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Landlord Using 'Constant Cloud of Toxic Smoke' to Evict Tenants, Suit Says

By Maya Rajamani | March 15, 2017 8:47am
 Mor's building at 859 Ninth Ave., at the corner of West 56th Street.
Mor's building at 859 Ninth Ave., at the corner of West 56th Street.
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DNAinfo/Maya Rajamani

HELL’S KITCHEN — A landlord renovating a Ninth Avenue building exposed tenants to asbestos, lead and other “poisonous" substances in order to force them out of their homes — while telling city officials the property was vacant, a new lawsuit charges.

The owner of the building at 859 Ninth Ave., at the corner of West 56th Street, started renovating the property around December 2014, says the suit filed by a rent-stabilized tenant in Manhattan Supreme Court on March 2.

Since then, tenant Shalom Mor and other residents have been living in “a constant cloud of toxic smoke and dust contaminated with asbestos, lead, crystalline, silicates, gypsum and other poisonous and carcinogenic substances,” his suit says.

The conditions in the building are “designed to constructively and actually evict [Mor] and other tenants from their home, in violation of basic statutory and common law rights,” it adds.

In his suit, Mor claims permit applications the owner filed with the city’s Department of Buildings falsely stated the property wasn’t occupied and that the project wouldn’t involve asbestos. Renovations also moved forward without a tenant-safety plan in place, it says.

A DOB spokesman on March 7 confirmed the agency issued violations in October 2015 after the owner "falsely stated [on an application] that the building was unoccupied and not rent controlled/stabilized."

"DOB inspectors determined that multiple units in the building were in fact occupied, and that 41 units in the building were registered as rent-stabilized," the spokesman said.

The owner also received violations for performing plumbing work without a permit, failing to sufficiently fireproof an apartment on the third floor, obstructing a fire escape and carrying out construction in the hallway that created "excessive dust."

All of those violations were issued as part of a "series of regular safety sweeps" the DOB started performing after responding to a complaint and discovering construction debris blocking a path to a fire escape in August 2015, the spokesman said.

In December 2015, the DOB issued a full stop-work order for a lack of guard rails on the roof, as well as work carried out contrary to approved plans. The department issued a violation in April 2016, meanwhile, after the owner once again failed to indicate on a permit application that the building housed rent-stabilized units, the spokesman said.

The DOB hasn't received complaints about the building since then, and the property currently has no open complaints or violations, he added.

But Mor's suit claims conditions in the building haven't been remedied and have in fact become "increasingly severe."

According to the lawsuit, Mor and a group of residents hired an environmental consulting company In October 2015 that found the dust kicked up by renovations contained “illegal and harmful levels” of lead, asbestos debris and crystalline silica — all of which have been linked to cancer and other medical ailments.

Dust permeating Mor’s apartment ruined his books, plants, artwork and other belongings, the claim says.

The building's residents have also dealt with flooding, mold and mildew, garbage accumulating in the hallways, exposed wires that create a "constant fire hazard" and rodent infestations, as well as interruptions in heat, electricity and water, the suit says.

A city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokeswoman said the agency collected 13 dust samples at the building in November 2015 — 10 of which were found to be “above EPA standards for lead content.”

The department required a cleanup and subsequent dust-test submission, and in February 2016 it received “acceptable dust wipes results” and closed the case, the spokeswoman said.

A spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, meanwhile, said on Monday that the building currently has six open violations, the most recent of which was issued for vermin.

Mor, who is around 31 years old, has lived in the building since 2008, his attorney Jack Lester told DNAinfo New York.

The mixed-use building's ground floor houses a sushi restaurant and Rise Bar, which last year drew the ire of neighbors and a few upstairs tenants who claimed it was operating as a noisy "nightclub."

Mor is the first tenant to sue the landlord in Manhattan Supreme Court, but other residents plan to follow suit soon, Lester said.

This past December, Mor and four other tenants filed an action in housing court asking the landlord to correct violations at the building, records show. That action has since been settled, Lester noted.

The building owner filed its own petition against Mor in housing court in 2015, claiming the tenant was illegally renting his apartment out on Airbnb at a profit and operating a hair salon in his living room, according to filings provided by the owner's attorney, Michael Pensabene. That suit, which aims to evict Mor from the building, is still pending in housing court.

"Although I am unable to comment on ongoing litigation, I can say that the landlord categorically denies any wrongdoing and remains very confident in its legal position," Pensabene said.

The landlord, through Pensabene, declined to comment on the suit.

Lester maintained the owner's 2015 petition against Mor was an attempt "to throw a smokescreen around their behavior."

"We say the landlord is retaliating by bringing an eviction, because Mor complained about conditions," he said. 

The landlord also took several tenants to housing court for non-payment, records show. Lester said the owner's action occurred after the tenants went on a rent strike.

Mor is seeking unspecified damages and attorneys’ fees, and wants the landlord to comply with city rules and regulations, in addition to implementing a tenant-safety plan, the suit says.

“We would like the suit to be a message to all landlords in New York City, that they should not carry on construction renovation and dangerous activities while rent-regulated tenants remain in occupancy,” Lester said. “This is putting profit and greed over human lives.”