As a child, Paul Quantano would venture weekly to the 11th Street bathhouse in East Village. He was born in a tenement building on 13th Street with no heat or hot water and later inherited three buildings on the block from his uncle, who founded an electrical motor maintenance company out of them in 1924. Quantano hung onto the buildings and the business until January of this year. One of the properties is a 16-unit walk-up. Right next to it is the first garage, outfitted with an industrial elevator and an office on the second floor, and a few doors down on the same block is a second garage. Quantano once hired an architect to knock down a wall between the residential walk-up and the garage next door to make a machine room on the ground floor. He let one of his tenants store a Vespa in the garage in the winter free of charge. And when another tenant’s daughter-in-law became pregnant, he offered the couple a vacant unit in the building for their new family.
Quantano sold the three buildings this year for $15.6 million. Raphael Toledano, a 25-year-old real-estate broker and owner of Brookhill Properties who signed the contract of sale, had the deeds prepared naming three LLCs as the owners. By 2017, if all goes according to plan, two new luxury towers will rise in place of Quantano’s old garages. The job of selling the new condos rests with Ryan Serhant, the 31-year-old star broker best known for his role in the reality television show, Million Dollar Listing New York.
To kick off “Thirteen East + West,” as the coming towers are known, Serhant appeared on the scene early in June, trailed by a camera crew, to unveil two murals he commissioned on the facades of the soon-to-be demolished garages. The official theme: “transience.” The marketing team went for gravitas with the press release: “Buildings go up, buildings come down and art too is victim to the vicissitudes of time.”
That’s not news to the East Village, which got its name when the beatniks arrived in the 1950s but has for the past decade or more been attracting some of the nation’s top developers.
Not everyone in the neighborhood can afford to celebrate its transience. Next door, the third building in Quantano’s old portfolio—the residential walk-up—was still occupied by rent-stabilized tenants the day Serhant showed up to show off its neighboring structures. They looked on as the crowd gathered at the foot of the freshly painted murals. Cesar Bello, who admits he’s a huge a fan of Million Dollar Listing New York, watched the activity from his two-bedroom apartment on the second story of 444 East 13th Street. A tiny camera attached to a drone flew by his window. Several stories above, Miguel Contreras saw the drone whiz skywards and pass his own window. “We have no privacy,” his sister complained. Lining the street were black BMWs. Serhant posed alongside developer David Amirian atop the scissor lift the artists had used to render the three-story murals.
Unbeknownst to Serhant and the revelers below, the rent-stabilized tenants in the six-story structure next door had been without hot water or gas since April 17th. In fact, many problems had cropped up in the building since new management had taken over in January. During the past nine months, tenants have been exposed to toxic levels of lead and gone for weeks without utilities, among other hardships.
The tenants began recording their conversations when managing agents knocked on their doors and offered them cash to vacate their apartments. When they declined the offers, the tenants were warned the construction would make their apartments unlivable, according to one tape. “I know it’s stressful,” one agent named Newton Hinds says in a recording. “But what’s going to be more stressful is when the building next door starts to come down. That’s going to be a nightmare. No one is going to want to live here. The building’s going to be shaking. The vermin start running. So, it’s like, we’d rather help you relocate to some place nice, some place decent, and you know, make it an opportunity.”
Instead, the tenants are suing the new owner of their building, Toledano, Goldmark Management, and the developer next door, Bridgeton Amirian for harassment.
Owners allege ‘criminal Mafia’
Soon after the sale, construction workers arrived to begin gutting at least eight vacant apartments. Dust filled the air and cracks formed in walls and ceilings due to the constant banging. The dust, inspectors from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would later discover, contained toxic levels of lead that had not been properly abated. The staircase became littered with pieces of wood, rugs, and other debris.
By March, managing agents began to contact the remaining tenants about moving out. Many of them recorded these conversations. Cesar Bello and his father, Vicente, who speaks little English and holds the lease for their family’s apartment, agreed to meet with Hinds, who offered them a $25,000 package to relocate the six-person household to an apartment in Brooklyn or East Harlem (it would later increase to $50,000). “We really want to help you,” Hinds says. “If it were up to the owners, they’d just drop dynamite on the building and everybody will figure it out.”
