NYC's Legal Assistance Program For Tenants Is Saving Thousands From Eviction

By Jake Bittle

For almost a year now, New York tenants who live in select ZIP codes have been entitled to a free lawyer if their landlord tries to evict them, thanks to a law passed by the City Council in 2017. But you might not know it from walking into the Bronx Housing Court on the date of your court appearance. Only one sign on each of the building’s five floors lists the ZIP codes that are currently covered as the five-year rollout of the law continues. These signs are handwritten in marker, and two of them were inaccurate on a recent November afternoon.

If you went straight into the courtroom and waited for your case to be called, you still might not know: the two judges assigned to the covered ZIP codes in the Bronx only announce the existence of the right-to-counsel program once a day.

Today, the city will hold the first public hearing on the the right-to-counsel law, which took effect in January after a broad coalition of organizers spent years pushing for its passage. Lawyers, tenants, and advocates who spoke with Gothamist ahead of the hearing said the implementation of the program thus far has been promising, but uneven. Court-appointed lawyers have started to transform the predatory environment of housing court, resulting in fewer evictions, but some eligible tenants still slip through the cracks, and implementation has been more successful in some boroughs than others.

Before the hearing, the city’s Human Resources Administration released a report showing that nearly one third of tenants who appeared for eviction cases this year were represented by lawyers, up from only 1% of tenants in 2013. According to the city’s analysis, this new representation prevented over 22,000 evictions across the five boroughs. By 2022, legal services will be available to anyone in New York who makes up to double the federal poverty level— $30,000 for an individual, or $50,000 for a family of four.

For a Bronx tenant named Pamela, who asked that we withhold her full name due to her ongoing legal proceedings, the mere fact of having a lawyer on her side made all the difference. Her landlord took her to court claiming she didn’t send rent checks that she says were cashed. With the help of her Legal Aid lawyer, she pushed for an adjournment, and the court subpoenaed the landlord’s financial records in order to investigate who cashed the checks and when.

“If I didn’t have a lawyer, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said. “I would have been stressed out, headaching, trying to figure out what I can do to get the truth out. And you know, I’m a fighter, but that doesn’t mean I can do it all on my own.”

“The climate in these courtrooms has changed significantly,” said Andrew Scherer, a lawyer who co-chairs the New York City Bar Association’s civil justice task force, which formed earlier this year to evaluate the rollout of the right-to-counsel law. “People are more aware of their rights, and there’s a lot more actual litigation going on.”

Read more
Add your reaction Share

Key Fob Fight Brewing Between Tenants, Landlord Of Upper Manhattan Apartment Building

By Valerie Castro

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Traditional keys are being replaced with a new key fob system at a building in upper Manhattan, and one city leader says it’s an illegal way to force tenants out.

It’s out with the old and in with the new for the building on Riverside Drive. Tenants say they were notified by management through letters that the lobby door will soon only be operated by an electronic key fob system.

The problem, according to some tenants, is in the letters fine print which reads, “Fobs will only be given to those who are signed on the lease.”

In Kazu Hano’s case, even though he and his wife have lived in the building for more than 50 years, only his name is on the lease.

“He said ‘you have to show a marriage certificate’,” Hano said. “We have one, but they said ‘you gotta make a copy and send it to management’ and they’ll decide whether to give me a key.”

Even if the application is approved, tenants say they’re being charged a $50 security deposit. It’s a big problem for families with children, and tenants who rely on home health aides like Fred Armstrong.

“I don’t feel great because it’s just another thing I have to worry about,” he said.

Tenants say they’ve also been asked to sign a form that appears to be a lease amendment.

“The rules are clear,” City Councilman Mark Levine (D-7th) said. “There must be two fobs for apartments, and the landlord cannot charge for them.”

Levine says such a charge would be an illegal addition to rent.

“Unfortunately it’s not unique,” he said. “It’s part of the playbook of landlords who are trying to push people out.”

CBS2 reached out to JK Management Corporation, the landlord for the building.

A day after this story aired and after repeated requests for an interview, they sent  a statement to CBS New York saying in part several tenants have informed them of attempted break ins to the building and the key fob system will address those security concerns.  It will also help prevent illegal Airbnb rentals.

The company says it is prepared to add additional tenants to lease agreements to get them a key fob at no extra charge.

As for the claim that the building needs more security in the first place, the local NYPD precinct says only two crimes have been reported in the area so far in 2018.

Levine’s office says they’re connecting tenants with legal experts to fight the alleged harassment.

Read the full story.

Add your reaction Share

Cooling tower eyed in Legionnaires’ outbreak in Manhattan

By Carl Campanile

A cooling tower at the same housing complex in Washington Heights has been identified as the likely source of two Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks within a few months, city Health Department officials said Friday.

The culprit is the Sugar Hill Project at 898 St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street.

Officials said the cooling tower at the complex tested for Legionella bacteria following an outbreak in the neighborhood in October as well as in July.

“After a comprehensive investigation, the Health Department has identified the cooling tower at the Sugar Hill Project as the likely source of this cluster,” said Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot.

“Sampling conducted at the start of the investigation revealed that Legionella bacteria had returned quickly despite a comprehensive remediation, suggesting that there was potentially something unique in this cooling tower system. “

Barbot said the the Sugar Hill project turned its cooling tower off on October 18 to stem the health crisis, including disassembling components, and it remains turned off.

“The tower remains off, and is under a Commissioner’s Order to remain shut off until Sugar Hill management demonstrates that it has remediated it and can operate the tower safely. When the cooling tower begins operation again, Sugar Hill management will be required to provide sample results on a weekly basis under a heightened monitoring and enforcement program,” the commissioner said.

Thirty two people were sickened with Legionnaires’ Disease last month. Thirty patients were hospitalized and one died.

Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia that is caused by the bacteria Legionella, which grows in warm water. Symptoms resemble other types of pneumonia and can include fever, chills, muscle aches and cough.

Most cases of Legionnaires’ disease can be traced to plumbing systems where conditions are favorable for Legionella growth, such as cooling towers like Sugar Hill, whirlpool spas, hot tubs, humidifiers, hot water tanks and condensers for large air-conditioning systems.

The Health Department said it had been closely monitoring the Sugar Hill Project since the first Legionnaires’ disease cluster hit the same area of north Manhattan on July 11.

The same cooling tower at Sugar was “remediated” following the first Legionella outbreak on July 11, health officials said.

But Councilman Member Mark Levine, who represents the area and also chairs the Council Health Committee, complained that the Health Department dropped the ball.

“DOHMH needs to move immediately to put in place better protocols to prevent this kind of repeat contamination,” Levine said in a statement.

“From the moment we learned of a second Legionnaires cluster at the same location in upper Manhattan, I began asking pressing questions: are there defects in cooling tower equipment which make them vulnerable to repeat contamination? How long does intense monitoring last after a tower is found to be contaminated once? Five weeks–and one oversight hearing–after lower Washington Heights was hit with a second deadly cluster, we still don’t have adequate answers to these questions,” added Levine.

It’s the first time that one city cooling tower in one complex has been linked to two Legionnaires’ disease clusters, health officials said.

The Health Department said it will be tightening rules on cooling towers and examining the design of Sugar Hill and other cooling towers linked to Legionella cases to prevent outbreaks in the future.

The Sugar Hill project is a 13-story, 124-unit building that provides subsidized housing to low and moderate income families. Mayor de Blasio attended the ribbon cutting in 2014.

Read the full story here.

Add your reaction Share

Same Harlem Building Source Of 2 Deadly Legionnaires' Outbreaks

By Brendan Krisel

UPPER MANHATTAN, NY — A Harlem high-rise apartment complex is once again the source of a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease in Upper Manhattan, city officials announced Friday.

A Department of Health investigation revealed that cooling towers at the Sugar Hill Project on St. Nicholas Avenue near West 155th Street were the likely source of a Legionnaires' outbreak that sickened 32 people, with one fatal case. The building was the source of an outbreak that sickened 27 people, again with one fatal case, in July.

"Sampling conducted at the start of the investigation revealed that Legionella bacteria had returned quickly despite a comprehensive remediation, suggesting that there was potentially something unique in this cooling tower system.," Acting Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot.

The apartment complex shut down its cooling systems on Oct. 18 and will remain inactive until "Sugar Hill management demonstrates that it has remediated it and can operate the tower safely," Barbot said in a statement. Once the towers are re-activated, building management will be required to provide weekly samples to the city.

