LONGWOOD — A landlord has won the first round in an effort to legalize a building that the city leases from him and uses as a homeless shelter, even though missing permits make it illegal to occupy the site and tenants complain of roaches, rodents and leaks.
The City Planning Commission last week approved a special-permit request by the owner, Liska NY, Inc., to allow the building at 731 Southern Blvd. to remain eight stories tall in an area zoned for six-story buildings. The owner needs the permit in order to obtain a city certificate that would allow tenants to legally reside there.
The permit approval came despite forceful objections by Bronx officials and residents who call the building’s living conditions “deplorable” and say the owner intentionally added more floors than he was allowed to maximize the number of lucrative shelter units.
The owner “gambled that he would be able to overbuild, profit from switching to a shelter and then rectify the situation if the ruse was made public,” wrote Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. in a report urging the planning commission not to grant Liska’s request.
“The precedent that would be set is dangerous,” Diaz added in his recommendation, which ultimately failed to sway the commission.
At a commission hearing on June 19, Liska’s head, Julius Ausch, blamed the “overbuilding” on an architect’s error and noted that building inspectors, due to an oversight, had approved the plans.
Richard Lobel, a lawyer representing Liska on its special-permit application, added in an interview that any code violations at the building are “non-substantive,” are being addressed and present no “potential harm to the well-being of residents.”
The building site was originally permitted to allow 32 residential apartments, but the plans were switched during construction to include 57 homeless-shelter units, according to the borough president’s report.
When the building was completed in 2009, the city Department of Buildings mistakenly issued it a temporary certificate of occupancy, even though it had been built larger than the local zoning allowed. It began operating as a homeless-family shelter that year.
Having since caught its mistake, the DOB has refused to renew that building’s certificate, which expired in 2012. Still, the shelter continues to operate there.
The department also declined to renew the occupancy certificate of another nearby Liska building, at 1073 Hall Pl., which the city also leases as a homeless shelter, even though it has gone without a valid certificate since 2008.
Liska has been fined $24,600 to date for allowing those buildings to be occupied without the necessary certificates.
The special permit Liska is seeking would legalize the size of 731 Southern Blvd., though it would still need to remove two seventh-floor units to meet setback requirements.
Since the planning commission approved the request on Aug. 21, it now goes before the city council, which has roughly two months to vote on it.
If Liska does not obtain the special permit, it will have to remove the building’s top two floors in order to adhere to zoning rules.
The local community board has vigorously opposed Liska’s request, saying that the owner did not share his plans for the building until he needed the special permit and that site visits have revealed unsafe conditions.
“We found that the building is deplorable,” said CB2 chairman Ian Amritt. “Living conditions are an absolute mess.”
He and other board members who toured the building reported finding dead rats, roaches, leaking roofs, missing window guards and towels under some doors, which tenants explained were to keep out mice.
Amritt, who is executive director of Unitas, a local mental-health agency, said that after visiting two client families in the shelter, he quickly requested that they be transferred.
The board also faults the city for lax oversight, both of the zoning violations and the shelter conditions.
“Who plays the role of oversight to make sure these units are maintained?” asked the board’s housing-committee chair, Joyce Campbell-Culler. “Nobody cares about these poor families.”
A Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman would only comment on the record about the zoning situation, not the building conditions.
“Homeless Services is being kept abreast of the building owners’ progress in securing the necessary building permits,” said the spokeswoman, Heather Janik.
Several shelter tenants described poor living conditions in interviews on Wednesday, though many would not share their full names out of fear of retaliation for speaking to the press.
They complained about insects, cracks, leaks, mold, limited hot water, an unreliable elevator, a rule against using the stairs and, most commonly, mice.
“When my kids sit on the floor to play with their toys,” said a mother of three, “there are mice playing right next to them.”
Kevin Sanford, 49, who lives at the shelter with his 12-year-old son, said the building’s living conditions leave him feeling unsafe and hopeless.
“They’re just warehousing us here,” he said. “We’re forgotten people.”