for backing over a person shoveling snow on a sidewalk in Brooklyn, Cooper’s Law was applied. His TLC license was suspended and an investigation is underway, in accordance with Cooper’s Law, said the TLC. The victim in that case was listed as critical but not likely to die, according to police reports.

Another driver had his license suspended under Cooper’s Law since it was passed last September, but the details of that incident are unclear as it happened recently and fell outside of the scope of this paper’s records request.

The other weakness is that Cooper’s Law is only applied to accidents where someone is killed or critically injured. In March, a California woman named Rosemarie Mifsud was pinned between two cabs in Times Square, completely dislocating her right knee and shattering her left leg. But because medical professionals at the scene deemed her injuries non-life-threatening and said she was likely to live, Cooper’s Law did not apply.

Dana Lerner moves to unveil Cooper Stock Way at the corner of 97th Street and West End Avenue, where her son was killed last year by a reckless cab driver. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

Dana Lerner moves to unveil Cooper Stock Way at the corner of 97th Street and West End Avenue, where her son was killed last year by a reckless cab driver. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

According to Mifsud, driver Mohamed Gendia initially claimed he didn’t see her, and then later said the accident occurred due to icy conditions at the time.

“At first he said he didn’t see me, that was his first defense,’” Mifsud said. “So that leads me to believe that he was distracted because how could he not see me? I was loading my luggage into the cab and next think I know I was pinned.”

Records indicate Gendia’s TLC license is current. A month and a half after hitting Mifsud, records also show he was hit with a TLC summons for using an electronic communication device while driving.

Mifsud, who has been out of work since March and has at least another six months of recovery, said she has nightmares about the accident every night and said it doesn’t seem right that Gendia is back behind the wheel catching fares, especially given Cooper’s Law.

“Absolutely, I don’t feel that he should be driving. I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through,” she said. “If I was holding a child’s hand that child would have died immediately because of the way I was hit.”

Several incidents examined closely from last September to this April, where it seems Cooper’s Law should have come into play but did not, include cases like the fatal accident of famed CBS correspondent Bob Simon. According to police and news reports, livery car driver Abdul Rashad Fedahi accelerated into a Mercedes that was waiting at a red light in Chelsea, careened into a metal stanchion in the intersection, and killed Simon, who was a passenger in Fedahi’s car. The Manhattan DA’s office declined to comment on whether charges have been brought against Fedahi, but said the case remains open. News reports at the time said Simon was not wearing his seatbelt at the time of the accident.

In April a delivery truck driver for the Daily News named Jonathan Long was killed in Brooklyn when his vehicle was clipped by a green cab whose driver, according to police reports, disobeyed a steady red signal. Police reports indicate driver Tazul Islam was not charged at the scene and the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office said they do not have him listed as a defendant in their system.

The TLC licenses of both Fedahi and Islam were suspended in the wake of the accidents that killed Simon and Long, but because Cooper’s Law does not appear to have come into play, could be reinstated. According to several news reports, Fedahi’s license was suspended at least six times before the crash that killed Simon.

The apparent reticence on behalf of law enforcement to issue summonses or make arrests in accidents that cause critical injuries or fatalities exploits a weakness in the law, said Rosenthal.

“I always felt that the crux of the problem was that Cooper’s Law is dependent on the driver getting a summons, that’s my concern,” said Rosenthal, who expressed a desire that police issue more tickets and arrests at the scene of serious accidents. “That’s the weakness of the law that I would like to see fixed.”

Lerner said it’s fine to tout Cooper’s Law as another tool to keep pedestrians safe, “but what is happening to these drivers? Where are they now? People aren’t even given tickets until afterwards.”

In Cooper’s case, Komlani wasn’t charged with a failure to exercise due caution violation until eight months after the crash and after considerable pressure from pedestrian advocates. Under Cooper’s Law, Lerner wonders, who is following up on whether TLC drivers are charged with traffic violations in these accidents and initiating investigations?

Cooper Stock Way. Photo By Daniel Fitzsimmons.

Cooper Stock Way. Photo By Daniel Fitzsimmons.

“The question is, shouldn’t Cooper’s Law mean that these drivers are no longer allowed to drive in a cab the minute they’re charged?” she said.

Rosenthal requested her own data from the TLC after she was reached for comment on this story, and said that since the law went into effect, TLC licensees have been involved in 34 accidents where a person was killed or critically injured. Of those, two had their licenses suspended as a result of Cooper’s Law, while another six lost their TLC licenses as a result of other laws.

