“It is somewhat common for landlords to attempt to circumvent the legal approval process to alter rent-stabilized apartments by cutting out the middleman.”

Adi Talwar

A view of the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx, home to thousands of rent-stabilized apartments.

Last November, Leonel Gomez and his family were forced to vacate their rent-stabilized apartment in Sunset Park after a fire ravaged the building. The family was temporarily displaced with the expectation of returning to their long-time home, but thanks to the landlord, that was wishful thinking.

While the tenants were displaced and without their knowledge, their landlord submitted multiple plans to significantly change the layouts of most of  the units in the building. The reconfiguration would drastically change the apartments and render them unsuitable for many of the families, who need the additional bedroom space for their children. Ultimately, we believe that the proposed changes were designed to push the long-term tenants to leave their rent-stabilized homes, which are below market rate and affordable for these tenants.

The plans to alter the units were submitted to and approved by the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) without hesitation, and permits for construction were issued. 

However, in submitting the plans directly to DOB, the landlord violated New York’s Rent Stabilization Code, which requires landlords to first obtain approval to reconfigure apartment spaces from the New York State Department of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR), which oversees the local rent-stabilized housing stock in New York City. When DOB accepted the landlord’s submitted plans and issued permits, without any approval from DHCR, they also violated the Rent Stabilization Laws and Code.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. It is somewhat common for landlords to attempt to circumvent the legal approval process to alter rent-stabilized apartments by cutting out the middleman, in this case DHCR, and going directly through DOB. Both agencies are aware of this illegal practice but have failed to take any meaningful action to address it.

Moreover, when a landlord follows the law and submits plans to DHCR, tenants are allowed to submit responses and are a part of the process. This loophole strips them of that right because landlords only interface with DOB to secure approval for building plans.

That’s why we recently filed a lawsuit against DOB, DHCR, and the landlords of the Sunset Park building to stop the illegal apartment layout alterations, which are threatening to displace the Gomez family and other long-term rent-stabilized tenants. 

The lawsuit, filed in New York State Supreme Court in September, seeks to annul the building permits issued by DOB which enable the landlord to illegally reconfigure these units and to stop the landlords from submitting plans that alter the apartments without DHCR approval. 

The complaint also seeks systemic changes to end DOB’s policy and practice of approving plans to alter and/or reconfigure rent-stabilized apartments without approval by DHCR, and to direct DOB to implement procedures that prevent the agency from approving plans without prior DHCR approval going forward. 

Both DOB and DHCR have the jurisdiction and authority to unilaterally remedy this systematic issue today, and it shouldn’t require litigation for these agencies to abide by the law. New York’s affordable rent-stabilized housing stock is already in short supply, and all governmental actors must do their part to help preserve what remains. 

Amid a growing housing crisis, DOB and DHCR must close this loophole that is being exploited by unscrupulous landlords to displace rent-stabilized tenants from their homes and communities across the city.

Emily Eaton is a staff attorney in the Housing Justice Unit – Group Advocacy at The Legal Aid Society. Evan Henley is a staff attorney with the Civil Law Reform Unit at The Legal Aid Society

DOB spokesperson Andrew Rudansky responded to the lawsuit in a statement Tuesday: “We are legally obligated to issue a permit for a construction project when all of the requirements that we are legally allowed to enforce are met. DOB approvals do not absolve a property owner of their responsibility to comply with the regulations of other government agencies. We are reviewing the suit.”