Lax buildings enforcement results in loss of affordable housing



Frontal view of 335-337 West 55th Street, showing that interiors had been removed. Photo: Tiffany Wong.

In a string of demolitions that have taken place across Midtown West, a building at 335-337 West 55th Street is the latest casualty.

“This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Joe Restuccia of Community Board 4.

At a meeting on October 4th, concerned board members announced that CB4 will have lost 21 buildings that included 153 affordable housing units since December 2015, in what is an “unprecedented crisis” in the district, said Restuccia. Such losses have stemmed from the Department of Buildings’ pattern of approving demolition applications that do not include required documents or contain misleading information, according to community board records.

In August, a neighborhood resident reported to CB4 that what had looked like construction at 335-337 West 55th Street, a two story single room occupancy building, known as an SRO, located within the Preservation Area of the Special Clinton District, was actually demolition.

The Special Clinton District came about when a zoning resolution was adopted in 1973 to preserve existing affordable housing units in the neighborhood. The resolution states that SROs could only be demolished if they were deemed to be structurally unsound. Other neighborhoods in Midtown West have been modeled after the Special Clinton District, including areas in West Chelsea, the Garment District and the Hudson Yards.

According to the 55th Street block association, it was reported that the residential interiors of the building at 335-337 West 55th St. had been gutted behind the façade and that the owner was also tearing down the brick façade along with the wall that had divided the two structures.

Demolition of the façade of 335-337 W. 55th Street. Photo: 55th Street Block Association.

Demolition of the partition wall between 335 and 337 West 55th Street. Photo: 55th Street Block Association.

At the meeting, Silvia Fuca of SF Design, who is the architect involved in the demolition on West 55th Street, argued that what they were doing was only a partial demolition—an “Alteration 1” that meant that they had kept 75 percent of the building intact. But the board disagreed.

“There are two walls left. The building is gone,” fired back JD Nolan, the CB4 chair of the Clinton Land Use Committee. “The fact is, there were two SROs; they were in the special district, and now they’re gone. We are dealing with absurdity here,” he said.

CB4 said the demolition of 335-337 West 55th St. had occurred when the owner filed a series of “minor alterations.” According to Restuccia, these are illegal tactics meant to sidestep demolition regulations. In 1988, a series of tenements on West 43rd street were torn down because the owners applied to the DOB for alteration permits throughout the course of several years; eventually, the “alterations” added together to constitute the full demolition of the buildings.

In order to prevent a similar incident from happening, City Planning codified that if more than 20 percent of a residential property is altered in the Special Clinton District, the developer was required to obtain a special permit from the City Planning Commission. A special permit was not applied for in the case of 335-337 West 55th Street.

Fuca denied any accusations of wrongdoing. She emphasized that what they had done was legal, because the DOB had approved all of their applications and filings. She referenced how a DOB inspector had come on site several times and noted that there was no illegal demolition happening. “There are no better experts on zoning than the DOB,” she said.

Members of the Community Board 4 argued otherwise, stating that the forms submitted to the DOB by the owner contained misleading information that contradicted the stated scope of work. Some examples included not checking off that the building had SRO units, and claims that there was previously only one residential unit. According to CB4, there were previously 28. Despite the discrepancies and the missing application for a special permit, the DOB approved the alterations.

By not enforcing laws protecting affordable housing and allowing owners to “get away” with flouting regulations, the DOB “creates incentives for bad practice,” says Restuccia.

The building on West 55th Street is completely vacant of residents. Bob Kalin, of Housing Conservation Coordinators, said that low-income tenants tend to “scatter” after they have been forced out of SROs by landlords, because it is “basically impossible to live in this area unless you get government subsidized housing.” He estimates that each affordable housing unit that opens up in the neighborhood “has around 100,000 applications.” Illegal demolitions of protected SRO units only continues to drive low-income tenants out of the area.

Frustration is palpable at CB4. Since December 2015, the process had been characterized by over ten comprehensive letters of complaint to the DOB, and mired by delayed or inadequate responses.

“We write letters to the DOB like we’re throwing paper—which we are,” said CB4 member Maarten de Kadt. In April 2016, DOB indicated to CB4 that they were committed to flagging Special District SROs in the system, as well as educating their staff on the special restrictions. They cited that the main reason they couldn’t catch a lot of the issues was that resources were thin throughout the agency. 

Dick Gottfried, the local state assembly member who was present at the CB4 meeting was sympathetic. “The DOB has been a nightmare for as long as any of us have been alive,” said Gottfried.They are letting landlords and developers destroy homes, destroy people’s properties, destroy people’s lives—it is really outrageous, and has been for decades.”

Gottfried urged the board to place pressure on the district attorney and elected officials that would “inundate them with case after case after case,” he said, adding that there’s a possibility of the community board or the state assembly litigating the matter in court.

“If you file false papers with the government, to obtain something from the government, that’s a felony,” he said.

While some members indicated hope that an upcoming meeting with the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, the DOB and City Planning would be encouraging, David Glasser, a local resident of the area, voiced his own doubts. “You asked the same thing in July 2010, that every building is flagged in the system—it still hasn’t happened.”

The buildings, Glasser said, “are getting knocked off one by one by one, right under your nose.”