This is the first time that one cooling tower has been linked to two separate Legionnaires' Disease outbreaks in the city, health officials said. Moving forward, the city plans to examine the design of the tower, convene a panel of water system engineers to advise building owners on properly designing safer towers and introduce stricter cooling tower regulations, officials said.

City Councilman Mark Levine, who represents areas of Harlem and Washington Heights, called on the Department of Health to "immediately" put in place stronger safeguards to prevent another case of repeat contamination.

"From the moment we learned of a second legionnaires cluster at the same location in upper Manhattan, I began asking pressing questions: are there defects in cooling tower equipment which make them vulnerable to repeat contamination? How long does intense monitoring last after a tower is found to be contaminated once?" Levine said in a statement.

"Five weeks — and one oversight hearing — after Lower Washington Heights was hit with a second deadly cluster, we still don't have adequate answers to these questions. DOHMH needs to move immediately to put in place better protocols to prevent this kind of repeat contamination."

Read the full story here.

Add your reaction Share

Anti-Semetic Graffiti Plagues Upper West Side: Reports

By Brendan Krisel

UPPER WEST SIDE, NY — Vandals have painted swastikas at multiple locations on the Upper West Side amid a city-wide increase in anti-Semitic crimes, according to multiple reports.

The latest act of vandalism occurred Thursday morning near the Hudson River Greenway and West 72nd Street, Gothamist first reported. A tipster sent the publication photos of two spray-painted swastikas on a concrete platform near the river.

One day before the graffiti appeared, NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea warned of "an increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes, particularly swastikas, on buildings in part of the city," Gothamist reported.

An addition to the swastikas seen near the Hudson, a newspaper box on West 100th Street and Central Park West was defaced with swastika symbols and "KKK" this week, the West Side Rag reported.

City Councilman Mark Levine called attention to the problem a week ago when he posted a photo of a police/fire call box at West 104th Street and Columbus that was vandalized with "KKK" and swastikas in black marker.

After Thursday's reports, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer denounced the rising tide of hateful vandalism.

"Hate has absolutely no place in New York City. It's our duty to stand with our neighbors and root out anti-Semitism wherever we see it," Brewer said in a statement posted to Twitter.

The rise of anti-Semitism isn't just being felt on the Upper West Side. "Broad City" actress Ilana Glazer was forced to cancel a speaking event Thursday at a Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, synagogue after vandals scrawled messages such as "Die Jew rats, we are here," inside the building.

Read the full story here.

Add your reaction Share

More Swastikas Found on the UWS, as Hate Symbols Proliferate in the City

By West Sider

Someone or some group of people painted or drew swastikas in at least two locations in the neighborhood, part of what the NYPD says is an uptick in hateful symbols around the city.

On Thursday morning, a bicyclist told police about two swastikas spray-painted on a stretch of concrete next to the Hudson River around 72nd Street, according to Capt. Timothy Malin of the 20th precinct. There were no witnesses to the incident and no surveillance video, Malin said. Gothamist published an image of the swastikas.

In addition, one of our tipsters sent the photo above of a series of swastikas and KKK symbols she found drawn on a newspaper box on 100th and Central Park West. The tipster said she also saw “a swastika and a KKK pyramid (two k’s in the bottom with a k on top in a triangle) two weeks ago in a phone booth on 105th and Columbus.”

We did not hear back from NYPD about the swastika on 100th Street. Gothamist reports that there’s been an uptick in anti-Semitic symbols in the city.

During a briefing on Wednesday morning, Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea said police had received a wave of similar reports in recent weeks. “We’ve seen in the last month an increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes, particularly swastikas, on buildings in part of the city,” he noted. “In last 28 days particularly, which is a little troublesome, we have seen an uptick in that category.”

Data provided by the city shows that there were a total of 142 anti-Semitic hate crimes reported through October 28th of this year—up from 126 in the same period last year, which was almost double the number reported in New York City in 2016.

Council Member Mark Levine has also pointed out racist graffiti throughout the neighborhood lately.

Read the full story here.

Add your reaction Share

New York Taxi Commission Puts $20 Million In Medallion Fees On Hold

By Rachel Kaufman

New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) has agreed to pause the collection of nearly $20 million in medallion renewal fees which would have been due this week in an effort to give cab drivers some relief, the New York Post reports.

