Inwood tenants claim landlord using blaze to hike rents

Owner denies charge; blames delay on insurance

Seth Hoy of Manhattan Legal Services with with 74 Post Avenue. (Google Maps, LinkedIn)
Seth Hoy of Manhattan Legal Services with with 74 Post Avenue. (Google Maps, LinkedIn)

Tenants burned out of their rent-stabilized Inwood apartments in January have a theory: The landlord wants them to give up their leases so he can combine units and set new rents.

It’s virtually impossible to substantially raise stabilized rents anymore, but that is indeed one way to do it.

One hole in the Inwood tenants’ theory, though, is that the landlord, George Huang of the Heights Real Estate Company, has not exactly bowled them over with relocation offers. In fact, the tenants, who announced a lawsuit Wednesday, complain that some of the replacement apartments he dangled are smaller or have higher rents than their old ones at 74 Post Avenue, which was ravaged by a four-alarm electrical fire Jan. 5.

Before the rent law was overhauled in 2019, landlords used carrots and sticks to push out rent-stabilized tenants because vacancies allowed for large rent increases.

The sticks included disruptive construction, heat outages and the like. Some owners were said to have brought addicts and derelicts into their buildings to make life miserable for residents.

The carrots included attractive apartments elsewhere and buyouts that could run into the six figures. But these practices have largely disappeared since the 2019 rent law removed the 20 percent rent increase allowed upon vacancy and the nearly unlimited, permanent rent increases permitted for renovations, which were only possible if tenants moved out.

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In their lawsuit, filed Tuesday by Manhattan Legal Services, the tenants say Huang is taking his sweet time to make their units livable again, in hopes that they will not return.

“He’s not making any effort to renovate the apartments,” said Seth Hoy, a spokesperson for the nonprofit. “He’s making no effort to improve the building in any way.”

But Haim Kedmi said Huang hired him to fully renovate the 17 apartments that remain uninhabitable in the six-story, 33-unit building. “Build me the same footprint with new finishes, new walls,” Kedmi said the landlord told him.

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Kedmi, a Manhattan-based real estate operative, said he will begin doing that just as soon as the insurance company signs off — and displaced tenants remove their stuff from three of the units.

“We’re going to want to start work in another week, but some people haven’t taken their personal belongings,” he said. “Three apartments are going to hold up the other 14.”

Kedmi lamented that instead of signing releases to let the owner prepare the units for renovation, a few tenants sued. But in anticipation of litigation, he has carefully documented his attempts to fix the building and his communication with the tenants and their lawyers.

“I knew this was going to happen,” he said. “This lawsuit does not have any merit.”

But the suit, filed in Manhattan by 23 tenants, says the landlord has been giving them the runaround, not temporary apartments — and is now only willing to relocate them if they relinquish their tenancies at 74 Post Avenue. (Some have been allowed to move back in, but say the fire-damaged building lacks gas service and is riddled with violations.)

Lelia James, a tenants’ rights attorney for Manhattan Legal Services, said since the rent law reform, “what we’ve been noticing is that landlords have been warehousing apartments so if the adjacent apartment becomes vacant, they can combine them. It will still be rent-stabilized, but they can set a new rent.”

The lawsuit demands the landlord hustle to fix the building and keep the tenants apprised of his progress. Kedmi said that is what he has been trying to do.

“We got an emergency work order,” he said. “I actually sent them the reports.” But it is a demolition order; tenants want to see plans to rebuild their apartments.

James said her clients have been couch-surfing, in shelters or in one case paying for a hotel room for the past two and a half months, and getting “desperate” — to the point where they might be tempted to sign away their tenancies.

But Kedmi said he is waiting for the insurance company and for signed releases from the three holdouts.

“We just need to get started,” he said. “We’re hoping by next week they’ll approve things and we can get moving.”