Tenants of two rent-stabilized Brooklyn apartment buildings damaged by fires nearly a year ago are suing their landlords over allegations that the building owners are using the fire as an opportunity to reconfigure the homes, which the residents’ attorneys claim is an effort to kick them out and potentially raise rents.

Lawyers for the Legal Aid Society, who are representing nine tenants across two buildings — one in Williamsburg and another in Sunset Park — say the landlords are illegally making changes to the unit layouts by circumventing the state agency charged with overseeing New York’s rent-regulated housing stock.

While tenants are temporarily living elsewhere or with friends and family, their landlords plan to rearrange rooms inside the apartments and reduce the size of bedrooms and kitchens, said Nell Hirschmann-Levy, the supervising attorney in charge of Legal Aid’s Housing Justice Unit.

“They're submitting plans to do so without authorization from DHCR [Division of Housing and Community Renewal]. And in some cases, they're taking three-bedroom apartments, four-bedroom apartments, and reducing them to one or two,” Hirschmann-Levy said. “And in others, they're moving kitchens and bathrooms around in the apartment, which takes away bedroom space. And the point is they're not allowed to do that.”

State laws governing rent-regulated apartments require landlords to get approval from the DHCR before making “material” changes to the apartments, said Hirschmann-Levy. Instead, she said, the building owners are going to the city’s Department of Buildings for construction approval permits.

It’s a loophole that she said could lead to the displacement of low- to moderate-income tenants.

These proposed changes, Hirschmann-Levy said, are designed to push long-term tenants to leave their rent-regulated apartments, which currently have rents well below the market rate. She said if the alternations no longer meet the families’ needs or if the time it takes to restore the apartment drags out, landlords hope the tenants would move on.

The new layout

The attorney representing the owner of the Williamsburg apartment said the layout changes were necessary.

Nora Ligorano, 66, and her husband, Marshall Reese, 67, along with their neighbors in the four-story building, were forced to temporarily move out of their Williamsburg apartment after a fire broke out in the building next door last Thanksgiving.

The couple — who moved into the first-floor apartment with a backyard more than three decades ago — has been subletting from a friend in Manhattan.

Months after the fire, Ligorano and Reese discovered that their landlord submitted plans with the DOB to move one of the bedrooms to the middle of the apartment and shrink the kitchen.

“The kitchen is going to be a fifth of the size of what our kitchen was,” said Ligorano, a book and paper conservator. “It would service perhaps two college students who want to split the apartment; one lives on one side and one lives on the other. They can use the kitchen and the bathroom in the middle. But we're not that, and we never were.”

Marta Zaloga, an attorney for the owner of the Williamsburg apartment building, told Gothamist that her client did nothing illegal and the proposed layout changes were to bring the four-story building up to code.

“My client was advised by an architect that the building will have to be brought up to code and that the way to do that is to change the layouts due to inadequate light/air,” Zaloga wrote in an email.

In court, Jessica Katzen, an attorney for the DOB, said her agency had not weighed in on the building's code requirements.

“DOB never evaluated the existing layouts to see if those would be back to code,” Katzen said, according to court records. “To be clear, DOB never told property owners that the existing layout did not comply or suggest that they should change the layout.”

In September, Zaloga’s client asked a housing court judge for a 10-month extension to complete the repairs.

In Sunset Park, Leonel Gomez and his family said they were shocked to learn their landlord planned to relocate the kitchen, living room, and primary bedroom inside their two-bedroom apartment.

The limo driver and his wife, Wendy Tejeda, want their apartment restored to the way it was before a fire broke out in the four-story walk-up last November — with the eat-in kitchen next to the living room that had been the center of countless celebrations and gatherings.

Leonel Gomez, a limo driver from Sunset Park, and his wife Wendy Tejeda are among the tenants suing their landlords for changing their apartment layouts following a fire last November.

Instead, the new layout would require the tenants to pass through one of the bedrooms to reach the living room.

“Now I – everyone or anyone that visits the apartment – would have to walk through the kitchen, through my son's room, to the living room,” said Gomez, 46, who has lived there for more than three decades and whose father was the building superintendent.

It’s been nearly a year since the fires and residents do not know when they will be able to return to their apartments.

The landlord of the Sunset Park building has violated a housing court judge’s order to restore the apartment by March 31 and tenants recently filed a contempt motion, asking the judge to jail the landlord and impose a fine.

A lawyer for the owner of the Sunset Park apartment building did not respond to a request for comment.

A simple fix

Currently, there is no system in place for the city's DOB and the state's DHCR to coordinate and prevent unauthorized alterations of rent-regulated apartments, said Hirschmann-Levy.

But if the two agencies team up and require landlords to show that they have the state agency’s approval to modify layouts, that would end the run-around, she said.

“The Department of Buildings knows that, and DHCR knows that, and for some reason, this loophole has been allowed to exist for years where landlords continue to do it,” said Hirschmann-Levy. “This is not new. Both agencies are aware of it and yet they haven't implemented what I see is a pretty simple remedy.”

A spokeswoman for DHCR declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation.

Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the DOB, said obtaining construction permits from the city does not absolve a property owner of his or her responsibility to comply with the regulations of other government agencies.

“We are legally obligated to issue a permit for a construction project when all of the requirements that we are legally allowed to enforce are met,” said Rudansky.

Tenants in the Sunset Park building have also sued the DOB and DHCR. They are asking a State Supreme Court judge to end the city agency’s policy and practice of approving landlords’ plans to modify rent-stabilized apartments without DHCR’s approval and to direct DOB to put new procedures in place to prevent DOB from signing off alteration and construction plans without prior DHCR approval.

Hirschmann-Levy proposes that any time a landlord submits an application to the city’s building department for permits to change the layouts of rent-regulated units, the city should reject the application unless the landlord attaches an order from DHCR authorizing the changes.

“It’s such an easy fix,” she said. “There shouldn't have to be this level of advocacy to try and get two agencies to coordinate. They should be doing it because it will help enforce New York City's laws. And if they don't do it, then DOB is kind of being used and enabling landlords to break the laws.