Cesar’s said the conversation terrified his father. Vicente was under the impression that the new owners would refuse to renew their lease.
And this was just the beginning, Hinds reminded them. The impending demolition next door was a reccurring theme in conversations with tenants. Hinds warned that there may be structural issues, that the building may have to be reinforced or “a tube has to come through” to keep it standing.
By April, the Bellos still hadn’t accepted Hinds’ buyout offer. Hinds had proposed similar packages to tenants up and down the building but few seemed interested. On April 15th, management convened a building-wide meeting.
“The reason I’m here today is to tell you that this building—we had no idea what was going on before we bought it in terms of the criminal mafia that we have,” a managing agent who identified herself as Anna says in a tape. At least one private investigator soon began to appear at the building. At first, some tenants say they mistook Miguel Cueto, a former NYPD officer who left his job after fatally striking a man in Brooklyn with his car, for a police officer. In fact, Cueto is employed by Watch Guard 24/7. He was tasked with ferreting out evidence of drug sales and prostitution in the building. His efforts came to no fruition, but for months he was often seen around the building at odd hours.
Of all Cueto’s encounters with the tenants, what allegedly happened in apartment 14 stands out as particularly bizarre. Humberto Lopez and his sister, Rosa, share the unit with their cousin, Tony, and a friend named Samantha. Humberto recalled the following tale: He was working a late shift at his job in the kitchen of PEOPLE, a restaurant on Allen Street. Samantha and Tony were at home and ordered food to be delivered. Not long after dinner, Samantha was drifting asleep on the couch when she was awoken by voices and the click of a camera’s shutter. She says she opened her eyes to a group of men, including Cueto, standing between her and the door to Tony’s room. Tony had also awoken from the noise, and, in a panic, realized he had forgotten to lock the door after the delivery man had arrived earlier that night. Finding the apartment open, the men made an unauthorized entrance and began snapping photos.
After the investigators left with their evidence, Tony called Humberto at work to tell him what happened. Within a few days Hinds scheduled a meeting with Humberto’s sister at his office. He presented the photos to her, claiming they were evidence of a prostitution ring. “And I was supposed to be the pimp,” Humberto giggled, reenacting the story to me from the living room of his apartment where the encounter took place. His sister says Hinds told her that if they did not sign the buyout agreement, they would all be forcibly removed from the apartment that evening. They didn’t sign. No eviction ever took place.
In March, the tenants of 444 East 13th Street began meeting around the corner from their building at GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side), which has existed in East Village since 1977. After a few meetings, they decided to form a tenants’ association. Many in the building do not speak English, and one had even signed a surrender agreement without knowing what he was signing. His daughter tried to translate the agreement for him, but she was only 14 years old.
“[The owners] have a lot of tools—both legal and illegal—at their disposal,” says Stephanie Rudolph, a lawyer with Urban Justice Center who’s now representing the tenants in housing court. “The owners’ business model depends on evicting rent-regulated tenants,” she says. “The financial penalties are woefully inadequate.”
In New York City, tenants are protected from landlords who tactically interfere with their “comfort, repose, peace, or quiet” in order to empty out rent-regulated apartments. The New York City Tenant Protection Act, passed in 2008 and the heart of the 444 East 13th Street tenants’ lawsuit, provides legal remedies for harassment. The city can collect penalties ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.
‘Stay the f—- away’
In late May, shortly after court papers were served and CBS produced a story about the dispute, Toledano announced in a frank email that he was firing Goldmark Management, the company that had been hired to maintain the building and manage leases since January this year. “Stay the f— away from my building,” the note read, “your services and work is no longer of interest.”
At one point in June, there were 244 open violations of the city’s housing maintenance code at 444 East 13th for hazards such as cracks in the walls and ceilings and infestations of cockroaches, mice, and bedbugs. Shortly after their case began, the tenants won a temporary injunction against the construction and harassment along with other relief such as additional key fobs for families and restoration of gas and hot water.
Those services have been restored, and the number of open violations has now been reduced to 84. Of the most serious class C violations, which are considered immediate risks to health or safety, there are 22 remaining currently, including citations for lead paint, missing window guards, and broken radiators.
