By Zachary D. Roberts
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Staffers at the city's housing agency have abandoned the usual channels to review an application that would allow a Harlem homeowner to convert a single-room-occupancy hotel into a private home. The application is being rerouted because it has been made by the very official who usually oversees such applications.
Assistant commissioner Elizabeth Bolden, who heads the housing litigation bureau at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), has applied for a "certificate of no harassment," which, if granted, would allow her to turn her four-story SRO building at 56 Edgecombe Avenue into a single-family house. Bolden filed the application on March 26, 2000, just as the Voice was making inquiries into her ownership of the building, which has 10 SRO units. In 1996, Bolden paid at least three tenants $500 each to move out after a bitter court battle which included complaints that bathrooms were without water or, in one case, nailed shut by Bolden. (See "Courting Trouble," March 29, 2000.) Bolden joined HPD in 1998.
In a faxed statement, HPD spokeswoman Carol Abrams wrote that Bolden's application "is currently under review by a unit separate and independent from Ms. Bolden's. The review will result in a determination of whether there is probable cause to go forward with a hearing on the application," a step HPD takes if it thinks tenants might have been harassed.
SROs provide an important source of housing for very-low-income people, and the city forbids alterations unless owners can prove to HPD that they have not emptied a building by harassment. Former Bolden tenant Barbara North, who had lived in the building for 25 years when Bolden bought it in 1995, swore in a court affidavit that she was "tired of my landlord and her boyfriend/helper's constant harassment." But her complaint is unlikely to impede the assistant commissioner's application because it was written before the official "look-back period" that governs no-harassment certificates. HPD can consider only the three years that precede an application; in Bolden's case, March 1997 to March 2000.
"She is at least clever," says one source familiar with SRO law. "She waited to apply until the three-year period would exclude the tenants. The real issue is, has she done any alterations to the building without the certificate?" The city's building department has no record of such work, and, in fact, denied Bolden's 1996 request for an alteration permit to remove non-load-bearing walls. In the housing court case, the question of harassment was not addressed, but the judge directed Bolden to make a "good faith effort" at repairs. Bolden did not make all the repairs, she wrote, because she ran out of money.
Abrams, who took Voiceinquiries for Bolden, did not answer questions about whether Bolden had made alterations. According to the application, in the last three years, only two tenants have lived at 56 Edgecombe, both for short periods. Neither registered a complaint about Bolden; in fact, one wrote that the assistant commissioner had "done me a favor by allowing me to stay in her home until I found another place."
Abrams also did not answer a question about why Bolden was seeking a certificate of no harassment at this time. Bolden's application states that she needs the no-harassment certificate so she can get a certificate of occupancy from the buildings department, but it is unclear why she needs one. Occupancy certificates make altering, financing, and selling property easier.
While Bolden herself is attracting some attention, her division, which sues landlords who fail to follow the housing code, is pursuing a controversial plan to expand its crew of attorneys by hiring private laywers. HPD's housing litigation bureau (HLB) has long been criticized as understaffed and recently uninterested in forcing landlords to follow the law. In the past six weeks, sources say, the agency has "sent feelers" to some tenant attorneys to see if they would be interested in "picking up some litigation work."
"It was a very hypothetical proposition, with no discussion of terms or how this thing would work," said one tenant attorney who was contacted. "They wanted to know if the tenant bar would be interested in this sort of thing. Hypothetically, I wouldn't mind suing the hell out of landlords; that's my job."
According to Abrams's statement, HPD "is exploring ideas about supplementing existing staff, not replacing them." Even so, one source didn't take the idea as a sign that the city intends to change its current lax approach to renegade owners. "This is probably not a rededication but one of the new GOP things of trying to get something done for less money," said one source. "This mayor's constituency is the poor, put-upon little landlord, as well as the large landlord."
Concern and even opposition are likely to come from several fronts should HPD pursue the private practitioner plan. Some housing advocates worry that if landlord litigation is parceled out, HPD will lose its ability to discern patterns that might warn of problems developing among certain landlords. Because HPD litigators are members of the Civil Service Bar Association, officials there say the move would erode the union. "It's absolutely a problem," says bar president Gloria Johnson. "It would be a clear violation of the contract if they are hiring out."
Finally, Manhattan City Council member Stanley Michels was stunned to hear of the plan, since HPD officials, including outgoing commissioner Richard Roberts, have in recent months spent hours presenting budget information to the council but made not one mention of the idea.
"We just put money in the budget for litigators," says Michels, referring to the budget that passed in June. "I want to know how this would work. I want to make sure the lawyers they consider are loyal to HPD." Michels says he hopes to get HPD to answer council questions about the plan.
"I'm very concerned that it not become a patronage thing," says Michels. "And I want to know why they don't just put more lawyers on their own staff. I'm not happy with the job they're doing."