By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In a Manhattan case, Himmelstein says, he suspected that a landlord's claim that he needed an apartment for his son was a ruse. With a judge's permission, Himmelstein asked the landlord to produce dozens of records, including deeds, stock certificates from co-ops, school records, and birth certificates. In response, the landlord not only dropped the case but signed an agreement to never bring an owner's use case against the tenant, Liz Isaacs, again.
The victory was not lost on Isaacs, who, even though she works at a housing agency, says she "had never heard of an owner's use case before. When they sent me the letter about it and quoted the law, I was just going to give up. But I got a lawyer, and they backed off. If you just do the math for brokers' fees, you know you never want to lose an apartment in New York City."
Pity Abe Haruvi. On April 2, 1997, the then 42-year-old landlord told a heartbreaking tale in Manhattan's Housing Court. According to court papers Haruvi wrote, he and his wife had separated years before. In 1994, his wife had become too ill to care for their son, Jeremy, leaving the child in Haruvi's care. In July 1995, she died. Haruvi told the court that the railroad apartment where he lived in a building he owns at 22 West 75th Street "is not conducive any longer to raise a young child of twelve who is about to become a teenager." He added that "being single again poses some uncomfortable situations in an apartment with such a configuration especially with a young child in occupancy." Plus, he wanted to hire live-in help. Haruvi said he needed to evict long-term tenant Barbara Mack and take over her apartment.
A sad story, and possibly true. In fact, it seems Haruvi thought it was so moving, he told it twiceat the same time, to two different judges, neither of whom knew the other was being similarly regaled. Less than two months before he sued Mack, Haruvi had made the exact same claims in his attempt to empty an apartment in another building he owns. That time, he was trying to boot Catherine Pellow, who, with her young daughter, had lived in a four-bedroom apartment in Haruvi's building at 114 East 71st Street for eight years. The only difference between the Mack and Pellow cases was that Haruvi did not live in the Pellow building; he had bought the 71st Street apartment building in 1996 while living in the West 75th Street property, which his family had owned since before 1983.
The owner's use law does allow landlords to take more than one apartment, provided that the apartments will be their primary city residences. But the fact that it was legally impossible for Haruvi to simultaneously take apartments in two separate buildings gives the lie to the verification Haruvi signed in both the Pellow and Mack cases, swearing that he was telling the truth each time. What finally happened with Pellow's unit seems to prove that Haruvi had no intention of moving himself and his son there.
Under a June 1998 court-supervised stipulation, Pellow agreed to move out of her flat within a year. In return, she was paid $15,000 and lived rent-free from the date of the agreement until she moved to Brooklyn in June 1999. But Haruvi never moved into the apartment himself. Instead, this May, he re-rented the flat to tenants who are paying market rent. The new tenants would not say what their rent is, but other tenants in the building say newcomers are paying at least $5000 a month. Pellow, who was rent-stabilized, paid about $900. When told that her apartment had been re-rented, she guessed the new tenants were paying $8000.
That is exactly what the owner's use law is supposed to forbid. Landlords who use the owner's law are required to live in the apartment themselves, or have the family member for whom the apartment was taken live there, for at least three years after the previous tenant moved out. In Pellow's case, that means Haruvi should not have re-rented until at least June 2002. Instead, the landlord waited less than one year to re-rent, presumably at an astronomical markup. (Haruvi had dropped the case against Mack because the building was owned by a Haruvi corporation rather than by Haruvi personally.)
Haruvi declined to answer Voicequestions, calling his reliance on the owner's use law "a very sensitive subject; I prefer not to discuss it." Haruvi, whose legal voting address is in the West 75th Street building and who has five addresses and six phone numbers listed in the White Pages, referred questions to his attorney, Anthony LeCrichia. LeCrichia did not return repeated phone calls.
Pellow, who now lives in Los Angeles, did not know that Haruvi never moved into her old place. She says she settled largely because Housing Court Judge Oymin Chin told her that she was convinced Haruvi had a good case, and warned Pellow that if she lost, she could be liable for Haruvi's legal fees.
"My whole life is totally changed now," says Pellow. "I couldn't live in New York anymore," having lost her affordable apartment. "If I could get my old apartment back in New York at the rent I was paying, I'd do it in a minute."