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More than two dozen tenants were made homeless last week, streaming out of their East 23rd Street apartments while Red Cross rescue workers stood by. But there was no fire, flood, or natural disaster to blame. Instead, their plight was the result of an equally unstoppable force: a landlord's greed. In this case, the owner is Pablo Llorente, whose menacing style earned him a spot on the Voice's 1998 Ten Worst Landlords list.
The tenants had lived in 13 of 26 apartments of 42 East 23rd Street, a building Llorente bought in 1993. They were vacated by the Department of Buildings (DOB) because Llorente has illegally converted the structure from commercial to residential use, leaving some tenants with inadequate fire egress and no sprinkler system.
"We know this is tough for the tenants," said DOB spokesperson Ilyse Fink, "but our concern is for them. We don't take vacate orders lightly."
Some tenants said they are willing to live without the required safety features and doubt the situation's urgency, since DOB sent a "preemptory vacate order" in April but enforced it only last week. But tenants do agree that they are the ones bearing the brunt of Llorente's folly.
"It's inhumane what he's done here," four-year tenant Delilah Ramos said while city workers padlocked apartments on July 12. Sitting in her stairwell amid piles of luggage, including two pet totes that held her cats, Ramos fumed: "He's obviously reaping a huge profit and exploiting people." Her neighbor of two years, George Fine, lamented, "We get uprooted, and he doesn't seem to give a shit. He's been making money for a long time and it just doesn't matter to him."
Llorente, who owns six Manhattan buildings, did not return calls to his home or office. He is known to city officials as a rogue who ignores the most basic safety rules, to Con Ed as a deadbeat who must be regularly sued for payment, and to tenants as a thug who might attack them at any time.
Since 1980, Llorente has paid punitive damages for a violent eviction, pleaded guilty to trespassing into a tenant's apartment, and been convicted of harassing one renter by menacing him with a flashlight. In 1997, Llorente spent a week in Rikers for lunging at a contractor with a monkey wrench.
In 1998, DOB evacuated 15 tenants from illegal basement apartments in Llorente's West 180th Street building. This February, Llorente signed a settlement with DOB that requires the eviction of tenants in any apartment Llorente built without permits at his West 95th Street property, though it's unclear if anyone's been evicted.
Even the East 23rd Street tenants who were not vacated, because their apartments have adequate fire egress, may face the streets soon. In May, Llorente's firm, Plon Realty, notified them that their leases would not be renewed. Tenants complain that DOB's crackdown actually plays right into the landlord's hands.
"We were used by DOB to put pressure on Llorente, and used by Llorente to get everyone out," said vacated tenant Tom Kern. "With the building empty, he can do the work he needs and hike the rents to $2500 or $3000, or sell the whole thing."
Most East 23rd Street tenants are students or young professionals; typically they paid $1400 for one-bedroom apartments of about 500 square feet, outfitted with bathrooms and kitchens and with community washers and dryers on several floorsall trappings of a residential building. And although some leases describe the building as commercial, tenants are especially steamed with Dansar Realty, the brokerage that showed them the building.
"I paid them at least a $2000 fee, and the fact that this is an illegal residence should have been brought to our attention," said tenant Sandy Sharma. Tenants said Dansar advised them that although the building was commercial, residential use was allowed and there would be no problems. Dansar did not return calls.
Tenants might have recourse "if they lived there with the consent and acquiescence of the landlord," said tenant attorney Arthur Rhine. One option is suing for readmission should Llorente legalize the building.
For now, tenants are trying to resettle, many staying with friends. Two required shelter from the Red Cross, an option that insulted tenant Deborah Kern. "It's disgusting," she said. "How dare they expect people who pay $1400 a month rent to go to a shelter?"
DOB's Fink said that she understands their frustration. But letting tenants remain could be lethal. "These tenants have definitely been ripped off by somebody, but not the city," said Fink. "Are we supposed to let them die on top of it?"