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.

He also denies attorney Kossoff's allegation that he had pressed Croman "for a substantial and extravagant buyout." After the early-morning conversation, the tenant says, Croman suggested he could offer money "and maybe we won't have to go to court." Ultimately, the tenant rejected the buyout offer.

A few floors below is the empty apartment that was once home to the Zenteno family, where Antonio Zenteno was the long-term tenant of record. Clara Zenteno says Croman made good on a contract that offered her father $10,000 to move out, but stiffed them on an oral agreement for another $6000 to vacate sooner than the agreement called for.

"There's nothing about that in the agreement," Kossoff says of the $6000. And he says that neither he nor Croman have heard any complaints from the Zentenos, adding that if the family contacted him or Croman, they would "rectify it. . . . This is a very serious matter for Steve, because he prides himself in his honesty. If someone says they were hoodwinked out of an apartment, that's horrible."

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.

But Clara Zenteno says that's exactly what happened. "Croman used to come over to our old apartment every other week and ask us, 'Why don't you move? It's cramped in here.' " When the family finally did relocate, they say they were shortchanged. "He denies right to our face that he made the offer," says Clara Zenteno, "but he's done his dirty work."

When Croman won the bid on the three 18th Street buildings last May, he knew he'd nabbed a singular deal. Long owned by Beth Israel hospital, the property included 31 vacant apartments spread throughout 73 units. "These don't come along very often," Croman told Crain's New York Business. For New York City landlords, vacant apartments are a bonanza.

The buildings were unusual in another way: Years of dissatisfaction with Beth Israel had prompted the organization of a tenant association. Well-schooled in landlord-tenant law, its members challenged Croman in a way that few downtown tenants had.

"When Steve bought these buildings, he basically inherited the association," says Kossoff. "It did not form as a result of him buying these buildings. . . . And let's be practical: He wants the tenant association to go away. So he wants to do those things that will calm everybody down." Kossoff says Croman has, for example, given long-term tenants leases that were due to them under Beth Israel. "He has dealt with the tenant leaders to make sure that he's been responsive to their repair demands, but unfortunately there is spillover from Beth Israel."

Yes and no, say residents. While tenant Mardy Sitzer agrees that Croman has been "very magnanimous about repairs," she and others say there are problems that have nothing to do with Beth Israel. One is Croman's leasing of vacant apartments as dormitories for CUNY graduate students; Croman has changed about a dozen apartments to make three small, lockable rooms that share a kitchen and bath. Students say they each pay $715 a month, for a total rent of $2145.

"It's not that we mind students, but our fear is that we are living in a building that is being turned into a transient situation, when these are our homes," says Sitzer. "There's been no additional security, and there are a lot of copies of keys floating around." But Kossoff says the dorm rooms are an improvement: "They've had wild nurse parties that were a lot worse. These are not just students, they're graduate students."

More troubling, says long-term tenant Harriet Putterman, is the possibility that the rooms are an end run around rent laws. Kossoff says that the apartments were exempt from rent regulation because they housed Beth Israel employees, but Putterman and others say that is not true in every case. "This could be the new kind of polite skirting of the rent rules," says Putterman. "It's not like the '80s, when a landlord would move in drug addicts or criminals to empty out a building, but it's just as insidious. It's the same effect, with a lacier curtain."

Kossoff says Croman intends the school leases to be temporary until he makes the units available for rent, probably at market rates.

While Croman crowed that the largely unoccupied buildings were a good buy, he seems to want even more vacancies. Several renters complain that he has challenged their tenancy because they are relying on succession rights. Croman initially accepted and then rejected the rent of one tenant whose grandparents were longtime leaseholders; the tenant grew up in the building. Croman recognized the tenant as a lawful occupant only after reviewing the tenant's tax forms, children's birth certificates, a marriage license, and the grandmother's death certificate.

"It's par for the course for any landlord who takes over a building" to ask for such documentation, says Kossoff. "They don't necessarily know who the tenants are. Being a landlord is still a business in New York City, and where people meritoriously proved their rights we acknowledged them."

Tenant Sam Burrell has not been so lucky. He says his father moved into the 18th Street building in 1967; that his grandfather lived there shortly thereafter; and that he himself himself has lived there since 1980. Burrell declined to relocate from his three-bedroom apartment to a small one-bedroom that Croman showed him downtown. Eventually, Croman began an eviction.

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