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2 rms, hit man included; WWII-era rules spawn landlord-tenant battles worthy of Hollywood

Publication: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: 04/03/2005
Article: 2 rms, hit man included; WWII-era rules spawn landlord-tenant battles worthy of Hollywood
Author:  Miriam Hill of Philadelphia Inquirer  

And you thought your landlord was evil. Tell that to William and David Lavery of Queens. In March 2003, the brothers found themselves fighting off knife-wielding assassins hired by their landlord. His motive? To get the Laverys out of their $400-a-month rent-controlled apartment. That would make the building appealing to a potential buyer, who could charge a market rate once the Laverys were gone. In January, the landlord, Juan Basagoitia, received a life sentence, but the tale of landlord-tenant strife in New York City is at least as old as the rent regulations implemented in World War II to relieve a housing shortage. Philadelphia, a city of homeowners, not renters, never adopted such regulations, but they still exist in some areas, including New Jersey and Northern California. In New York, however, where a powerful tenants' lobby has held sway for more than 100 years, rent regulation is a way of life. The stakes in the rent-regulation battle have risen with New York's skyrocketing rents. A one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan averages well over $2,300 per month, according to real-estate broker Citi Habitats. "To find an undervalued government-regulated apartment at a sharp discount is basically the equivalent of finding gold," said Citi Habitats founder Andrew Heiberger. Small wonder, then, that rent disputes often take on epic proportions, spawning Hollywood movies (Duplex, in which a rent-controlled tenant destroys the lives of landlords Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore), a local cable television show devoted to helping tenants fight landlords (Rent Wars: Ronin), and battalions of lawyers and private detectives hired to fight by both sides. The Laverys' case is extreme, but not unprecedented: In January 1999, landlord Alvin Weiss pleaded guilty to trying to kill two of his tenants in a rent-controlled apartment by hiring a hit man to inject them with heroin. He is serving a 14-year prison sentence. In 1984, a time when so many buildings were converting to co-ops, a form of shared ownership, that landlords had huge financial incentives to get rid of rent-controlled tenants and sell, Zenek Podolsky and two of his sons were indicted by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office for trying to scare rent-controlled tenants out by populating their buildings with drug addicts and hoodlums. The Podolskys and their business partners pleaded guilty but avoided prison by turning over three of their buildings to an organization for the homeless. Sometimes, the tactics in the running tenant-landlord battle get outlandish: Last summer, Michael Jones made local headlines by dressing up as his dead mother to convince public housing officials that she was still living in her $170-a-month Brooklyn apartment. Jones showed up at housing authority offices wearing a skirt - but didn't bother to shave his beard. His sister, Valerie Carthen, was charged with forgery for signing documents saying their mother was living. In December, the story of New York artist Janet Schoenberg traveled the world. Upset about the way housing court Judge Jerald R. Klein had allowed her landlord to evict her from her rent-controlled studio, she posted an ad offering a "judge for sale" on eBay. She intended the ad as parody, but bids hit $127.50. EBay removed the ad, saying it violated company policy. A tangle of laws written and rewritten over decades determine the rules for the 1.1 million rent-stabilized and 50,000 rent-controlled apartments here. Rent control and rent stabilization differ in some ways, but with both types of apartments, the government determines rent increases. Tenants have incentives to cheat - lying about where they live to hang on to their cheap New York apartment, for example - when their rents are far below market value. They then can sublet it illegally for more rent, or keep it as a convenient vacation home. Landlords have been known to exploit various regulations illegally to get buildings they own out of rent control. Murder is one extreme; illegal evictions are more common. Once a rent-regulated tenant has been forced to move, landlords often can raise the rent. Many cases revolve around the cat-and-mouse game of landlords trying to discover whether tenants really live in their rent-regulated apartments Documentary filmmaker Carole Langer found herself swimming in a sea of paperwork to prove that her $753-a-month New York apartment was her primary home and that the New Hampshire house she had more recently purchased was a second home. She and her son even created an enlarged calendar to show in court with dates she spent in New York highlighted in pink to prove her case. The landlord fought back with evidence of her electricity usage and a New Hampshire driver's license. She lost. "In retrospect, I was a fool to fight them, because there was no way I was going to win," she said. "They're a multi- - if not billion- - million-dollar corporation." Often, tenants move rather than fight when they learn they must expose their personal lives by turning over E-ZPass, credit-card and other records. They also risk having to pay their landlords' legal bills if they lose. "That's an extremely costly and time-consuming process," said tenant's lawyer Kent Karlsson. "And they don't want their landlord to look at their tax returns or whether they buy liquor at the local [store] on a Saturday night." Landlords hire private detectives like Joann Kunda, who tries to prove that people don't live where they say. She has posed as a guest in rent-controlled apartments tenants were renting as bed-and-breakfasts. One angry tenant put a voodoo curse on her. "That was many years ago, and I'm still OK," Kunda said. The system can be as frustrating for landlords as for tenants. Repeated lies from tenants illegally trying to hang on to a good deal can make landlords cynical. "I've had tenants who we've demonstrated live three or four hours away from the apartment who insist, 'No, I commute three or four hours daily,' " landlord lawyer Sherwin Belkin said. "Or they're taking care of sick relatives, when often the relative is not sick or not even alive." One of Belkin's clients had a tenant in his 90s who married a woman in her 20s shortly before he died. The landlord suspected a sham marriage - spouses can inherit a rent-controlled apartment - but there was no way to prove it. "Death-bed marriages, although societally frowned upon, are probably a loophole in the law," Belkin said. "They're not being done for love, they're being done for rent control."

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