With Politicians In Tow, Tenants Protest Conditions at 515 East Fifth Street

515 East 5th StreetLiv Bulli

Sheltered under a canopy of umbrellas and flanked by Councilwoman Rosie Mendez and Senator Daniel Squadron, three tenants gathered outside their East Village tenement this morning to object to what they said was mismanagement of the building.

The tenants of 515 East Fifth Street complained about noise from overcrowding and filth from constant construction, and are particularly concerned about a rooftop addition that the Board of Standards and Appeals deemed illegal in Nov. 2008. Since 2006, 198 complaints have been filed about the address with the Department of Buildings.

“What will it take for the Department of Buildings to follow the law and ensure the landlord has to comply?” asked Harvey Epstein, an attorney with the Urban Justice Center.

The department now holds discretionary powers to force evacuation and demolition of the add-on, but tenants are still holding their breath. “We have litigated these issues and we’ve won,” Mr. Epstein said.

He admitted, “We can’t make them do it – it’s their right to do it,” but said compliance would be in the best interest of the community.

Marvin Mitzner, an attorney for 515 East 5TH Street Associates LLC, which owns the building and counts Benjamin Shaoul as an investor, said in a statement that the owner had spent “vast sums” in order to install new sprinklers, smoke detectors, and fire passages: “The construction of the enlargement to the building, which the protesters complain about, allowed the D.O.B. to impose the additional fire safety requirements and resulted in a substantially safer building. Any suggestion that the building is unsafe is baseless.”

The statement went on to say that the one-and-a-half-story addition to the building was “hardly noticeable” from the street, and pointed out that the owner had also installed new electrical and heating systems, among other renovations.

Only four of the original 10 tenants in rent-stabilized apartments are still living in the building today. Some claimed the owner was trying to squeeze them out by making living conditions in the building unbearable.

Joseph P. Lubaszka has lived in the building since 1995 and said the problems started soon after new management took over in 2005. “They started tearing everything out and all they sent us were notices of eviction,” he said. “That’s when we banded together and got a lawyer.”

Mr. Lubaskza said construction of the addition above him had caused several leaks and “constant dirt, dust and debris” flowing from the hallway into his apartment. He said his landlord had offered to buy him out on several occasions, be he wanted to remain in his home.

Mr. Mitzner said during a phone call that he was not aware of any eviction notices or buyout offers. In the statement, he said that the owner had made no attempt to push out rent-stabilized tenants and had no intention of doing so. “Only three of the 30-plus tenants in the building seem to have complaints,” the statement read.

Mr. Lubaszka said he was disappointed with the Department of Buildings, who “are not doing what they should be doing – forcing them to vacate those apartments.”

Both Councilwoman Rosie Mendez and Senator Daniel Squadron made an appearance at the small protest. “It’s very simple,” said Mr. Squadron, “whether you are in school, at a job or you own a building, you have got to follow the rules.”

“The issue that the tenants face here, of illegal construction, is dangerous to their life, health and safety,” said Mr. Epstein. “We want this landlord, and all landlords, to hear from this neighborhood, they can’t just and stomp over the laws and ignore what their obligations are.”

Mr. Mitzner said that his client would be submitting a new application to the Board of Standards and Appeals in hopes of getting the board’s support for the fire upgrades.