An East Village landlord who tenants say has put them through hell agreed to a judge's timeline to correct hazardous conditions and pay thousands of dollars in fines in housing court Thursday.
Landlord Lionel Nazarian has spent months gut-renovating empty apartments at 192-4 First Avenue while allegedly sending remaining tenants threatening emails. Tenants say Nazarian has also been deliberately cutting off utilities, pestering them with buyout offers, and turning their building into a chaotic, illegal construction zone: all part of an apparent campaign to force them out and bring in market rate tenants.
Nazarian now has 75 days to restore gas, which has been out in half of the apartments since June. Other issues include a broken intercom system, and a sagging floor on the fourth floor. Work has also continued on one side of the building, tenants say, despite a stop work order issued by the Department of Buildings.
Housing Court Judge Peter Wendt made the consent judgment Thursday, in a case brought against Nazarian by NYC Housing Preservation and Development. He will pay $5,000 immediately and $48,000 if repairs are not made within 75 days.
One of his tenants, 95-year-old Jean, lives alone (she asked that we withhold her last name out of concerns about possible retaliation). Jean was injured last fall after a portion of her ceiling collapsed amid repair work in neighboring apartments.
"For Jean this means she will be able to cook her own meals again," said tenant Susanne Adrian, who lives in the building with her husband and 11-year-old son. "Today proves that landlords' strategies of 'divide and conquer' don't work, and that landlords are on notice."
Attorney Patrick Tyrell, who is representing the tenants in a separate lawsuit, said he detected a "shift" in Nazarian's attorneys on Thursday, a day after Gothamist published a story on the tenants' plight. He's hopeful that the judge's ruling on the HPD case will compel the landlord to act, though only time will tell.
"Their attorneys were well aware of the story that came out, and I think... that their clients [have] got to understand now that this is a matter of really serious public interest," Tyrrell said. "This is part of a pattern not only across the East Village but every borough. Whatever tactics they are trying to use to intimidate and harass low-income tenants, they just gotta know, people pay attention to this and care deeply about these stories."
Still, Tyrrell described his efforts in court as "damage control" after months of dangerous conditions. Nazarian has already managed to replace some regulated tenants in the building with higher-paying renters, after all.
"We're in the aftermath for the most part, and these companies move so quickly, that's a big part of it," he said. "And even if [tenants] know their rights, they don't have the time or resources to enforce them. City and State enforcement is so crucial here."
Tenant harassment as business model is a major issue in the East Village and beyond, according to housing advocates. The umbrella term is predatory equity, according to Stabilizing NYC, a coalition of grassroots groups fighting the problem city-wide. They have four criteria, but a landlord need only meet one: high tenant turnover, complaints of harassment, poor building conditions, and a high debt-to-income ratio.
"There's not many small-time landlords anymore," Urban Justice Center Stabilizing NYC coordinator Jackie Del Valle explained recently. "It's all part of a bigger market system. There's no understanding that these are people's homes, and housing should be for people and not for profit."
Attorneys for Nazarian declined to comment to Gothamist in court on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Clifford Michel.