There Goes the Neighborhood

Landlord Steve Croman Has Turned Downtown Tenements Upscale, but Not Everyone Is Cheering. On 18th Street, a New Crop of Croman Tenants Is Worried That They’re Next.

Disruptive as Croman may be to a neighborhood, he is also a quintessentially Gotham phenom. "In some ways, I feel that calling Croman bad is beyond the point," says Bill Obrecht, who lived at 280 Mulberry for more than two decades and who battled Croman for years before accepting a buyout. "It's like saying that cancer is bad. The cells are just doing what they're trained to do. Croman is just one of those guys whose job is simply to make money no matter what. He always seemed a little surprised when I would look at him like he was dirt. But what happened in the neighborhood seems to be very much the normal course of events. People fight as hard as they can, and they get pushed out. It's so New York."

Croman's foray into real estate came just two months after his 24th birthday. In November 1990, he incorporated Croman Real Estate, specializing in downtown apartment sales and rentals. In 1992, he bought a tenement at 221 Mott. By the end of the decade, Croman, now 33, had purchased nearly 20 properties. And while the Croman Real Estate Web site bids visitors "Welcome to Croman's New York," for many Croman tenants, the last thing they feel in their homes is welcome.

On the way Uptown: Croman’s Web site welcomes visitors to ‘‘Croman’s New York,’’ but tenants say they feel anything but welcome.
photo: Brian Finke
On the way Uptown: Croman’s Web site welcomes visitors to ‘‘Croman’s New York,’’ but tenants say they feel anything but welcome.

His Mott Street properties illustrate the point. At 234 Mott, Croman's incessant phoning of tenants resulted in a ban forbidding him from calling them or their families to talk about vacating their apartments; now, such contact must be lawyer-to-lawyer. The 1998 stipulation was brokered by a state housing agency after tenants, mostly Asian immigrants, brought harassment complaints against Croman.

"He'd call you or his staff would call you day and night, at home and at work," says Rosie Wong, a housing organizer "He'd say, 'You know this is a shitty, dangerous building. Why don't you move out?' " Tenants recently renewed the phone ban for two years.

Kossoff says tenants are mistaken if they take Croman's hands-on style for harassment. "His m.o. is not to belittle or badger, and if I were the one serving notices and having discussions with tenants, The Village Voice would never be involved. But the fact that he tries to save some money on legal fees—which is really what he's doing—and does it himself, he holds himself up to this kind of a microscope."

In an eviction suit pending against a Chinese family at 234 Mott, Kossoff's firm itself wasscolded by housing court judges. In September 1998, Judge Margaret Cammer reprimanded the firm for demanding that the tenants' lawyer produce dozens of documents in an attempt to show that the tenants had illegally sublet their apartment. Such demands cannot be made without the judge's permission. Then in November 1999, Judge Michelle Schreiber chastised Croman's lawyers for "inappropriate use of subpoena power" when they sought records regarding the tenants' phone, utility, and bank accounts without the judge's required permission.

Kossoff says that a third judge ruled that the document demand did not merit a sanction. And he says that the question of whether lawyers can issue trial subpoenas is "very hot" now in civil courts. "For whatever Judge Schreiber ruled, I can show you three other decisions that go exactly the opposite way," says Kossoff.

Joshua Goldberg, the tenants' lawyer, says that in this case, Croman is "attempting to take advantage" of tenants whose command of English and the law might be limited. Goldberg calls Croman's 1997 allegations about an illegal sublet "flat-out false," and notes that the landlord abandoned the case by not acting on it for a year, only to file another suit that was essentially the same but charged that the tenants really lived in a Brooklyn home. Kossoff says a deed shows that the tenants owned the home but transferred it to their children after getting legal papers.

Goldberg says the tenants may have helped their children buy the house. "It's not unreasonable for a parent to assist a child," says Goldberg. "The fact that they live on Mott Street is completely corroborated by phone bills, mail, driver's licenses, tax forms."

Late last month, in another Mott Street building, Croman notified an 83-year-old Dominican woman who raised her family in a six-room apartment for at least 30 years that she must vacate by mid May. The woman is charged with illegally subletting the apartment—to her son, a grown man who has lived there since childhood.

Croman alleges that the woman no longer lives there, although her son says she does. Even if she had moved out, it would appear that her son has succession rights because he has lived so long in the apartment; in fact, he has gathered school records from 1971 to show his longevity at the apartment.

"He might have succession rights, but that's for a court to decide," says Todd Rose, an attorney representing Croman in this matter. Rose says the tenant "admitted" that his mother lives in Queens. The tenant tells a different story, saying that in an unnerving predawn encounter, Croman approached him in the hallway. "Your mother lives in Queens, doesn't she?" Croman asked. The tenant, rattled, said yes, though he insists it's not true.

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