The city typically charges medallion renewal fees of between $540 and $1,650 every two years, according to the Post.

Councilmember Mark Levine has introduced a bill to study the “problem of medallion owners with excessive debt” and a companion bill to provide financial and mental health counseling to drivers, and he called the TLC’s move “a short-term step to provide some relief to the drivers while we work out a longer-term policy.”

“Independent owner-drivers who played by the rules set by the city are now enduring extraordinary financial hardships through absolutely no fault of their own,” Levine said in a statement, reported by the Daily News. “After having bought an asset because they had a guarantee from the city about its underlying value, our city has failed these small business owners.”

TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi said that the “renewal fee is one more payment for medallion owners at a time when every penny counts,” according to the Post.

Taxi medallions, which once were valued as high as $1.3 million, according to the NY Daily News, are now worth about a tenth of that, but many drivers either took out enormous loans to buy their own or borrowed cash against the medallions’ value. Melrose Credit Union, which issued many of the loans, is now insolvent. The federal government is now holding the medallion loans, Documented NY reported in September, and once the government took over the loans, it became less responsive, drivers said. Many drivers took out loans in the six figures.

Seven for-hire drivers have committed suicide since November 2017, the Post said, with many citing crushing debt as the reason. Taxi drivers have turned to blaming TLC commissioner Joshi, calling for her firing and chasing her away from a vigil for Uber driver Fausto Luna, who jumped in front of a subway car in September.

The TLC doesn’t have authority to regulate ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft, New York Taxi Workers Alliance executive director Bhairavi Desai told AM New York. Only the City Council can.

This summer, New York’s City Council voted to cap the number of app-based cars on the road as well as mandate minimum pay for drivers. Uber was “none too pleased” by the vote, as Next City reported at the time, but the move could be a boon for drivers if it reduces competition.

Uber driver Tidiane Samassa wrote in an op-ed for the NY Daily News that “sometimes it now takes me over an hour driving around before I get a passenger, because all around me there are thousands of other for-hire cars also empty. All of us are competing for a smaller slice of the pie.”

As for the medallion fees, the city is reserving the right to collect them later, after Levine’s bills move through the legislative process, the NY Daily News reported.

Read the full story here.

Add your reaction Share

NYC failed to enforce water tank law, council health chair finds

By Frank G. Runyeon

At a New York City Council hearing on Tuesday, health officials were under pressure to respond to reports of neglected drinking water tanks across the city – and they downplayed the risks.

New York City Councilman Mark Levine, who chairs the Health Committee, stressed the need for greater regulation at the oversight hearing, bemoaning the lax oversight by health and buildings officials. After learning that neither agency had issued a single violation for damaged water tanks in the last year, presumably because no building owner had self-reported deficiencies, Levine concluded that surprise onsite inspections must be required to keep building owners honest.

“Either we have a pristine stock of water tanks and everyone is telling the truth and no violations are warranted, or there are defects which are not being reported or are being inaccurately reported,” Levine said. “And we don’t have a system to catch that,” Levine said. “It strains belief that there would be no defects. So, it sounds to me like we have a failure to enforce for the physical integrity of the tanks.”

Health officials disagreed.

“I think we really have an enforcement system that is properly tailored to the extremely low risk here,” said Corinne Schiff, the city’s deputy commissioner of environmental health. “We’ve never linked disease to a drinking water tank.”

Health officials insisted that the current inspection regime was sufficient, and offered only tepid support for proposed legislation that would broaden and strengthen oversight of the thousands of wooden rooftop water tanks that supply city dwellers with water for drinking, bathing and cooking.

The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has a long history of resisting reforms to the laws governing the city’s iconic wooden drinking water tanks. Over the last 10 years, however, city lawmakers have passed laws to add some measure of accountability to a century-old water delivery method that was maintained purely on an honor system before 2009.

In a preamble to the proposed reforms, a New York City Council Health Committee report cited recent public concern over revelations of neglect and contamination in the city’s water tanks detailed in a City & State investigative series and subsequent emergency action by Council Speaker Corey Johnson as catalysts for the proposed changes.

Read more
Add your reaction Share

NYC to waive $12M in renewal fees for taxi medallion owners

By Ameena Walker

The value of yellow taxi medallions has been plummeting amid competition from ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft and in June, things hit a new low when it was announced 139 medallions would head to bankruptcy auction. The medallions were once worth as much as $1.3 million but have recently been auctioned off for as little as $160,000.

In an attempt to give taxi medallion owners a much-needed lifeline, the Taxi and Limousine Commission has announced that it will waive $1,100 in renewal fees for the city’s 11,286 medallion owners, reports the New York Daily News. This amounts to more than $12.4 million in relief from the city and the de Blasio administration.

The waive was advocated for by City Councilmember Mark Levine, who also introduced legislation for the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) to conduct a study on the economic hardships that medallion owners are facing. “Independent owner-drivers who played by the rules set by the city are now enduring extraordinary financial hardships through absolutely no fault of their own,” said Levine in a statement. “After having bought an asset because they had a guarantee from the city about its underlying value, our city has failed these small business owners.”

At least six taxi drivers have taken their own lives, many due to the mounting economic burdens they face as yellow taxi ridership continues to decline.

In August, the New York City Council approved of legislation that placed a temporary cap on the number of ride-hailing vehicles provided by companies like Uber and Lyft. The cap was prompted after the city estimated that there are now more than 100,000 licensed for-hire vehicles on the city’s streets, impacting traffic and transit. The temporary cap will allow the city to further study these impacts.

Meanwhile, the TLC has debuted a new smartphone app, called Waave, that is part of a two-year pilot program and offers yellow and green taxi passengers to get upfront, surge-free fare pricing, as well as estimated arrival times before they hail a trip. The program is also offered in the outer boroughs.

Read the full story here.

Add your reaction Share

TLC waives nearly $20 million in taxi fees in response to cabby suicides

By Danielle Furfaro

The city will apply the brakes on millions of dollars in fees due this week from taxi-medallion owners in an attempt to stem a rash of cabby suicides.

Taxi and Limousine Commission head Meera Joshi agreed to waive what would amount to nearly $20 million in fees to give struggling medallion owners some breathing room.

She made the move after nearly a year of driver deaths led to mounting criticism from other cabbies, pols and city officials.

Councilman Mark Levine (D-Washington Heights) has been pushing legislation to provide longer-term solutions for medallion owners and asked for the break for taxi drivers who are already on the brink financially.

“This is a short-term step to provide some relief to the drivers while we work out a longer-term policy,” said Levine.

“It’s critical that we take steps to help out the drivers who have seen their life savings evaporate through no fault of their own.”

The city usually requires hacks to pay $1,650 every two years — a biennial $550 taxi-medallion renewal, six $90 inspection fees and a $10 renewal for the medallion tin. Handicapped-accessible medallion owners only have to pay $540 for the inspections.

With 11,286 regular medallions on the streets and 2,301 accessible ones, that’s nearly $20 million in fees that the city is now waiving.
And all of that was set to come due this week.

“Absolutely anything could help out right now,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “People are struggling and they would definitely appreciate it.”

TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi, who has been scorned by taxi drivers for not doing enough to help them, agreed that the hacks need a hand.

“The renewal fee is one more payment for medallion owners at a time when every penny counts,” said Joshi. “It is certainly prudent to pause collection of that fee while [Levine’s] bill moves through the legislative process and, if passed, the study it requires would be in motion.”

The city could try to recoup the fees in the future.

Levine’s bill would require the TLC to conduct a study of medallion owners’ and drivers’ debt and propose ways to help them out.

Seven for-hire drivers — three of them cabbies — have committed suicide over ruined finances since November.

The most recent was Uber driver Fausto Luna, 58, who jumped in front of an A train on Sept. 26 because of massive debt.

In June, cash-strapped yellow cabby Abdul Saleh, 59, hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment.

In May, yellow cab driver Yu Mein “Kenny” Chow, 56, jumped into the East River.

In March, cabbie Nicanor Ochisor, 65, hanged himself in his garage in Maspeth, Queens.

Black car driver Douglas Schifter, 61, killed himself with a shotgun outside City Hall on Feb. 5, leaving a scathing note blaming the city for his woes.

In December 2017, livery hack Danilo Corporan Castillo, 57, wrote a suicide note on the back of a summons and jumped out the window of his Manhattan apartment.

A month earlier, livery driver Alfredo Perez hanged himself.

Read the full story here.

Add your reaction Share

Sign up for our mailing list!

Report a Problem Participatory Budgeting Events