CIVIC CENTER — A Harlem slumlord engaged in a "campaign of harassment" against an immigrant family, performing illegal gut renovations that created a "death trap" that forced the tenants out of his building, according to the Manhattan District Attorney's office.
Ephraim Vashovsky, his property manager Adam Cohen and contractor Shaoul Ohana, who are suspected of working in tandem to force out an undocumented family of seven living at 21 E. 115th St., were arrested early Tuesday morning on 20 counts, ranging from endangering the welfare of a minor to first degree reckless endangerment, according to the indictment unsealed Tuesday.
The family, which included five children from ages 1 to 12, was living on the top floor of the five-story building, while Vashovsky and his partners stripped the building of normal safeguards, such as fire-proofing materials, internal walls and floors and the fire escape, prosecutors said.
The family was also cut off from any heat or hot water, according to District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
"They forced a family with five young children to endure life-threatening conditions… (their) campaign of harassment and intimidation included repeated threats to report the family’s status as undocumented immigrants," Vance said.
The top Manhattan prosecutor said Vashovsky, who is on the city’s worst landlords list, lied by filing false permit applications to the city saying he was doing “minor alterations.”
“These were no alterations,” Vance said. “This was systematic demolition down to the studs and the bones.”
“[They] rendered this building on the verge of collapse, making it wholly unsafe for human inhabitation, literally a death trap, all the while collecting rent,” he said.
The city inspected the building last spring and discovered the unsafe conditions and illegal work while the family was living there, officials said.
The family, who was paying $2,400 dollar a month on rent, moved moved out immediately after the unsafe conditions were found last spring and was provided temporary housing by the Red Cross, officials said.
But, Vashovsky cashed the family's rent subsidy checks for more than $1,000 from the city.
Vashovsky bought the building in May 2014 and immediately engaged in coercion to force tenants out and flip the apartment for higher rent, Vance said.
Vashovsky gave buyouts to other tenants in the building, which the family refused because they were limited by their immigration status, Vance said.
However, the family, who lived in the apartment for 14 years, suffered the most during last year’s winter because they had no heat or hot water, officials said.
Their toilet water turned into solid ice, forcing the family to use bathrooms at local restaurants.
They boiled water in the apartment to cope with the frigid temperatures, Vance said.
At one point, a pipe burst, encasing the adjacent apartment in ice. The children, during most times, slept at a nearby church, officials said.
The landlord, Vance said, also used intimidation tactics, such as exploiting their undocumented immigrant status to force them out.
The Manhattan District Attorney's office worked with other city agencies, including the Public Advocate’s office, the Department of Buildings and the Department of Investigations.
The building is currently boarded up and the city issued a stop-work order and will soon request proposals to fix the building, officials said.
Letitia James, the city’s public advocate, said her office, which compiles the worst landlord list, will continue to work with the agencies to curtail tenant harassment by landlords.
Dating from June 10, 2014 to May 8, 2015 Vashovsky cashed $3,798 worth of rent subsidy checks while violating the terms of the family’s lease, according to the indictment. Two checks for $250 each were cashed two months after the family left in March 2015.
“This landlord had the audacity to collect rent from his tenants while they endured these daily dangerous conditions prioritizing his bottom line over the safety of children,” she said.
“Let this indictment serve as a powerful message to any and all unscrupulous landlords out there, who think they can get away with this type of maltreatment in the name of earning another dollar.”
Lawyers for Vashovsky, Cohen and Ohana could not be reached for comment.