By Anna Merlan
By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
Generations of tenants tell similar stories about Mark Hersh: They've seen him threaten tenants with a baseball bat and sometimes beat them with it. One former tenant says he was the victim of such a beating in 1992. Some say he refused to accept their rent then evicted them for not paying. According to affidavits he takes money from the welfare checks of his disabled tenants in exchange for cashing them. They tell of squalid conditions, tenants begging him for repairs that never get made, and a lack of heat and hot water.
Desmond Giddings, a tenant at the Hersh-owned Colonial House Hotel at 611 West 112th Street, said in a 2002 affidavit, "Just two days ago, I ran into Mark, and he asked me when I was leaving. I will never forget what he said: 'Whenever I look at you, I don't see a human; I see a dollar sign.' Over the years, I also witnessed Mark charging mentally ill tenants 'fees' for cashing their checks. They would line up in the lobby and Mark would tell them that he was going to take $100 from each check." HPD filed Giddings's affidavit and 12 other tenants' statements in a 2005 proceeding opposing a permit for Hersh to convert the Colonial into a more profitable residential building.
Giddings is now the sole tenant at the Colonial. He's lived there for 12 years and although he says he's afraid of his landlord, he can't afford to move. A middle-aged African American with a bushy beard and rough hands, Giddings does tai chilike exercises almost every morning in Riverside Park, then heads off for a job of carpentry or other hard labor. He says the barbarity he described has been going on as long as he's lived therebefore Hersh started emptying the building by buying tenants out, refusing to make repairs, or chasing them off with his bat.
The Voice tapped Hersh in 1990 as one of the city's worst landlords. He was dubbed the "West Side Batman" for using a bat to intimidate tenants at his Manhattan single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs). Most of them didn't stay very long. In 1990, his tenants told the Voice, Hersh commanded a goon squad that was told to throw out anyone causing him trouble. Back then, they said, he used to lurk in the hallways at the Colonialbat in handintimidating those who lived in the squalor he lorded over. They said he evicted tenants by force.
Many things have changed in 16 years. In 2006, owning a building on the Upper West Side, between Broadway and Riverside Drive, can be better than discovering gold in your backyard. But that's only if you can sell the property or renovate it and turn it into something more profitable. Hersh can't do either. He needs a special permit from HPD, called a certificate of no harassment, to renovate the Colonial. The city won't give that to him because it says he ran a ruthless campaign to empty the Colonial before he applied for the certificate in 2002. Hersh contends in a brief Voice interview that potential buyers are aware of his fight with the city, so they are making lowball offers that he won't take. From Hersh's perspective, he's sitting on a pile of money and the city is screwing him out of it. He blames it all on Deborah Rand, the former director of the West Side SRO Law Project, who now heads HPD's increasingly aggressive litigation unit. He says that she's been out to get him for years and that he's "never harassed anyone."
"It's a catch-22," Hersh tells the Voice. "They tell you to fix up the building, and then they say you can't make repairs without a permit, and you can't get a permit without a no-harassment certificate, which they don't give. So your hands are tied."
It's ironic that Hersh would say this, especially because he received a certificate of no harassment for another building just a few years ago. The city issues them only in cases in which tenants have not been forced out or coerced into giving up their rights. Owner of several SROs, Hersh is familiar with the laws that protect them. He knows what it takes to get a certificate of no harassment: You can't harass anyone. And administrative law judge John B. Spooner ruled in January that Hersh has done precisely that at the Colonial, finding that the landlord had even "threatened tenants with a bat in an effort to force them to vacate the building." Hersh filed a lawsuit on May 15 challenging HPD and Spooner's findings. There are 134 rooms at the Colonial, and most of them were full before Hersh sought the certificate. By 2002, only five tenants remained, and now, just Giddings.
Before the 2005 hearing, Hersh paid hotshot lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig $40,000 to try to convince HPD to give him the certificate without taking the case to court. Lobbyist Edward C. Wallace proffered a $500,000 settlement, that on top of another deal he had made with the Coalition for the Homeless, adding that there was "a better way to resolve the dispute than for each side to gamble on the outcome of the hearing." The city rolled the dice on the hearing anyway.
