House Fall Down: LES Tenants Sue Developer Over Dangerous Living Conditions

Tired of making complaints, residents are now suing. (Property Shark)

Tired of making complaints, residents are now suing. (Property Shark)

Demolition work started on 143 Ludlow Street almost immediately after developer Samy Mahfar’s SMA Equities purchased the Lower East Side building last summer. Walls were knocked down, entrances sheathed in plastic sheeting, electrical wires yanked from walls, the water turned off. There were a few ceiling collapses, a gas pipe was dislodged. Which might not have been overly problematic had not tenants still been living in the building.

Now the eight remaining rent-stabilized tenants (the others cleared out following the sale) are suing Mr. Mahfar for unsafe living conditions. The building currently has 145 open HPD housing code violations, including, but not limited to: broken windows, tiles and door buzzers, intermittent electricity, gas, heat and water, ceiling collapses, interior wall demolitions and the removal of fire extinguishers. The last is of particular concern given that the building has had three electrical fires since workers started the extensive renovation project this summer.

The lawsuit, filed by the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center and the Cooper Square Committee, alleges that Mr. Mahfar, in his seemingly total disregard for the remaining tenants, is attempting to drive them out by creating heath and safety hazards.

During the last few months, residents have also filed complaints about asbestos removal, floods, blocked mail slots, the construction of an illegal rooftop addition and a gas pipe that was jarred loose during construction, leaking gas into the building and necessitating a visit from the fire department. Exposed electrical wires and non-functioning smoke and carbon monoxide detectors have further worried residents.

“My ceiling has collapsed twice, and I barely escaped serious injury by running out of the room as plaster came crashing down,” said resident Stacie Meador in a statement about the lawsuit. Resident Carine Montbertrand, who has lived in the building for 20 years, claims that she has not had heat for five months and that dealing with a collapsed ceiling, floods and a lack of water and electricity has become like a second job.

The lawsuit is seeking to have control of 143 Ludlow transferred away from SMA Equities to an appointed administrator. Mr. Mahfar has not yet responded to The Observer’s request for comment.

In New York, developers and rent-stabilized tenants frequently clash over construction at occupied buildings (the Hotel Chelsea being perhaps the most high-profile case), particularly given that developers have good reason to want the rent-stabilized tenants gone. Even when properly managed, renovation work often involves substantial demolition, copious quantities construction dust and the removal of asbestos, unpleasantly disrupting the lives and day-to-day activities of many tenants. And many construction jobs are not properly managed; over the years, countless tenants have complained of construction that takes little to no consideration of the building occupants—in violation of the law.

Housing advocates say that the situation at 143 Ludlow is particularly bad—the combination of collapses, floods and fires mean that tenants have had to chose between their immediate physical safety and the apartments that they have the legal right to remain in.

There is a patter of long-term residents in the Lower East Side living under siege, wrote Harvey Epstein, the associate director of the Urban Justice Center, “but 143 Ludlow is extreme in the developer’s egregious disregard for the law and willingness to put his tenants in physical danger.”