A TLC spokesperson said the two investigations have been initiated under the law since it was put into effect, but “thus far, circumstances have not called for any revocations pursuant to Cooper’s Law.”

Rosenthal said she doesn’t know if Cooper’s Law isn’t being applied in enough cases, but agreed that the critical injury stipulation was another weakness.

“You’re piquing my interest in thinking about a tweak to the law, but Cooper’s Law only takes into account critical injury or death,” said Rosenthal, who noted her office would be looking into reexamining portions of the law given recent findings.

While Lerner doesn’t fault Rosenthal for the way the law is written, she said revelations about its use are evidence of systemic dysfunction in enforcement.

“You’ve got all these different agencies, and one of them is assuming the other one is supposed to do something, and no one’s doing it,” said Lerner. “I don’t have a bone to pick with Helen [Rosenthal] about this. I think her heart was in the right place, all of our hearts were in the right place. I think you can’t for one minute believe that the system is going to take care of the victims, and that’s my whole point.”

But the limitations of Cooper’s Law had no effect on his friends and supporters, who marched last week with homemade signs and fond memories to the street corner now bearing his name.

“Goodbye, my friend,” said one classmate, as 10 blue and orange balloons floated on the air above West End Avenue, one for every year of Cooper’s life, if he were still alive.

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Dozens At Funeral For Blast Victim

Different communities come together in face of tragedy. This story was published in the West Side Spirit April 28, 2015. 

On occasion, an event binds the city’s seemingly disparate communities, a reminder that for all its enormity, New York has an uncanny ability to connect people, whether in triumph or tragedy.

Nixon Figueroa, an East Harlem resident who works at a building on the Upper West Side, welcomed that collective embrace recently, when dozens of the building’s tenants filled the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus on West 96th Street for his son’s funeral. Nicholas Figueroa, 23, was one of two people killed in the explosion that ripped through a building on Second Avenue in the East Village last month.

“It’s great that we have people like that, that will come out to a tragic event like this,” Nixon Figueroa said outside of 219 West 81st St., where he is a maintenance worker. “The good thing is that they’re caring, they’re open to what happened because they have kids, and then it’s a tragedy because it was my son, and he died over nothing.”

Investigators have said the explosion was caused by an illegally tapped gas line.

Nick Figueroa

Nicholas Figueroa. Photo courtesy of the Figueroa family.

Nicholas Figueroa, 23, was about to graduate from Buffalo State with a degree in forensic psychology and planned to join either the city’s police or fire departments, said his father. He was on a date at Sushi Park on Second Avenue when the explosion occurred March 26. A busboy at the restaurant, Moises Ismael Locón Yac, 26, was also killed in the blast.

Nixon said his son was excited about the date with Theresa Galarza, also 23, who survived the blast. Nixon and his wife, Ana Lanza, dropped Nicholas off at the 96th Street subway stop on Lexington Avenue like they always do.

“I told him, ‘be careful, I love you.’ He told me, “don’t worry about it, dad, I’m strong.’ He said ‘I love you too,’ and he left, and I never saw him again. Just with that, it kills me,” Nixon said of his last words with his son. “At least I said what I said to him.”

Nixon said about 40 tenants from 219 West 81st St. came to Nicholas’ funeral. Nixon’s brother, Marcello Figueroa, who worked as a superintendent in the same building for over 23 years before moving to a nearby building on West End Avenue, said he too appreciated the outpouring of support for his family.

“It’s touching because people I’ve worked with in the past were kind enough to show their feelings and sympathies, and concern for the family, which is important,” Marcello said.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who also attended the funeral, said she did so to be supportive of the community, and because the church is in her former City Council district.

She said she was surprised when other West Siders, friends and neighbors she’s known for years, began filling the pews.

“I sit down in the front and all of a sudden other West Siders, older women, started sitting next to me,” Brewer told The Spirit. “I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”

Brewer said West Siders’ presence at the funeral showed how, particularly in that community, residents rally around one another regardless of circumstance.

“The whole West Side knew the family,” said Brewer. “It was very special to me to see all these different people hugging and supporting each other. It was almost too much, I couldn’t quite believe it all.”

Nixon said his family is broken at losing Nicholas so senselessly.

