BROOKLYN — A Crown Heights landlord who left tenants without heat in the winter and exposed kids as young as 6 to toxic amounts of lead dust to get residents out of his 14-unit apartment building so he could charge more is proof the city's rent laws need to be strengthened, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.
Landlord Daniel Melamed, 37, of Great Neck, was arrested Wednesday along with the engineer he hired to oversee the project, Pirooz Soltanizadeh, 39, of Hyde Park.
An investigation by the Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force allegedly found that the two men shut off heat to rent regulated apartments even as outside temperatures dropped below freezing, illegally destroyed interior walls and common areas, and exposed tenants to 88 times the legal amount of lead dust.
Schneiderman said it was part of an effort to clear tenants out of the building at 1578 Union St. so the landlord could charge higher rents.
"The current system creates an incentive for bad landlords to vacate the premises by any means necessary," said Schneiderman, speaking in front of the dilapidated building.
When a tenant moves into a vacant rent regulated apartment, the landlord is allowed to bump up the allowed rent by 20 percent on a two-year lease, a process commonly referred to as a "vacancy bonus."
After purchasing the building in 2012, Melamed began offering tenants buyouts or rent forgiveness to get them out of the building. In January 2013 that changed to a "deconstruction" of the building as Melamed and Soltanizadeh began "ripping the place apart" and placing tenants at risk in order to push them out, said Schneiderman.
De Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have called for a strengthening of the rent laws to include things such as an end to the vacancy bonus and eliminating vacancy decontrol, which allows apartments to become unregulated once the rent reaches $2,500.
The mayor has also called for an end to the process of allowing landlords to charge renters for major capital improvements in perpetuity.
On the last day of their session, Albany legislators are currently at a stalemate over renewing or strengthening the city's rent laws after they expired at midnight Tuesday. It is likely they will continue working beyond the end of the session.
De Blasio said the three changes he is calling for in the rent laws came into play in the case of the Crown Heights building.
"The current law creates an unintended incentive to find every way to jack up the rent— jack up the rent to get it out of rent regulation; create vacancies to get it out of rent regulation; make quote-unquote 'capital improvements' so that the rent can be jacked up more to get it out of rent regulation," he said.
"We see this cycle over and over. It’s why we need to change these laws now," the mayor added.
The city has also seen an "big uptick" in calls from fearful renters since the rent laws expired.
Though the building looks abandoned, Schneiderman said three families, including one with a child, still live there. Conditions got so bad that tenants had to put wet towels under their door to keep toxic lead dust out.
Melamed filed a false tenant protection plan with the city stating that the building was vacant when he began construction. The building was actually filled with tenants, many of whom were rent regulated.
Melamed, who owns and manages six buildings in the city, and Soltanizadeh were arraigned Wednesday in Brooklyn Criminal Court on three charges of unlawful eviction, endangering the welfare of a child and filing a false instrument.
If convicted, they face up to four years in prison.
"I don't comment on political grandstanding," said Melamed's attorney Seth Denenberg.
Soltanizadeh's attorney John Tasolides could not immediately be reached for comment.
The case is the first prosecution for the multi-agency taskforce that was formed in February to respond to tenant harassment complaints. Other cases are underway, said Schneiderman.
Repairs are being made to the building to make it safe for the remaining families.