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Apartment Building Had Nearly 3,000 Times Legal Lead Limit, Report Says

By Lisha Arino | October 23, 2014 7:45am
 Tenants of 102 Norfolk St. have complained about noisy construction and a lack of communication from their landlord, among other issues.
Conditions at 102 Norfolk St.
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LOWER EAST SIDE — Dust kicked up by demolition in a Norfolk Street apartment building contained lead levels that were more than 2,700 times the safe limit, according to an April inspection that the landlord tried to stymie.

Dust samples collected from the staircases and hallways of 102 Norfolk St. were far above EPA guidelines, according to a study conducted by the Health Department.

The building has also racked up 34 violations for offenses like peeling lead-based paint, blocked fire escapes and broken or defective plastered surfaces, according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development website. All the violations are open.

On April 22, the stairs from the fifth to sixth floors were found to be covered in dust that had 110,000 micrograms of lead per square foot — 2,750 times the 40 microgram limit, the report found.

The stairs from the first to second floors had 40,000 micrograms per square foot — 1,000 times the legal limit, according to the report. 

The dust was kicked into the air during ongoing renovations to the "neglected" 24-unit building, tenants said. The new landlord, SMA Equities, plans to rent out the vacant apartments once the work is complete, and rent-stabilized tenants say he is trying to force them out.

“When [the landlord] first came, there was dust everywhere. There was dust throughout the hallways and there was dust underneath the doors,” said Jeff Caltabiano, a rent-stabilized tenant who has lived in the building for 10 years.

The inspection almost didn't happen, according to the report.

A security guard refused to let the inspector into the building when he arrived to respond to a complaint about unsafe work practices, according to the report.

The inspector called several phone numbers and left messages with the landlord, but only gained entry after the NYPD's 7th Precinct agreed to send officers to accompany him, according to the report. 

Halfway through the inspection, the building manager, Omer Zwickel, confronted the inspector, according to the report.

“[Zwickel] threatened to take a legal action against the [health department] for trespassing on his property,” the inspector wrote.

The building manager later agreed to follow the inspector's instruction for cleanup of the dust and debris in the building's common areas, documents show. The report also said Zwickel agreed to allow access for a follow-up inspection without the police.

Another inspection in June showed that most of the building’s lead levels were still above legal limits, but were far lower. Out of 17 samples collected, nine had levels ranging from twice to 18 times the legal limit, according to the report.

Residents had been concerned about the dust and the potential lead exposure in the building, Caltabiano said, but they only found out about the lead concentration levels after they submitted a Freedom of Information request with the Health Department and received a copy of the report in August.

“No one had ever shared anything with us,” Caltabiano said.

SMA Equities acquired the building in March this year, said Samy Mahfar, one of the company’s partners. Since then, the company has been busy repairing and updating the building, which sat neglected for years, he said.

The company had hired a security guard to make sure that only residents, their guests and construction workers had access to the building, Mahfar said. He said the guard let the inspector into the building once he was given proper identification.

Mahfar also said the lead concentration levels were “not an ongoing issue” and that the testing had occurred during a demolition in the building.

“That was only one day and then this was all cleaned up,” he said.

Mahfar said he did not receive the inspections’ results from the Health Department, even though the June report indicates that a notice had been sent to the landlord. He first saw the findings during a September meeting with tenants, he said. 

The Health Department did not immediately return requests for comment.