“It’s heartbreaking for my family, especially my wife. We’re in pain every day. We want him back home but he ain’t going to come back,” said Nixon. “And yes, this has to stop. Hopefully with this event people will open their eyes and start reaching out to their landlords to stop this.”

Last year, a natural gas explosion in an East Harlem residential building, in a neighborhood near the Figueroas’, claimed eight lives. Officials blamed a gas leak for the March 12, 2014, incident.

Nixon said his family keeps Nicholas’ ashes in an urn adorned with an eagle flying over a mountain.

“All I have of my son is three pounds of bone left that they crushed to bring him home in an urn,” Nixon said. “A 155-pound, chiseled, beautiful, good-looking boy – that’s all I have of my son.”

Nicholas was the eldest of four boys, Nixon said.

“My son was the most beautiful thing anyone could have for a child,” he said. “I have three other boys and I have to be strong enough to continue on for them, and especially my wife.”

Nixon said his family visited the site of the East Village explosion on April 22.

“We went to where my son was located, and we made a hole and put some flowers there, and some rocks,” said Nixon. “The next day, Thursday, we put some pictures of him on the panels of plywood that are there so people could remember my son.”

Nicholas Figueroa would have turned 24 on June 10.

“We’re going to go over there with balloons and cake,” Nixon said. “And whoever wants cake, they’re welcome to have some. That’ll be June 10, and we’re just going to take it from there.”

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Questioning A Housing Plan

City officials have started to question a little-known program that gives developers credits for building affordable housing units. This story was published in Our Town on March 31, 2015. 

New questions are being raised about an under-the-radar city plan that lets developers take advantage of an affordable housing program to generate valuable building bonuses.

Developers that apply to the Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development’s inclusionary housing program agree to build a certain number of affordable housing units in a given development project. For every square foot of affordable housing they build, developers receive from 1.25 to 3.5 square feet of “bonus floor area,” a zoning term that essentially translates to air rights – the valuable and versatile real estate commodity that can be kept in pocket and sold or used on a project where a developer wants to build big.

Those rights can then be either used by the developer at a nearby project, or sold off to other developers wanting to expand their own projects.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said the program has grown into a scandal.

“The current inclusionary housing program is deeply flawed, and too often provides developers with massive benefits in exchange for insignificant investments in affordable housing,” she said. “Right now on the Upper East Side, one developer has received roughly $60 million worth of air rights in exchange for constructing just two dozen units of affordable housing – this is a scandal.”

Brewer said the program needs to be fixed at the City Council level, and that with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious affordable housing agenda, now is the time to create sensible programs that benefit the community and contribute to economic diversity in the borough’s housing landscape.

Brewer said nearly 30 Manhattan elected officials joined her in writing a letter to City Hall urging the mayor to include “meaningful reforms” of the inclusionary housing program in the administration’s upcoming proposed zoning changes.

Housing plan

“It’s clear that right now, when the mayor is getting his affordable housing push off the ground, is the right time,” said Brewer.

According to an HPD spokesperson, there have been four off-site inclusionary housing program applications on the Upper East Side so far this year. Last year there were zero applications of this kind, while in 2013 there was one, said the spokesperson.

While the inclusionary housing program technically generates a floor area bonus, they function as air rights because they allow a developer to build on up to 20 percent more floor area than they would normally be allowed to.

“Inclusionary housing building bonuses are essentially transferrable development rights,” said Lonica Smith, a lawyer with Phillips Nizer, LLP who has handled several inclusionary housing program deals. “They’re very similar. What you’re paying for is that same square foot of buildable space.”

The value of these building bonuses depends on where they’re used, but in certain markets, including in pockets of the Upper East Side, they’re trading for around $500 per square foot.

Bob Von Ancken, chairman of Landauer Valuation and Advisory Services, a division of international commercial real estate giant Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, said inclusionary housing programs are one option among several that are attractive to developers for generating more floor area with which to build.

According to Von Ancken, the average sale price for transferrable development rights in Manhattan this year is $303.35 per square foot. But that average is skewed because it takes into account sales in all areas of Manhattan. A recent sale on the Upper East Side at 1st Avenue and East 88th Street went for $495.57 per square foot. The record TDR sale this year went for $503.32 per square foot to a receiving site at East 30th Street and Madison Avenue.

As for the uptick in inclusionary housing program applications on the Upper East Side, Smith said it could be that the 2nd Avenue corridor is becoming more attractive to developers due to the soon-to-be-completed first phase of the 2nd Avenue subway line, which will connect 63rd Street to 96th Street. The neighborhood is also rife with five- and six-story tenement buildings, which are easy to acquire and incorporate into inclusionary housing programs.

