By Anna Merlan
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One month after carbon monoxide fumes sent tenants into seizures and forced the evacuation of two Upper West Side buildings, life has not returned to normal. Tenants at 159-161 West 80th Street still have no gas for cooking, and one older resident remains hospitalized. What is the same, though it can hardly be described as normal, is the wacky behavior of the building's owner, Pablo Llorente.
"Yesterday, he was laughing about the whole thing and saying, 'Well, at least nobody died,' " tenant Laura Martin said last week. "The day one of the most severely injured persons got back from the hospital, Pablo actually shoved him. I just don't understand why he's not in jail."
In fact, Llorente has been in jail: In 1997, he spent a week on Rikers for using a monkey wrench to attack a contractor at one of his buildings. He's also been convicted of harassment for assaulting a tenant in a building he owns on West 95th Street, where he also once shoved an inspector from the city's Department of Buildings. Such antics, coupled with his constant bending and breaking of city rules, won Llorente a spot at the top of the Voice's Ten Worst Landlords series in 1998.
The January 28 carbon monoxide leak sent 21 people to the hospital. Llorente, who lives in New Jersey but owns half a dozen Manhattan properties, is considered "one of our most egregious offenders," says DOB spokesperson Paul Wein. Carbon monoxide levels inside apartments were 400 parts per million20 times over the level considered safe.
Last week, tenants of the West 80th Street building sued Llorente in housing court, filing the case as "The Gassed Tenants Association of 159-161 West 80th Street." They allege that the lovely, turn-of-the-century buildings are infested with mice inside, and rats outside. Leaks rot hallway ceilings, banisters are loose, and windows broken during the evacuation remain boarded. "We had many of these problems before the boiler went off; for Pablo, this is just business as usual," says one tenant who feared being identified "because you know he has his ways of dealing with people." The tenants are on rent strike. Neither Llorente nor his lawyer returned calls for this story.
For years, Llorente has been under the close watch of other city agencies, including the Corporation Counsel, which sued Llorente and his business, Plon Realty, for illegally evicting a tenant and altering his building at 311 West 95th Street. Deborah Rand of the Corporation Counsel's office says Llorente has pleaded guilty to 10 violations of the building code, most having to do with illegally converting basement space into apartments. In February 2000, Llorente agreed to a consent order to legalize the alterations and to stop bothering tenants and interfering with services. So far, he has paid about $75,000 in fines and is due to pay another $27,671 by April 1, says Rand.
"We've resolved a lot at the 95th Street building, and in many areas he's come into compliance, but some things are still pending," Rand says. "There's been progress, but it's taken an inordinately long time."
Llorente faces no such litigation regarding the carbon monoxide leak, which resulted from a faulty boiler, according to city records. In fact, on January 9, three weeks before the tenants were poisoned, DOB inspected the boiler and found defects. Through the city's Environmental Control Board, Llorente was ordered to make repairs; the agency ruled the situation hazardous. On January 28, an inspection after the leak revealed the exact same problems.
Tenants are frustrated that to date, Llorente faces only fines, considering that they were poisoned. "Even if they enforce the law, they say it's only a maximum fine of $800 per violation," says Martin. "He's laughing at it, telling the plumber to 'hurry up and fix this so I can get my rent checks.' "
Dave Powell of the Met Council, who is organizing the West 80th Street tenants, says the problem is that "after all these tenants have been through, Giuliani's DOB has no mechanism in place to take over the building or jail Llorente or do anything but slap his wrist with minimal fines."
Indeed, although city officials say Llorente is under their watchand they have scrutinized him more than many other renegade landlordsit is the tenants, not the landlord, who suffer most for Llorente's rogue behavior. In July, for instance, tenants in a Llorente building at 42 East 23rd Street were permanently vacated because he had illegally converted a commercial building to residential use, leaving the occupants of 13 front-facing apartments with no fire egress. DOB forced the tenants to evacuate, inadvertently helping Llorente empty the prime building. He is said to be selling the property.