At the hearing, HPD presented affidavits about squalid conditions in the building and alleged threats and exploitation by Hersh. In one of them, tenant Carolyn Bradley said, "I witnessed Mark threaten tenants with a bat many times . . . especially on 'check day,' when many [welfare] recipients receive their money. Mark would lend people money if they were short. On check day, he would demand they pay him morea kind of interest. He would get the bat out and raise it, threatening to hit people if they did not pay."
But Hersh's bat wasn't always wielded to demand money. Another tenant, Alan Wexler, said in an affidavit, "On several occasions I was threatened with a baseball bat when I tried to bring in a visitor. In 1992, Mark actually beat me with a bat. His workers [held] me down while he hit me." Wexler recently confirmed the details from his affidavit in a Voice interview, but he expresses fear of reprisals from Hersh though he has been out of the Colonial for five years. Giddings too confirms what he said in his affidavit and refuses to add anything because he's worried that this story might provoke his landlord's wrath.
Hersh refused at the hearing to identify other buildings he owned except to say that five were in Manhattan, all "within a 20-block radius" of the Colonial, and two in Queens. According to city records, Hersh also owns the Frant Hotelanother SRO, with 101 rooms. Hersh also has an apartment building with 36 units at 227 West 109 Street. Between the Colonial, the Frant, and the building on 109th Street, Hersh has more than 200 outstanding code violations.
Denying the harassment allegations, Hersh portrayed himself during his testimony as a victim and says he was afraid of Rand. He blamed his tenants for the horrid conditions, saying they caused the problems to "extract a larger amount of money from me." He says tenants denied him access to their rooms when he tried to make repairs. He also says the 114 tenants who had recently left the Colonial either moved of their own volition or were legally evicted.
But Judge Spooner didn't buy that, saying, "A more plausible explanation is that the campaign of harassment was successful, and most of the tenants left due to the conditions and repeated threatening actions by the owner."
When contacted by the Voice, Hersh granted a brief interview. "You and I have a lot to talk about," he said at the time. "We'll set up a meeting in the next couple of days." He never called back. Instead, Hersh's attorney Adam Bailey called, explaining that he had ordered Hersh not to speak to the Voice again. Bailey met with the Voice for two hours and provided more than a dozen folders of documents, and said, "I have never seen so much government corruption." He denied all the allegations in the affidavits, including the use of violence and harassment to run off tenants.
Bailey said Rand was "a governmental bully, who deserves to be arrested." And Rand isn't the only "corrupt" player, said Bailey. At the hearing, Hersh said the conspiracy was citywide. Bailey noted that HPD had been interfering with Hersh's plans for the building since before Rand took the job at HPD.
Bailey explained that as soon as the city got wind that Hersh was seeking a certificate, the Colonial was swarming with HPD inspectors. Records indicate that regular inspections occurred in 2000 and 2001, before the application, and that they did occur more often after the filing.
Bailey also pointed out that HPD tried to get the courts to take the Colonial away from Hersh and assign an administrator to run the building in 2001. He said HPD, prodded by the West Side SRO Law Project, was unfairly trying to preempt Hersh from getting the certificate.
Bailey noted that other HPD officials supported the granting of a certificate after a settlement offer was made with Coalition for the Homeless. In an October 18, 2004, memo to Rand, Elizabeth Bolden, the assistant commissioner of HPD's housing litigation division, supported the certificate. Bolden made her recommendation based on a memo written by HPD's attorney in charge of the SRO Anti-Harassment Unit, Philliss Simpson, and "other sources." Simpson's memo noted the settlement and added that the state's Department of Housing and Community Renewal and HPD's own SRO Compliance Unit "had no information regarding harassment at the premises."
Bolden no longer works for HPD, but a letter from State Senator Eric T. Schneiderman indicates that she should have known about some of the problems at the Colonial in 2001. Schneiderman wrote her in August that year to urge her to take legal action to appoint someone else to run the building. Obviously, a judge later found that the memos from Bolden and Simpson did not tell the whole story.