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Collapsing Ceiling Prompts City to Evacuate Tenants Who Sued Owner

By Allegra Hobbs | February 27, 2017 10:33am
 The Department of Building on Saturday issued a partial vacate order for 159 Stanton St.
The Department of Building on Saturday issued a partial vacate order for 159 Stanton St.
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DNAinfo/Allegra Hobbs

LOWER EAST SIDE — The Buildings Department forced two families to leave a building owned by controversial landlord Steve Croman — after their ceilings began to collapse.

Residents of 159 Stanton St. — including a 12-year-old boy — had to clear out and find temporary lodgings Saturday after an inspector slapped the building with a partial vacate order, deeming the conditions "imminently perilous to life."

The order comes months after those tenants joined seven others in filing a lawsuit against Croman charging they have withstood aggressive harassment tactics and unsafe conditions stemming from construction since the notorious landlord bought their building in 2013.

Croman is also currently being sued by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for harassment tactics.

A Department of Buildings inspector came to evaluate the hazardous cracks on Feb. 25 after a tenant filed a complaint stating the apartment was shaking from construction and that plaster was raining down, city records show. The DOB found partial ceiling collapse in the two second-floor units was caused by permitted construction on third floor, a Department of Buildings official said.

Building management had the required tenant protection plan in place in order to carry out the work, and the American Red Cross offered to provide temporary lodgings, the DOB said.

But though the work was legal, it was done in a manner that could have caused a collapse, according to an attorney for the tenants who also noted there was a history of unsafe and illegal construction at the building as documented in the tenants’ lawsuit.

In fact, workers had previously been carrying out illegal work in the vacant third floor apartments that directly contributed to the ceiling conditions, Urban Justice Center lawyer Sherief Gaber, who is representing the tenants.

“It’s terrible, and if they hadn’t been involved in illegal construction work it would have never happened,” Gaber said.

The department had visited the property on Feb. 17 and had issued several violations — for unsafe electrical wiring and for failing to properly maintain fire prevention materials — as well as a partial stop work order for not having the proper tenant protection plan in place.

The department partially lifted that stop work order on Feb. 24 to let workers put in the necessary fire-proofing materials, said a DOB spokesman. The next day, a tenant reported the crumbling ceiling that led to the vacate order.

There are currently two violations pending against the property — one, for carrying out electrical work without a permit in 2015, has resulted in a $6,904.99 fine, DOB records show.

One of the ousted residents said he was shocked when the inspector told him he would have to leave — he had noticed the crack in his living room ceiling, he said, but hadn’t thought it was so threatening as to warrant a vacate order — and that the sudden upheaval was a stressful blow to him and his preteen son.

“I went from having a normal day to hearing that the Red Cross was coming,” said Francis Di Donato, one of nine tenants currently suing Croman in a city housing court. “It was so surreal, in a way.”

The American Red Cross offered to put up Di Donato and his son in a Midtown hotel, he said, but he had declined because the space was “too depressing.” 

He instead opted to crash with a friend Saturday night and booked an Airbnb for Sunday night, though he is unsure how long repairs will take and where he will stay Monday.

The displacement came a day after Di Donato discovered his father was ill, he said, and has been a burden on his family.

“I’ve been dealing with my father having major heart issues, trying to find a place for my son to feel comfortable throughout all this, and then have all my other responsibilities,” said Di Donato. “It’s really, really bad timing for me because of my personal life and it’s enormously stressful.”

“Being displaced is a surreal experience,” he continued. “You can’t believe its happening, especially when it comes out of nowhere.”

The ceiling had collapsed before, according to the lawsuit filed in Dec. 2016, and the tenants feared it would happen again.

Di Donato said a thief had come in through his collapsed ceiling in the past and snatched money from his apartment.

A spokesman for Croman’s realty company claimed the tenants hadn’t given management a chance to carry out repairs by going straight to the city, and had not granted access necessary to do the repair work.

“After we rejected a tenant-requested buyout of $300,000 per apartment, these tenants chose to call the Department of Buildings and media to complain about repairs before calling the landlord,” Sam Spokony, the spokesman for Croman's management company, 9300 Realty, said. 

“The Department of Buildings’ inspection of the entire building on February 17th did not note any issues in these apartments and both tenants have blocked access both in and out of court to complete routine maintenance. If the tenants are genuinely motivated to get these repairs done and grant us access to these apartments, we are happy to assess and fix these issues as soon as possible.”

Gaber denied the tenants had ever been offered such a buyout and said the landlord had been consistently unresponsive when asked to repair conditions in the past. 

When asked to provide documentation of the purported buyout offer, a 9300 Realty did not immediately respond.

Gaber said he planned to go to housing court Monday morning in response to the evacuations. He said he believed Croman must compensate his clients for their displacement.

“We do believe the responsibility for this rests squarely in the hands of Croman and he should bear the cost of temporary housing,” said Gaber. 

Days before the apartments were vacated, a handful of elected officials had penned a letter to Croman imploring the landlord to address all safety issues in the building immediately.

Elected Officials' Letter to Steve Croman on 159 Stanton St. by DNAinfoNewYork on Scribd

One of the officials who signed the Feb. 21 letter, Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, called the ousting of the tenants "unacceptable and infuriating" and said she would continue to push for timely repairs.

"The pattern of tenant harassment at 159 Stanton is clear, and we now have tenants being ordered to vacate their homes due to unsafe conditions," said Niou in a statement.

"These deplorable housing conditions must be fixed right away, and I will continue to push for repairs and tenants' safety."

In addition to the Attorney General's lawsuit, Croman has been indicted on several felony charges involving lying about his rental income to scam banks out of millions of dollars. He could face up to 25 years in prison for the charges.