Tenants battle Kushner over homes and garden amid a renovation hell | East Villager & Lower East Sider

Tenants battle Kushner over homes and garden amid a renovation hell

The backyard garden, created by tenants, at 170-174 E. Second St. At left is Mary Ann Siwek and at right is fellow tenant Mark Fritsche. The buildings’ new owner previously tried to demolish the garden, and plans are on file to expand the buildings into the open space.  Photo by Zach Williams

The backyard garden, created by tenants, at 170-174 E. Second St. At left is Mary Ann Siwek and at right is fellow tenant Mark Fritsche. The buildings’ new owner previously tried to demolish the garden, and plans are on file to expand the buildings into the open space. Photo by Zach Williams

BY ZACH WILLIAMS  | backyard garden on E. Second St. between Avenues A and B doesn’t look like a place that would be the center of conflict, but it was there that a landlord-tenant dispute quickly escalated in April.

A new building manager announced on April 8 that repairs to a retaining wall required the demolition of the garden, which is where residents of 170-174 E. Second St. go to unwind and also hold their tenant association meetings.

Ever since Jared Kushner — son-in-law of Donald Trump and owner of about 15,000 residential units nationwide — purchased the E. Second St. buildings at the beginning of this year, the tenants had been on edge. Kushner representatives quickly offered six-figure buyout offers, followed by a pattern of harassment defined by long periods of silence from building management interrupted by sudden and intimidating developments, tenants say.

“This is where the turning point was,” said Cypress Dubin, a 10-year resident of the building, during an interview held July 14 in the garden. Dubin constructed the garden five years ago with the help of other tenants.

They fought back by asserting to the New York State Homes and Community Renewal agency that the garden was a protected building amenity, and that the dilapidated retaining wall cited as a Class C building violation was located elsewhere.

Management stepped back from touching the garden. But, within days, they also served Dubin with legal notice, claiming she was illegally occupying her studio apartment and owed the company thousands of dollars in back rent, plus attorney fees.

Legal actions by tenants and the landlord followed during subsequent months, with three tenants still considered illegal occupants by building management and 64 building violations issued by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development — 40 of them since March 1.

Conflicting claims focused on the rent-stabilization status of apartments and whether the ownership / management company, Village K2, had adequately addressed building repairs and complaints about ongoing renovation work. The renovations, they said, were exposing the remaining in-place tenants to construction dust, in addition to causing noise, damage to walls, utility shutdowns and other inconveniences.

Meanwhile, following months of wrangling — and as the construction work still continued — Mary Ann Siwek finally received a new lease on the apartment she has occupied for three decades.

“There was so much powder and dust,” she said. “I was coughing. I had itching. I suffer from depression also. I increased my medication. I was losing it, just losing it. It was insane… . There was nobody to ask.”

Kushner representatives told The Villager that the cold winter, the previous landlord and the Department of Buildings permit process all created problems in addressing many tenant concerns. Ever since Kushner bought the buildings, they said, efforts have been underway to perform “electric system upgrades, new heating and hot water systems, plumbing repair and replacement, roof work, pointing, sidewalk repairs, refurbishing common areas, hallways and lighting systems, and new intercoms and mailboxes.”

However, the “illegal” tenants will not let management enter their apartments. A repairman, though, eventually did manage to visit Fred Kaplan, a resident of 174 E. Second St. who also is seeking a new rent-regulated lease, on July 14 to fulfill a long-requested floor repair.

“We have a very strong track record of being responsive landlords in our other residential properties across the city,” Matthew Gorton, a Village K2 spokesperson, said in a statement. “And we will provide the same high level of engagement and communication to address our residents needs in these buildings, despite attempts by a handful of illegal tenants to sabotage our efforts for their own personal gain.”

These tenants are holding out in hopes of receiving larger monetary settlements before vacating their apartments, Gorton added.

Some of the ambiguity on the apartments’ rent-stabilization status results from the previous owner’s casually shifting tenants around within the buildings, while also maintaining inaccurate rental histories, tenants said.

Building residents point to the experience of Mark Fritsche, the tenant association president, as an example of how the shoddy rental records were fraudulently used to make the case for deregulation. Ultimately, Fritsche received a rent-stabilized lease after he proved the records had inaccurately recorded an apartment vacancy in 2007 — even though he resided there then.

Dubin admitted that, in previous years, she didn’t fully understand the legal requirements for deregulation — namely, that a unit can be deregulated following a vacancy, if the rent is exceeds $2,500 — which is far above the $1,425 she had been paying.

“I didn’t know what to look for,” she said. “I had a good relationship with them. The rent increases were reasonable.”

In mid-April, the tenants association began seeking allies in their ongoing battle, including the Cooper Square Committee, Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Margaret Chin and Community Board 3. By then, about two-thirds of the tenants in the two buildings had left.

For months, the tenants tried to get their grievances on the agenda of the C.B. 3 Land Use Committee. Finally, the committee heard the tenants at its July 9 meeting, and, in the end, voted to write a letter in support of their cause.

“There are dozens of other cases like this going on in the Lower East Side each year,” said Brendan Kielbasa, lead organizer for the Cooper Square Committee. “With the most aggressive, speculative landlords, we see a pattern of acquisition, renovation, management — or lack thereof… . We’ve seen that 170-174 E. Second St. fits that pattern.”

Whether the city’s Housing Court ultimately rules that the tenants should receive new rent-stabilized leases won’t be decided for weeks, at the earliest. Any type of cash settlement would have to be large enough to secure new housing of a comparable quality and cost, said Dubin, who has spent thousands of dollars of her own to retain an attorney.

She added that, even with a six-figure buyout, finding an apartment with a garden — where residents could gather for any occasion, and in which she could hold her private yoga classes — would be a tall order.

Building management, meanwhile, has yet to say what will happen with the garden at 170-174 E. Second St.

“A final decision has not yet been made with respect to the backyard,” Gorton said, “but access may be interrupted during reconstruction of the retaining wall.”

Plans on file, however, call for the building eventually to be expanded into the backyard. Gorton did not respond by press time as to whether that will, in fact, occur.

For her part, Dubin warned that anyone considering settling with a landlord to vacate a rent-regulated apartment in the expensive East Village should first consider the overall costs of such a decision. Sure, the sum of cash initially appears a bit dazzling, but the rent at the next place will no doubt be higher.

“When you really break down how much more a month you have to pay,” she said, “there’s really no way for people to move and survive.”