View Full Version : Court Decision Limits Landlords' Eviction Rights

October 3rd, 2003, 01:19 AM
October 3, 2003


Court Decision Limits Landlords' Eviction Rights


Only working artists and their families can legally live in the spacious lofts carved out of industrial spaces in SoHo and NoHo, according to a city zoning rule that has been mostly ignored for decades, as loft prices soared into the millions and the area became a trendy destination.

But now a housing court judge has issued a ruling strictly enforcing the artist-only policy in one thorny landlord-tenant dispute.

The decision, if upheld on appeal, is unlikely to roll back the transformation of SoHo and NoHo. But it could give new teeth, lawyers on both sides said, to a policy that has routinely been sidestepped by renters and landlords, buyers and co-op boards, and even the city's Department of Buildings, which is charged with enforcing it.

Those lawyers said the ruling could influence the outcome of landlord-tenant disputes involving non-artists living in those neighborhoods, and could put pressure on city officials who are already considering changing the current rules.

The housing court case pits a documentary screenwriter who has lived in a valuable but low-rent loft for 25 years against a landlord who wants to give the apartment to his brother and nephew. The screenwriter recently received city certification as an artist, and neither the owner's brother nor his nephew are artists. The brother said, however, that he was planning to hire a certified artist as a housekeeper.

In his Sept. 19 ruling, Judge Cyril K. Bedford concluded that the owner could not exercise his rights under state rent laws to take over the apartment for his family, because under the city zoning rules his relatives could not legally live there.

"While it is clear that the requirement of artist certification is rarely enforced and generally disregarded," the decision said, "this court cannot turn a blind eye to the law as the general public may."

Paul M. Gulielmetti, the lawyer for the tenant, said the decision, and another last year in a case involving the sale of a co-op loft, showed that the court was still willing to uphold the artist-only requirements when a case is brought before it. "As a matter of law, the SoHo zoning is legal and enforceable," he said.

The lawyer for the building owner, Joseph Burden, who has filed a notice of appeal, said the ruling could, at least in theory, be used to challenge the validity of rent protections for tenants who are not artists.

The court ruling comes as officials of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, Planning Commission and Department of Buildings have begun discussing ways to modify the zoning to recognize the changes that have swept through SoHo and NoHo.

"We recognize that the impulse behind this law was very positive," said Kate D. Levin, the commissioner of Cultural Affairs. "We also recognize that it is time to re-examine the way the law has been enforced."

Artists began moving into lofts in the area in large numbers in the mid-1960's, paying very low rents for spaces that were being vacated by manufacturers. In the 1980's, the city passed legislation protecting artists and other pioneers, and the zoning rules were changed to allow artists and only artists certified as such by the Department of Cultural Affairs and their families to live in the manufacturing area.

But market forces continued to push up rents and prices of converted condos and co-ops, and the artist-only provisions have been largely ignored. Large loft floors with views in SoHo are advertised for as much as $5 million, and the typical apartment sells for $1.5 million, according to real estate surveys.

Renters and buyers are asked to sign waivers, agreeing to hold sellers and owners harmless in the event the zoning rules are suddenly enforced. The Buildings Department, however, has a don't-ask policy. Ilyse Fink, a department spokesman, said it responded only to complaints.

For many years, while the neighborhood transformed itself, 577 Broadway, a narrow five-story factory building near Prince Street, changed little.

Robert J. Seidman, a documentary and feature screenwriter and the author of two novels, moved in 1978 with his wife, Patricia, an architect, into an 1,800-square-foot loft that fills the top floor, and raised their two children there. When they moved in they paid about $450 a month. Because of the vagaries of the state's Loft Law, which limits rent increases for many loft buildings that have not been brought up to residential standards and granted certificates of occupancy by the city, they now pay only $761 a month.

In the mid-1990's, the building was granted a certificate of occupancy and bought by Reuben Schwartz, who, according to Mr. Seidman and court testimony, gradually emptied the building of the other long-term tenants, alternately threatening them with eviction and offering cash buyouts, and brought in new tenants at market rents: more than $9,600 a month for two apartments the size of the one occupied by Mr. Seidman.

Two years ago, Mr. Schwartz moved to evict the Seidmans to give the apartment to his brother, Schlomo Schwartz, who was managing the building, and Mr. Schwartz's son. Schlomo Schwartz is also known as Steve Schwartz and is the Steve of the Uncle Steve's electronics store on Canal Street.

Until the eviction proceedings, Mr. Seidman had not registered as an artist with the city, saying that he thought that his long residence, predating the establishment of the special zoning district, made this unnecessary. He received certification as an artist last year, qualifying as a writer of fiction, according to the Department of Cultural Affairs.

In his decision, Judge Bedford concluded that the state rent stabilization law, which would have allowed Mr. Schwartz to evict a tenant so that the apartment could be used by a close family member, could not be used to pre-empt the special zoning regulations for the district.

Mr. Seidman said the threat of eviction continues to worry him, since the landlord took the first steps to appeal. But he observed that while waiting for the judge's decision he turned 62, an age in which renters receive special protection against evictions when an owner seeks to gain use of an apartment.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

June 9th, 2004, 11:52 AM

By Kenneth Lovett
June 9, 2004

ALBANY Tenants who illegally converted commercial space into loft apartments after 1981 are not covered by rent-protection laws, New York's highest court ruled yesterday.

In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals found that the 1982 loft law covered only those who created illegal residential units through 1981.

It was not immediately clear how many lofts were converted after 1981.

The case stems from a group of tenants who had leased a building on Grand Street in Manhattan in 1997 and then illegally converted the commercial space from the second floor up into residential lofts.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings