Tenants in two Harlem buildings are joining a lawsuit to stop what they, along with other renters in Brooklyn, say are illegal modifications to their rent-stabilized apartments.

A dozen families were forced to temporarily move out of their apartments last year because the city deemed the buildings unsafe after they racked up nearly 200 violations. But in the months since, the families are learning that their homes are being transformed — a growing practice that threatens to displace long-time tenants, their lawyers say.

“They believe they can chop up a bunch of these apartments and make them smaller,” said Adan Soltren, a supervising attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Housing Justice Unit Group Advocacy in Manhattan.

While awaiting repairs, tenants in the Harlem buildings discovered that their landlord received approvals from the city’s Department of Buildings to make drastic modifications, including reducing the square footage and number of bedrooms from four and five to one and two, which the tenants said would be too small to house all the family members who lived there.

Gale Lee, 62, is among them. She found out her home of the last four decades may be cut up to create two separate units if the lawsuit to halt the landlord from moving forward with the changes is unsuccessful. Her apartment, which rents for more than $700 a month, took up an entire floor of the four-story building.

Gale Lee

Lee's family moved into the building in 1982. She initially shared the eight-room apartment with her mother and three siblings, who each had their own bedroom.

“It's not like these new apartments where you get these little, small things. Everything is awesome size,” Lee said of the apartment.

Through the years, as some family members moved out or passed away, others moved in, including her daughters and grandchildren. Lee says she was happy to be surrounded by family.

“We still lived in our community, you know,” said Lee. “We have family.”

But since Lee and her family were forced to temporarily move to make way for the repairs, their home for the last 41 years could morph into a two-bedroom apartment if the landlord succeeds, which would be too small to house her family.

The Legal Aid Society, which is representing Lee and other families across Manhattan and Brooklyn, says the apartment alternations are part of a growing trend known as “Frankensteining,” a gray area in rent stabilization laws that lets landlords dramatically change or combine units in an effort to drive out longtime tenants and potentially raise rents in apartments that are typically well below the market rate.

The lawsuit – initially started in September by four families in Sunset Park – alleges that city and state officials are aware that landlords are circumventing rent laws, but are not doing anything to stop the illegal practice. The layout changes are on hold while the lawsuit is pending.

Four of the 12 families from the two Harlem buildings joined the lawsuit in January.

The law requires landlords of rent-regulated apartments to get approval from the state’s housing regulators, the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, before making “material” changes to the units, according to the lawsuit. Instead, property owners are bypassing DHCR, which oversees roughly 1 million rent-regulated apartments, and going directly to the city’s Department of Buildings for construction permits to make those changes.

The landlord of the Harlem buildings, West 116th Housing Development Fund Corp., and its management, Shinda Management, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for DHCR declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.

Andrew Rudansky, a spokesperson for the Department of Buildings, said the department is obligated to issue construction permits when all requirements are met.

“Our codes do not give us the legal authority to unilaterally enforce the regulations of DHCR,” Rudansky said. “Property owners should be aware that obtaining DOB approvals for a construction project in New York City does not mean they can ignore the regulations of other government agencies.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which enforces the city’s housing maintenance code, said the agency is working with the buildings’ owner to secure financing to correct the violations and pay for the buildings’ renovations. He said a deal is expected by this fall.

“HPD has a long and ongoing history with these buildings working across many fronts to improve conditions, provide emergency housing to tenants, preserve their affordability, and ultimately put them on a path to physical and financial stability,” said spokesperson William Fowler.

A need for capital infusion, however, does not explain why layout changes to the units are necessary, according to Soltren.

“You get told on a dime you gotta pick up your whole life with perhaps the promise that you'll be able to come back,” Soltren said. “And when you do come back, it's not gonna be the same size and not look anything like what it was that you had before.”

The same is happening to Lee’s neighbor, Binta Diop, 82, who moved into the building with her family in the late 1990s. Before the city forced her to move out last February, Diop was sharing the seven-room apartment with her brothers, her son, her daughter-in-law, and a grandson. The rent was less than $1,100 a month.

Most of Diop’s family members are living separately now, waiting for the landlord to fix the apartment so they can return. But the landlord plans to carve Diop’s seven-room apartment into two one-bedroom units.

“I don't like this, but I don't have a choice,” said Diop.

For 10 months, Diop lived in a homeless shelter, where she said there was no kitchen. Diop, who works selling African jewelry and art, bought food and ate in her room.

In December, Diop finally moved into an apartment in the neighborhood while she waits for repairs to her family home.

“I want to go home,” Diop said.