Like Brewer, Upper East Side council member Ben Kallos is also concerned that developers are getting far more from these programs than what they’re giving back to the community, especially when the inclusionary housing program is combined with the controversial 421a tax break for developers that build affordable housing.

Kallos said while there’s been outrage over so-called poor doors, where affordable housing tenants have a separate entrance than their market rate counterparts, there should be more outrage over the “poor building.”

“There is very little difference between the poor door and the poor building,” he said.

Kallos believes that the inclusionary housing program and other initiatives designed to spur construction of affordable housing have not delivered on the promises that made possible their existence.

“Regardless of the intent of the original inclusionary housing program, the public approved of it and supported it because of the promise of affordable housing,” said Kallos. “Years later, we have not seen the affordable housing promised. Instead we have super-scrapers blocking out light and air at the expense of affordable housing.”

He’s also sensitive to how vulnerable 2nd Avenue is to development now that the first phase of the long-awaited subway project is wrapping up.

“Because of the 2nd Avenue subway we’re seeing a huge development boom along 2nd Avenue,” said Kallos. “All the rent regulated housing along 2nd Avenue is being warehoused by developers.”

As previously reported in Our Town, Icon Realty Management recently applied to the inclusionary housing program with a proposal to build 11 units of affordable housing on East 78th Street in exchange for 35,000 square feet of bonus building space. Icon is applying the bonus to a 200,000 square foot project on 80th Street and 2nd Avenue.

Extell Development, in a similar off-site inclusionary housing application, wants to build 25 units of affordable housing at 92nd Street and 2nd Avenue in exchange for a whopping 115,000 square foot building bonus. Extell has not yet identified a receiving site for the bonus or indicated whether they’d put all or part of the bonus on the market.

Members of Community Board 8’s housing and zoning committees have previously expressed fear that a development boom along the corridor could further exacerbate challenges faced by small businesses on 2nd Avenue, which have been hampered by major construction operations in connection with the subway project.

Smith said that such a thing is possible.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of smaller mom and pops being pushed out and replaced with luxury condos,” added Smith. Especially on the upper Upper East Side, “there is certainly room for gentrification. There’s a lot of smaller older, buildings.”

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In Columbia Apartments Battle, It’s The Long-Term Renters Who Pay

How hidden cameras and housing court are used by one West Side landlord to force out rent-stabilized tenants. This story was first published Oct. 9, 2014 in the West Side Spirit.

Gloria Mejia’s son took a long look at the smoke detector in the hallway outside his apartment and knew something was amiss.

Smoke detectors run on a battery, he told himself, so why does this one look like it’s plugged into the wall?

He and his sister took the detector apart. Inside: a tiny camera, apparently installed by the family’s landlord.

“The next day the landlord came with a picture of my sister’s face and said if the camera was damaged we’d have to pay to replace it,” he said.

Mejia and her two kids live on W. 109 St. in a five-story apartment building between Broadway and Amsterdam. She’s lived in the building since 1968 and pays $664 for her three bedroom, rent-stabilized apartment.

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Gloria Mejia lives in a rent-stabilized apartment on West 109th Street and says that her landlord has been trying to oust her, claiming that the apartment is not her primary residence. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

The building is owned by the Orbach Group, and is part of a portfolio of 23 buildings on the street that were acquired by the company in 2009 for $45 million. The properties are part of a larger portfolio of more than 70 buildings that Orbach has amassed in the past five years, all of which are located between West End Avenue and Central Park West from 101st Street to 115th Street.

Orbach markets apartments in these buildings through a website called CoSo Apartments, targeted at students at nearby Columbia University (CoSo stands for Columbia South). Many of the existing tenants in the CoSo buildings are in rent-stabilized apartments, and many — like the Mejias — complain that Orbach is pressuring them to leave the units so they can be marketed to Columbia students at market rates.

Mejia told The West Side Spirit that this summer, the landlord refused to renew her lease, and sent her a 30-day vacate notice in July. When she didn’t budge, the landlord used images from the hidden camera as the basis of an eviction suit that was launched against her in housing court. She often leaves the apartment to visit her elderly mother, who lives next door, and if the landlord could convince the court she wasn’t using her rent-stabilized apartment as a primary residence, Mejia could be evicted.

