By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
When the Voice last visited Steve Croman, the thirtysomething landlord was busy haranguing longtime Little Italy tenants out of their apartments and replacing them with high-paying, quick-turnover renters. Croman's tactics, including badgering phone calls, endless lawsuits, and leaning on already hard-pressed tenants, like a Chinese immigrant who had earned her rent deposit by collecting cans, won him a spot on the Voice's 1998 10 Worst Landlords list. Now Croman has turned his eye uptown to a string of five-story walk-ups on 18th Street near First Avenue that he bought last year. But there the landlord is finding that he must temper his tactics because, unlike with his exploits on Mott and Mulberry streets, the 18th Street tenants are organized and ready for him.
In May 1999, Croman and investors paid a reported $7.5 million for the buildings at 336, 340, and 348 East 18th Street. By June, tenants had postered the buildings with flyers warning that "the slow and methodical harassment" that was Croman's hallmark downtownrefusing rent, challenging succession rights, and pressuring tenants into buyoutshad begun to surface. Tenants also complained that Croman had turned vacant apartments into dorms for City University of New York (CUNY) students. By July, tenants had banded together to pay their rent through their association, rather than leave individuals vulnerable to their new landlord's conniving.
"This is the first time he's walked into a building with a preorganized tenant association," says Harriet Putterman, who has lived in one of the East 18th Street buildings for 36 years. "He'll have a much harder time here than he did on Mott or Mulberry, where, unfortunately, the tenants were not as organized as we are."
To downtown Croman alumni, the point is crucial. Long-term tenants of 280 Mulberry Street, for instance, saw their affordable apartments in the six-story tenement turned into a pricey glass-and-exposed-brick home for students, young dot-commers, and Wall Streeters. On Mott Street, former tenants say they were pressured into buyouts and, in one case, stiffed on part of the payment, a charge Croman's lawyer denies.
"It doesn't sound like Steve at all," says Croman attorney Mitchell Kossoff, who responded for the landlord to Voiceinquiries. Generally defending his client, Kossoff says Croman "learned his lesson since the last Village Voice article came out. . . . He's been extremely sensitive about not creating a scenario where he could be described as doing anything that's frivolous. . . . Steve's got a compulsive personality, but he's certainly not nasty."
Nasty or not, downtown tenants warn that Croman renters should be wary of their landlord. "The situation here on Mott Street is where it's heading for all Croman buildings," says one Croman tenant at 246 Mott Street, standing amid demolition debris in now vacant apartments that were family homes before Croman bought the building in 1997. "With Croman, this is the real deal, and long-term tenants had better be ready for it."
In fact, Croman tenants on both sides of 14th Street are contemplating a move that has not been undertaken since "Dracula landlord" Leonard Spodek terrorized Brooklyn tenants in the 1980s: forming a citywide union of Croman tenants. And they've got help from the office of at least one public official, State Senator Tom Duane. "We are working with the tenants throughout all the Croman buildings and organizing them," says Duane staffer Andrew Berman.
Croman's concentration of property along Mott and Mulberry streetsfour buildings in a two-block areahas magnified his role in transforming Little Italy into Nolita; in other areas, where his holdings are more scattered, his effect is less obvious. But with his ownership of more than a dozen buildings from Gramercy to Greenwich Village and a brokerage firm that lists many more citywide, Croman's influence on the real estate scene cannot be dismissed. Says Janet Freeman, a Little Italy resident who is not a Croman tenant but who has seen him change her neighborhood from an affordable, stable community into an incubator of trendy, if transient, tenants: "His destruction of neighborhoods is intense."
Croman's very styleat turns relentless, then solicitousis disturbing. Tenants say they have been as creeped out by his unusually friendly overturesasking them if they've missed him, for example, and sending holiday packages of chocolates and blue corn tortilla chips via UPSas by his constant phone calls, especially to immigrant tenants and their English-speaking children. He regularly invites tenants out for coffee, but before the creamer hits the table, they say, Croman has already launched into hardball tactics to get them to move. The first step is usually a chummy buyout offer, typically with a proviso that they tell no one the terms. If the deal is rejected, tenants say, Croman threatens eviction.
"I don't view talking to your tenants and offering money per se as harassment," says Kossoff. "I can see how it can be uncomfortable and be perceived as an inappropriate act, but Steve Croman is not the thing that goes bump in the night. Of all the stuff that I know landlords do in the city of New York, to me that's very far down the spectrum of something that would be loathsome in nature," says Kosoff, a seasoned landlord attorney.