Authorities announced today the arrest and indictment of landlord Daniel Melamed for allegedly harassing the rent-regulated tenants of a Brooklyn building in a variety of terrible ways: turning off the heat in the winter, creating toxic lead dust, and simply tearing down the walls. What’s more, investigators say he tried to hide his abuses by claiming the building was vacant, when in fact several families lived there.
In all, Melamed, 37, of Great Neck, Long Island, manages six buildings in the city; the indictment stems from a fourteen-unit building at 1578 Union Street in Crown Heights that he bought in November 2012. Inspectors found more than 200 violations in the building.
One of Melamed’s contractors, Pirooz Soltanizadeh, 39, was also arraigned in Brooklyn Criminal Court today on three counts of unlawful eviction, one count of endangering the welfare of a child (documents specify the child is age six), and one count related to falsifying Department of Buildings documents. If convicted, the duo face between sixteen months and four years in prison.
This crackdown is the result of a task force announced back in February by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The indictment comes at a politically favorable time for Cuomo and de Blasio — rent regulation laws expired at midnight on Tuesday after the Republican-controlled state senate couldn’t agree on a bill to strengthen tenant protection (it passed in the state assembly). In all, about a million apartments in New York City are either rent-controlled or rent-stabilized, housing about 2 million people. Cuomo wrote on Sunday that he would call the legislature into special session every day “until the legislature resolves its differences and a new rent regulation package is passed.”
“The current rent law must be changed and improved because it rewards vacancies,” de Blasio said today. “And, therefore, an unscrupulous landlord will do everything in their power, legal or illegal, to get that vacancy, so they can jack up the rent an additional 20 percent.”
In the wake of those rules expiring, Cuomo issued a strongly worded statement saying that any landlord who tried to use the expiration as cause to evict a tenant would face “zero tolerance” from state government. Cuomo pointed out several times that any update to the state’s rent regulation laws will be retroactive to the expiration date of the old law.
Landlords looking to clear out rent-regulated tenants in order to renovate, raise the rent, and transform regulated apartments into market-rate units can’t use this expiration as a loophole. That hasn’t stopped them from trying, though.
“Here’s a rent-regulated building — this is exactly the kind of building we want to preserve so there’s decent housing for tenants,” de Blasio said following the indictment. “This is what we need to protect in this city, and look at what this landlord is alleged to have done — to have made it unlivable. How craven, to take families who are just trying to get by and make their lives unlivable for a profit.”
Here is the full rundown of charges against Melamed and Soltanizadeh:
Prosecutors allege that defendants filed false documents to circumvent the requirement that they submit what is known as a “tenant protection plan,” which ensures safety protocols are in place when occupied buildings are undergoing construction. Prosecutors allege that at the time defendants filed construction plans stating that the building was vacant, the building was in fact occupied, and the defendants thereby circumvented safety measures required by law.
Prosecutors also allege that the Task Force investigation revealed Melamed had repeatedly shut-off heat and hot-water to rent regulated tenants during winter construction in early and late 2014.
As part of the investigation by the joint task force, a DOB inspector gathered dust samples from the common areas on each floor of the building in December 2014. Prosecutors allege that laboratory results of the 19 samples taken show lead dust well beyond permissible levels, including a finding of approximately 22,000 micrograms of lead per square foot — or more than 88 times the threshold allowable under federal Environmental Protection Agency standards — on a common stairwell. According to court documents, tenants told Task Force investigators that the dust generated by building construction was so pervasive that tenants were forced to stuff wet towels under their doors to prevent the toxic dust from entering their homes.
As for the people who still live in the Crown Heights building, Schneiderman told reporters that “the building is being made safe. We think we’re going to get their cooperation initially — there’s nothing like being arrested to make you more cooperative.”