Villager: Croman even worse from behind bars: Tenants

Steve Croman, one of the city’s most notorious bad landlords, may be locked up Downtown in the Tombs, but his tenants are still suffering. Tenants at 141 Ridge St., for example, have been living without cooking gas since last September.

“We ask, when will there be a stop to Croman’s behavior?” Silvana Jakich, a representative of the 141 Ridge St. Tenants Association, said at a rally for Croman tenants last Thursday. Jakich has lived in the Lower East Side building since 2003. Since Croman bought it in 2012, she and other tenants have dealt with apartment woes from no heat and hot water to no cooking gas.

During the rally, tenant organizer Brandon Kielbasa, of the Cooper Square Committee, left, hung a protest banner off of 141 Ridge St., where tenants have been without cooking gas since last fall. Photos by Sydney Pereira

Last October, Croman was sentenced to a year in jail for fraudulently refinancing loans and tax fraud. But, as he has been for years, he is also accused of harassing rent-regulated tenants out of their apartments through dangerous construction and gut renovations, among other practices. When rent-regulated tenants move out, the units can often be filled with market-rate tenants paying much higher rents. That type of construction and apartment gutting — often illegal — is what has left 141 Ridge St. tenants without gas for nearly nine months now.

“We have been working diligently to restore cooking gas at 141 Ridge St.,” said a spokesperson for Croman’s 9300 Realty. “The gas service cannot legally be restored without approval from both city officials and the utility companies. Due to circumstances out of our control, we have not yet been granted the necessary permits and approvals following our requests. We have already taken steps to address this issue and will continue to request the permits and approvals that are legally required in order to restore gas service.”

The company said it is waiting for approval from the city’s Department of Buildings and Con Edison. D.O.B., however, said no permit application applicable to restoring gas has been filed for 141 Ridge St., according to department records.

Croman’s company could apply for two different kinds of permits through a licensed plumber to restore the gas — a limited alteration application or an emergency work notice. The latter could have helped to restore gas in the building sooner, a department spokesperson said. Neither type of permit application was filed, though. Croman’s 9300 Realty did not respond to further questions about whether the owners have hired a licensed plumber to file an application with D.O.B.

But ever since Croman has been locked up at the Manhattan Detention Complex, tenants say he has only become more aggressive. The 141 Ridge St. tenants sued to move repairs along more quickly, and went on a rent strike. Croman responded by taking them to court for nonpayment.

“Croman has been a name that I have known right away,” Councilmember Carlina Rivera said at the rally. “It is synonymous with harassment, illegal activity and exploitation.”

Residents around the corner at 159 Stanton St. rallied with the Ridge St. tenants on May 17 in solidarity, alongside members of the Cooper Square Committee and other housing advocacy groups. The Stanton St. tenants also preemptively demanded that future construction at their building be conducted in legally and conscientiously.

Previous construction caused extensive problems at 159 Stanton, according to tenants. After Croman bought the building in 2013, unsafe construction and demolition began almost immediately, they said.

“We just want to be treated with normal human dignity,” said Kit Brauer, who has lived on the fifth floor at 159 Stanton St. for about eight years. “I don’t want to live in a construction zone.”

Brauer said the construction was so dangerous the Red Cross had to help a man on the second floor out of his apartment. There have been break-ins due to a broken front door, shoddy upkeep of the building, a lack of fireproofing, closed fire exists, and construction that caused ceilings and lights to collapse, the Stanton tenants said. During months of construction, the door to the roof was left open, which caused rainwater to flood the fifth floor, Brauer said.

“It would rage like the Mississippi,” he said.

Stanton tenants settled in the courts with Croman, but they expect construction to begin again. Currently, 10 units in the building are filled — all rent-regulated. Nine more units are still empty.

Assemblymember Epstein — with tenant leader Silvana Jakich, left — led the rally participants from one troubled Croman building, 141 Ridge St., to another right around the corner, 159 Stanton St.

“We worry that tenants will face worse conditions after [Croman’s] release and urge the attorney general’s office to enforce the Croman agreement as strictly as possible,” the 159 Stanton St. Tenants Association said in a statement. Former state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a consent decree last December that requires Croman to pay $8 million back to tenants, have an independent management company manage his properties for five years, and submit to seven years of oversight to ensure that the decree is followed.

But despite the A.G.’s consent decree, Jakich of 141 Ridge St. said management has only become more aggressive while there has been no rent abatement to date.

“All we’re asking is that our gas be restored and a decent and fair [rent] abatement be issued for the time that we’ve gone without being able to cook adequately in our homes,” she said at the rally.

Croman, though, is hardly alone in being accused of pushing out rent-regulated tenants. Other landlords in the Downtown area — notably Ben Shaoul and Jared Kushner — have been condemned for similarly making conditions so unbearable that rent-regulated tenants move out, so that they can jack up the rent once a unit goes empty.

Shaoul, who bought 17 East Village buildings in 2007, admitted that increasing the rents in his buildings was the goal.

“The idea was to increase rents,” Shaoul said in an interview with The New York Times published last week. “That was the business plan. That was the intent. It’s America.”

From left, Councilmember Margaret Chin and Assemblymembers Harvey Epstein and Yuh-Line Niou led chants against Croman.

The Times published a series of articles detailing citywide deregulation last weekend showing that more than 152,000 rent-regulated apartments have been deregulated since 1993 — the year the state Assembly loosened rent laws. More than 70 percent of those units were in Manhattan.

“It’s a shame what’s going on in your building in our neighborhood,” newly elected Assemblymember Harvey Epstein told the rally. “And we all have responsibilities to change this.”

The Assembly passed a package of laws this week aimed at strengthening rent regulation.

“Hopefully, they’ll take them up in the state Senate soon,” Epstein said.

Last year, the City Council passed a dozen laws with the input and assistance from Stand for Tenant Safety advocates. One of those laws, sponsored by Councilmember Margaret Chin, will increase oversight and inspections by D.O.B.

“Now we got the muscle,” Chin said at last week’s rally, referencing the new set of laws. “And the good news is that the city has put in money to hire more inspectors.”

Everyone was barking mad about either a lack of services or dangerous construction in the two Croman buildings.

D.O.B. is hiring more than 70 new inspectors for increased oversight. The law gives the department the authority to audit and inspect one in every four buildings in which at least a quarter of the units are rent-regulated, since those tenants are more often subject to harassment. The aim of the increased inspections is to ferret out landlords who lie on their applications — for which Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and the country’s Middle East adviser, and his company Kushner Companies were outed in March. (The Kushner Companies told The Villager last month that the errors on more than 80 of its construction-permit applications were “unintentional and corrected as soon as found.)

But new laws protecting tenants and beefing up rent regulation aren’t enough, Epstein said.

“It’s not just strengthening the rent laws,” he said after the rally. “It’s how we have a housing crisis in New York, and we have a system that allows the market to drive a conversation, when we don’t have opportunities for a market-based solution.”

More than 20,000 New Yorkers are evicted each year, 43 percent of them from rent-regulated homes, Epstein said.

“The reason they are coming out of those apartments and getting evicted is because the rent is too damn high,” said Epstein, who was inaugurated in the Assembly last Sunday. “They can’t afford it.”