A Chelsea landlord must repair three rent-stabilized buildings and pay tenants $126,000 for neglecting maintenance until they had to vacate, a housing court judge ordered this week.
The owners of 219-223 West 24th Street — entities tied to Abraham Lokshin and Clara Sokol — must restore the buildings, according to a May 6 order. The judge, Jack Stoller, suspected the owners’ strategy was demolition.
The city’s Department of Buildings cleared out the three single-room occupancy buildings in July, finding that the landlord had failed to correct a host of problems that made the 48 units unsafe, including a damaged facade, leaking roof, sagging floors and crumbling joists. The properties’ six tenants were moved to temporary housing.
The owners argued that the repairs demanded by the city were economically and structurally infeasible, and that requiring them would violate the U.S. Constitution’s takings clause.
The residents can return to the properties once the repairs are completed, according to the decision. The landlords were also ordered to pay each tenant $21,000 in damages and $2,000 for their harassment claims. Estimates to fix the buildings range from $900,000 to $7.8 million.
Stoller dismissed the idea that the properties, built as far back as 1840, were in poor condition when Lokshin purchased them in 2012 for $4.5 million. The judge noted that the owners were experienced real estate investors yet could not definitively say whether they had the property inspected before buying it.
“A failure to inspect a building that is more than 100 years old evinces an indifference to its condition consistent with its later deplorable state,” Stoller wrote.
He pointed to the owner’s long-term strategy of emptying the building. The owner bought out tenants and kept apartments vacant, according to the order. In 2012, 25 of the buildings’ 48 units were occupied, and that number eventually dropped to six.
“Why would Respondents pay $4.5 million in 2012 for a property appraised at $2.5 million seven years later and so dramatically fail to maintain it?” the decision states. “Respondents clearly wanted the subject premises vacant so they could demolish it and develop the property to be something more lucrative than a rent-stabilized SRO.”
Sokol, who is listed as property manager at the single-room-occupancy buildings, declined to comment when reached on Friday.
“This court decision serves as a warning to owners who fail to maintain their buildings and put tenants at risk,” said James Johnson, head of the city’s Law Department, which filed cross-claims against the landlord in the tenants’ lawsuit.
It is unclear when Gov. Andrew Cuomo will allow all construction work in the city to resume. But emergency repairs have been allowed under his stay-at-home order, and work at the Chelsea properties is likely to qualify.
Reforms to the state’s rent-stabilization law last year disincentivized investors from buying and vacating regulated buildings to flip them to market-rate. Stoller described the strategy in his ruling.
Lokshin has at least six months to make repairs. Marko Lulgjuri, the Chelsea buildings’ superintendent, said on Friday that he’s been living uptown since the vacate order. He’s worked at the properties for seven years, and he’s not sure if he’ll return.
“I lost the place and the job,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.’’
Write to Kathryn Brenzel at [email protected]