By Albert Samaha
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Three months ago, 10-year-old Sean Daniels narrowly escaped from Harlem, wounded but still alive. It wasn't a gang or random bullets that threatened the fourth-grader's life, but a building, the 52-unit apartment house at 140th Street and Lenox Avenue where Sean and his family live.
On the morning of February 22, Sean was dressed for school when his mother, Linda Daniels, asked him to turn off the bathwater she was running. The water was so hot, Sean could barely see through the steam. He reached for the faucets, missed, and plunged into the tub, scalding his right hand, arms, neck, chest, genitals, legs, and feet.
"I heard him screaming and I came running out and his clothes were just steaming," says Daniels. "I took his sweatpants off, and the skin was dripping off like molasses." EMS took Sean, covered with second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body, to the burn unit at Cornell Medical Center.
Hot water has long been a problem in Daniels's building tenants say it is often either nonexistent or scalding. The day Sean was burned, a police officer measured it at more than 200 degrees. The water problem is just one of hundreds of complaints that tenants and city inspectors have lodged against the landlord, a company called Kromo Lenox Associates, and its main representative, Dan Shlomo, whose neglect, tenants say, has turned the seven-story building into a menace.
Indeed, Daniels is not the first child to be hurt there. In August 1995, two-year-old Alexandra Selby was so poisoned by lead in a fourth-floor apartment, she was hospitalized and has been ill ever since. In March 1998, two-year-old William Giles Jr. was wounded when a window slammed on his hand and cut his fingers "to the bone," says the boy's father. Both families sued Kromo Lenox and won by default, because no one showed up in court for the company, say attorneys for the children. Adult tenants have not been spared either: Cynthia Pruitt was scalded by water at her kitchen sink in January; Tina Brown was hurt when her ceiling collapsed on her back last year; and in 1996, a woman visiting her mother was killed in the stairwell by one of the many intruders who regularly get into the unsecured building.
"This building is a weapon," says Linda Daniels. "When you have ceilings falling on people, windows slamming on babies' hands, water scalding children, that's what it is. You can kill someone in here."
Shlomo did not return Voicecalls. His firm, Zorin Inc., owns 25 percent of Kromo Lenox; the other 75 percent is owned by a company based in Lichtenstein. But tenants say Shlomo, 44, is the person they deal with regularly, and it is Shlomo who has been the subject of repeated lawsuits by the city's department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).
Since 1995, HPD has sued Kromo Lenox five times for hundreds of building code violations, including a chronic lack of heat and hot water; infestations of rats, roaches, and mice; peeling lead paint; moldy walls; uncapped gas lines; and exposed electrical wiring. Some violations reappear yearly.
In March 1998, HPD had asked housing court judge Douglas Hoffman to fine Shlomo $2.5 million and jail him for contempt when he failed to fulfill an agreement to fix 254 violations. But those legal motions lay dormant until March 1999, when the New York Post reported Sean Daniels's scalding and HPD kicked into high gear, pursuading Hoffman to appoint an administrator to repair and run the building. In exchange for Shlomo's acceptance of an administrator, the contempt charges and fines against him were dropped.
When Hoffman appointed administrator Robert Horsford on April 23, tenants were relieved. But only temporarily. On April 28, Kromo Lenox filed for bankruptcy. Shlomo cited an impending tax foreclosure on the West 140th Street property, where, city records show, Kromo Lenox owes an astounding $875,578.65. (While Kromo Lenox shirked its taxes, it steadily collected rent from government agencies that pay landlords to house low-income people.) And on April 30, a letter from a Kromo Lenox attorney to HPD was slipped under tenants' doors, arguing that the bankruptcy petition could make Horsford's appointment moot.
Sources at HPD say that bankruptcy does not undo Horsford's appointment, and Daniels says the move is transparent: "The deal was that the city dropped the fine and jail time and he agreed to an administrator. And now he pulls this?" Last week, police had to break up a dispute when Shlomo unsuccessfully tried to block Horsford's workers from the building.
While Daniels is confident Horsford will prevail, she faults the city for acting slowly. "The city is ultimately responsible for irresponsible landlords," she says, noting that last June housing advocates held a press conference at the building to spotlight HPD's understaffed inspection system (which faces further cuts under Rudy Giuliani's most recent budget). "Nothing was really being done until my son was critically injured and it got some press attention," says Daniels. "What has to happen for things to change? Do people have to die?"
Even with Horsford's arrival, safety at 101 West 140th is a long way off. Water damage mars many apartments; at least one has electricity in only the front half. The elevator is regularly broken, leaving daughters to carry their elderly mothers down stairs. Last month, as Hoffman toured the building, a sixth-floor apartment toilet rained down into the bathroom below it.