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The video camera that tenants discovered hidden in a hallway smoke detector in one Upper West Side building with rent-stabilized units owned by the Orbach Group.

She hired a lawyer for about $1,500 and the case was dropped, she said. A few weeks later a new lease arrived in the mail. Then in September a man dropped by the apartment and offered to pay her $75,000 to move out. She didn’t bite.

“I’ve been living here in this building since 1968, I got married while I was living here, I raised my kids here, I’m not leaving,” said Mejia, 61.

A months-long investigation by the Spirit has found that of the 1,450 apartment units Orbach has acquired since 2009, which are spread out over 73 buildings on the Upper West Side, 66 percent are rent stabilized. Thirty-two of the properties are entirely or almost entirely rent stabilized; of the 654 units in these 32 buildings, 578 are rent stabilized.


All told, the Orbach Group has 958 rent stabilized units under its control, according to records with the Office of the City Register, Dept. of Finance and the Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development.

Visitors to the CoSo Apartments website immediately see an interactive color-coded map of the Upper West Side and Columbia University, with icons denoting where each of Orbach’s 73 buildings are in relation to the campus. Clicking on a building icon will tell a visitor how far from Columbia University the building is using public transportation or walking.

Luz Garcia pays $872 a month for her Orbach-owned rent stabilized apartment at 120 West 109th Street. She’s lived in the apartment for 23 years and said recently she’s been approached with buyout offers after successfully fending off a non-primary residence suit brought by Orbach, which was dismissed in June.

“I’ve had two calls from the negotiators trying to get me out of my apartment,” said Garcia. “They want me to give them a number and I said I’m not even considering it.”

Negotiators came to her apartment when she wasn’t there, she said, and told her legally blind mother that Garcia owes $11,000 in back rent. Both Mejia and Garcia’s buildings are listed on the CoSo Apartments website but are shown as having “no availability at this time.”

The Orbach Group denied through a spokesperson that the company harasses its rent-stabilized tenants. The spokesperson also denied the CoSo Apartments website specifically caters to Columbia University students – despite its name, its logo that features an open book, its interactive map geared around the university, its brochure that touts the university’s history and CoSo’s shuttle service that runs through Columbia’s campus, and the website’s tagline that says, “Apartments at the heart of your education.”

A screenshot from the CoSo Apartments website shows the buildings with available rental units, in blue. Buildings with all rent-stabilized tenants currently occupying the units are shown as “no availability at this time.”

A screenshot from the CoSo Apartments website shows where Orbach’s buildings are in relation to Columbia University.

He likened the name “CoSo” to more of a moniker that denotes a specific neighborhood, similar to SoHo in Lower Manhattan, which stands for South of Houston Street.

“Virtually every apartment is rented through third party brokers, not through the website,” said the spokesperson. “The brokers neither have special instructions about Columbia students, nor do they care as long as the tenant is qualified and can pay the rent.”

Columbia University did not respond to a request for comment about the CoSo Apartments.

The Garcia case was brought, Orbach said, after she told an employee of the management company used by CoSo Apartments that she lives in Arizona for seven months out of the year. Garcia told the Spirit she left New York for a time due to a domestic violence situation, but always maintained the unit as a primary residence.

Orbach said Garcia’s case was dismissed purely on procedural grounds. A reading of the court’s decision said Garcia submitted “three affirmative defenses and a counterclaim,” and indicated the case was dismissed because Orbach could not ascertain and file in court papers where Garcia was living in Arizona.

As for Mejia, Orbach said there’s still a question of which apartment she uses as her primary residence, and that by law she cannot claim two rent-stabilized units as her primary residence. Mejia told the Spirit her mother has lived in the building since 1968 and her apartment is rent controlled as well as rent stabilized, and that she secured her own rent-stabilized apartment in the building after living with her mother for some years.

The spokesperson said he didn’t know how Mejia became a target for eviction proceedings in the first place, but that Orbach’s management style is “very hands on.”

“When there’s reason to believe that a tenant is violating the law, then they’ll cause an investigation to be made, which can include the use of surveillance videos,” said the spokesperson when asked about the hidden camera facing Mejia’s door. “They have a pretty good sense of who comes and who goes and where people are living, and when their suspicions are aroused they conduct an investigation.”

As for the nine buildings on the CoSo website that are entirely rent stabilized, the spokesperson characterized them as an investment and said the annual turnover rate for rental housing in New York is around 10 percent.