Tenants say they’ve continued to run into Toledano at the property since proceedings began, and he has questioned them about the case and their legal council. Tenants from other buildings in East Village formed a Toledano Coalition this summer. The coalition began to log incidents when tenants have been followed or questioned by Toledano or someone claiming to be with the new owners of their building. They’ve logged 107 incidents since they began in July.
Toledano’s company, Brookhill Properties, has continued to make purchases in the neighborhood. Last week, it acquired 16 buildings between 5th and 12th Streets known as the Tabak portfolio for $97 million, dwarfing the $15.6 million purchase on 13th Street. Tenants in a building Brookhill bought in the neighborhood two years ago, 97 2nd Avenue, have opened a case with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal alleging they were not provided key fobs to get into the building. Their case is currently under review.
In a statement provided for this story, Jonathan Weinstein, a spokesman for Toledano, said:
“Mr. Toledano and his company treat every tenant with respect and decency. Since being made aware of the conditions at the building on E. 13th Street, Mr. Toledano immediately addressed the tenants’ concerns. He fired the management company, Goldmark Property Management, which Mr. Toledano has no ownership stake in. Most importantly after assuming control of the buildings, Mr. Toledano expeditiously worked to repair all open violations at the building – many of which predated his ownership. Mr. Toledano and the current property managers have dramatically improved conditions at the building – a process that the judge and the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development have clearly been pleased with. We look forward to continuing to work with our tenants to ensure that every concern they have is addressed.”
(Curiously, there are numerous websites with similar URLs purporting to have been created by Raphael Toledanos across the country that fill up Google search results for his name. One Raphael Toledano is “a fervent traveler from the incredible state of Chicago,” another is a “19-year-old boy from Ohio who wants to become an internationally recognized soccer player,” and still another is “an Assistant Principal in one of the reputed schools of Rhode Island.” Each of these sites was created on January 28, 2015 according to registration information on whois.net. )
So far away
Serhant, for his part, says he was unaware of the adversities the tenants of 444 E. 13th have faced or Bridgeton Amirian’s involvement in the case. “I am one hundred percent opposed to this unethical treatment. My heart goes out to the tenants, and I hope this is resolved in their favor,” he said in a statement. As part of the June marketing event, Serhant also announced donations by his company, Nest Seekers International, of $1,000 to EBC High School in Brooklyn and the nonprofit organization, Walk of Art.
Bridgeton Amirian and Serhant’s Nest Seekers released renderings of the luxury towers planned for next door a few days before the mural charity event. The sketches show each building containing six floor-through homes starting at $2.3 million. The penthouses start at $3.4 million. Kitchen countertops will be made of GLASSOS crystalized glass and doors will be crafted by Lualdi throughout.
When Cesar Bello was shown photos of Serhant addressing the crowd at the unveiling of Thirteen East + West he said: “You want to know something? I watch the show almost every week.” Bello works at the Fat Radish, a restaurant in the Lower East Side. He shares his two-bedroom apartment with his wife, their two children, Ivan and Sarai, and his mother and father. When the hot water was cut in the building, Cesar and his wife, Maritza, boiled water in buckets so they could give their children sponge baths in the morning. Asked why he’s such a fan of the reality show he remarked, “I just like to see the apartments. They’re so beautiful.”
Together, Serhant and his Million Dollar Listing New York co-stars, Fredrik Eklund and Luis Ortiz, have led clients on grand tours of New York City’s most elite dwellings, from the thirty-three story battery park Visionaire tower to Kenneth Nahoum’s former Soho loft, which is actually comprised of four lofts combined into one. They were even filmed wandering lower Manhattan in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Serhant is also a frequent television and radio commentator on real estate trends. Some of his proclamations are counterintuitive. “Real estate is so far away from what I do,” he said in a recent podcast for Real Estate Coaching Radio.
The fifth season of Million Dollar Listing New York has not officially been announced yet, but Bravo confirmed that they had a camera crew on 13th Street filming the mural painting in June. The drone, they said, was not theirs.
City Limits’ coverage of housing is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation.