Tenants Be Gone

Amid West Side development fever, a pit bull landlord on West 45th street confronts his loft dwellers

Patterson was also appalled when the landlord rented to an auto body spray-paint operation on her building's ground floor—a violation cited repeatedly by city inspectors. "The fumes were so strong you didn't even want to be in the apartment," said Patterson.

Others paying top dollar also voiced gripes. Richard Meyer, who pays $2,500, said he had to run his stove and electric heaters the past two winters. "They just weren't paying the oil bill," he said. Meyer said Tommy Papaioannou also suggested to him that his game plan was to get the IMDs out. "He said he was going to raise the rents really high and get everybody out," said Meyer.

Aric Zagon, who rents 1,200 square feet, said the new owners' arrival coincided with a slide in services and other headaches. Roof leaks went unrepaired, he said. One night, hundreds of teenagers filled the courtyard. It turned out that a vacant space had been rented for a rave. "It was a lot of noise, fights. I just kept my door closed."

Embattled: Tenants of 517-25 West 45th Street (left to right), Osage Lewis-Ashley; organizer Bob Kalin; Elissa Patterson, son Mercer, Ross Patterson; Tom Cayler, son Cai (seated)
photo: Dennis Kleiman
Embattled: Tenants of 517-25 West 45th Street (left to right), Osage Lewis-Ashley; organizer Bob Kalin; Elissa Patterson, son Mercer, Ross Patterson; Tom Cayler, son Cai (seated)

Hartofelis pinned the elevator outages to a Con Ed snafu, and denied that the heat was cut. As for Tommy Papaioannou's alleged vows to rid the place of the IMDs, he said, "Landlords talk that way all the time. I explained to him he couldn't force people out."

The lawyer also insisted that his clients were not responsible for the most recent development at the complex, in which units have been broken up into what city inspectors have dubbed illegal single-room-occupancy apartments, with as many as six bedrooms each. Tenants scoff at that claim, saying the Papaioannous have overseen the work.

This month, the Sunday Times real estate section featured one such fragmented apartment. An article headed "Habitats/Hell's Kitchen" described a happy-time Friends-style arrangement in which five strangers had rented individual bedrooms through Web ads for $1,050 to $1,285 apiece. Tenants of that apartment, No. 401 at 517 West 45th Street, didn't respond to a note requesting an interview, but Patterson, who lives down the hall, said they had moved in after the Papaioannous allowed another tenant to make the changes.

Illegally carved-up apartments are a threat to everyone, city officials say, whether it's relatively affluent Manhattan singles or jam-packed immigrants in the outer boroughs. In January, two firefighters were killed battling a blaze in a maze of illegal bedrooms in the Bronx, a tragedy that moved Mayor Bloomberg to call for a crackdown on such units.

Sacklow, the inspector from the mayor's Midtown Enforcement office, served both Stavros and Tommy Papaioannou with criminal court summonses for failing to correct such violations. The men failed to answer court dates, and bench warrants were issued for their arrests, officials said.

"What they did in those units is not just illegal, it is potentially dangerous," said Richard Plansky, the city's deputy criminal justice coordinator, whose office oversees the enforcement unit. "You have to make sure it's safe, that people have sufficient egress to get out in case of fire or other emergencies."

Hartofelis said he thought that the criminal summonses had been dealt with. "I'm really not sure. I thought they'd been answered," he said.

Meanwhile, tenants in the buildings have formed a popular front, with the low-rent loft dwellers and the high-end tenants mutually seeking a court order appointing an outside administrator to run the buildings. The court action is being pressed by a local neighborhood group, Housing Conservation Coordinators, long a bastion of tenant protections in the area.

Bob Kalin, a veteran organizer at the group, said the Papaioannous have failed to live up to numerous promises made in court to make repairs. "These buildings really typify this Wild West mentality you see out there these days," he said. "The owners think they can do whatever they want." The attitude has been stoked by the feverish West Side development market and the recent Hudson Yards rezoning to the south, Kalin said. "The fiercest and most aggressive development activity we're seeing is between Tenth and Eleventh avenues," said Kalin. Even the railroad cut, avoided since the days when the Gophers prowled there, is a target for development now. "Before," he said, "it was just too expensive."

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