CoSo Apartments logo and tagline.

The CoSo Apartments logo and tagline.

However, according to the most recent Housing and Vacancy Survey commissioned three years ago by the Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development, the city’s “vacancy rate for rent stabilized units as a whole was 2.63 in 2011.”As for how suspicions are initially aroused and how these investigations are carried out, the spokesperson said, “there are various public databases, [Orbach] will interview the building staff, it’ll depend on what the circumstances of the particular case are. But in every instance before they go to court [Orbach] sends a tenant a notice that they have these concerns, and if the tenant isn’t able to satisfy them, then it’s up to the courts to sort it out.”

That same report noted that the city has about 987,000 rent stabilized units, and that the overall citywide rental vacancy rate is less than five percent, which meets the legal definition of a housing emergency “as defined by New York State and City rent-regulation laws, requiring a continuation of both rent control and rent stabilization in the city.”

The Orbach Group, which holds property in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, first garnered attention for alleged tenant harassment four years ago in a New York Times article about investors that acquire distressed properties. The article from August 2010 quotes a tenant activist at Housing Conservation Coordinators as saying Orbach engages in vacancy decontrol, a process whereby a landlord raises rent on a stabilized unit to the point where it exits rent stabilization, and that the company is part of a wave of predatory investors that buy buildings and seek to evict certain tenants at the expense of affordable housing. The Times article said city officials, including then-city council speaker Christine Quinn, were “keeping an eye on Mr. Orbach’s buildings.”

The hidden camera outside Gloria Mejia's door that monitors her comings and goings. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

The hidden camera outside Gloria Mejia’s door that monitors her comings and goings. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

The Orbach Group first arrived on Marti Weithman’s radar in 2009, soon after the company acquired the 23 buildings on West 109th Street.

Weithman is the president of the Goddard Riverside SRO Law Project, an organization that provides free legal support in housing court to low-income tenants on Manhattan’s West Side. The organization represented Garcia in her eviction case that was dismissed.

“As soon as they bought the buildings on 109th Street, tenants started coming into our office about a ‘private investigator’ who was coming around, snooping into their apartments, muscling his way into their apartments, and trying to gather information,” said Weithman. “That eventually become the basis for many [eviction cases].”

Weithman is referring to a man named Anthony Falconite, who was the target of a cease and desist order this past summer from State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who said the ex-cop forces his way into rent stabilized apartments to gather information and threatens tenants with eviction through harassment and intimidation.

That story broke in the Daily News, and Mejia said she recognized Falconite from pictures in the paper as the man who offered her $75,000 to vacate the apartment soon after Orbach renewed her lease.

Falconite could not be reached for comment.

“Falconite doesn’t work for the company and hasn’t for some time,” said the Orbach Group’s spokesperson. He later said in an email that Falconite actually worked for a management subcontractor used by CoSo Apartments, and that he left that company 18 months ago.

As for why Orbach stopped employing Falconite, the spokesperson said, “They just agreed to part company.”

The spokesperson maintained that Orbach and its CoSo Apartments subsidiary is a conscientious landlord to all of its tenants.

“Orbach has cleared thousands of violations from the [CoSo portfolio]; crime in and around the buildings has dropped dramatically,” said the spokesperson. “Many, if not most, of the buildings have zero violations on them, and there has not been one adjudicated case of harassment.”

An Orbach-owned building on the Upper West Side. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

An Orbach-owned building on the Upper West Side. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

But Weithman estimates since 2009 the SRO Law Project has been in contact with more than 200 rent-stabilized tenants that have alleged harassment at the hands of Orbach.

“The harassment and deterioration of conditions that we hear about from long-term rent stabilized tenants living in buildings owned by Orbach are common tactics of predatory equity investors,” said Weithman. “Predatory investors purchase building portfolios with a business plan to evict rent stabilized tenants and use vacancy decontrol to remove the units from rent regulation.”

Weithman said for every tenant experiencing harassment that reaches out to her organization and others like it, there are those who lack the knowledge or wherewithal to tap into resources designed to help them stay in their homes. These people, she said, simply take buyouts or succumb to other forms of pressure to leave their rent stabilized apartments.

“We do our best to do outreach in the buildings so that tenants not only know what their rights are but know that our office is here to help them and assist them with their housing issues,” said Weithman. “But throughout the city, people fall through the cracks.”

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