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DA: NYC Renovation Creates ‘Deathtrap’

Thursday, July 28, 2016

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New York City authorities have accused a landlord, building manager and contractor of performing major renovations on a five-story, 10-unit apartment building while a family, including five young children, still lived inside.

Building owner Ephraim Vashovsky, 48, property manager and contractor Adam Cohen, 32, and contractor Shaoul Ohana, 56, face 20 criminal charges, including reckless endangerment, endangering the welfare of a child, coercion, conspiracy, grand larceny and unlawful eviction, in the case.

Harlem building
Photos: Manhattan District Attorney's Office

The building owner, manager and contractor face up to seven years in prison on the most serious charges filed against them. Prosecutors say the men performed major renovations and demolition of an East Harlem building with a family of seven still living inside.

“These defendants are charged with turning an East Harlem apartment building into a deathtrap,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.

Vance, along with the city’s Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark G. Peters, Public Advocate Letitia James, Department of Buildings Commissioner Rick D. Chandler and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Vicki Been, announced the charges Tuesday (July 26).

“They forced a family with five young children to endure life-threatening conditions on some of winter’s coldest nights,” Vance alleged. “As demolition continued around apartment 5E, the entire building was at risk of a devastating fire, or worse, collapse. As alleged, the defendants’ campaign of harassment and intimidation included repeated threats to report the family’s status as undocumented immigrants to authorities in order to command higher rents from this rent-regulated building.”

The men face up to seven years in prison on the most serious charges, The New York Times reported.

Intimidation Campaign

Court documents allege that shortly after Vashovsky purchased the property in May 2014, he and his associates began a plan to renovate the East Harlem building in an effort to take out of rent stabilization.

The campaign included pushing out all the building’s occupants through buyouts, the prosecutors alleged. The last holdout was an immigrant family from Mexico, who reportedly had lived in the apartment for 14 years.

The Nicolas-Cano family, which included a couple and five young children ranging in age from 1 to 12 years old, stayed in the $2,400-per-month fifth floor walkup because they lacked other options, New York Daily News reported.

Prosecutors said the owner and property manager employed a variety of schemes to coerce the family out of the apartment, including threatening to report the tenants’ status as undocumented immigrants to legal authorities. They initiated eviction proceedings against the family for overcrowding.

Harlem Building

Prosecutors alleged that the family was left without electricity, heat and hot water during the so-called “Polar vortex” of the winter between 2014 and 2015. The image shows the interior of the apartment unit adjacent to 5E on March 4, 2015.

Meanwhile, in an effort to expedite the DOB work permit applications for the renovations submitted by the original contractor Ohana, Cohen filed falsified documents purporting that the building was unoccupied, the authorities said.

Throughout, and during ongoing eviction proceedings and litigation in New York City Housing Court, the owner moved to begin construction while the family still inhabited the apartment, prosecutors claim.

Based on the falsified filings, DOB approved a work permit in December 2014.

No Electricity, Heat or Water

From the start of construction soon thereafter, until March 5, 2015, when the DOB ordered the building vacated, the defendants are charged with recklessly endangering the lives of the tenants and their children through ongoing construction and demolition.

As alleged, the defendants “knowingly created gravely dangerous living conditions, including the risk of an entire building collapse, by removing structural and load-bearing elements.”

Commissioner Chandler said the project was “demolition disguised as a renovation job.”

“During demolition, the defendants allegedly removed critical fire retardant materials, fire escapes, and internal walls and floors—creating the risk of an inhabitant falling multiple stories,” the prosecutors said.

In court, prosecutors alleged that the family was left without electricity, heat and hot water during the so-called “Polar vortex” of the winter between 2014 and 2015, New York Daily News reported.

The family’s toilet bowl froze, so they had to use bathrooms at nearby restaurants, The New York Times reported.

Harlem

The defendants allegedly cashed rent checks while violating the terms of the lease. The image shows the interior of the apartment unit adjacent to 5E on March 4, 2015.

Still, throughout the course of the alleged conduct, Vashovsky and Cohen allegedly collected and deposited the family’s rent checks, while failing to meet the terms of their lease, authorities said.

Furthermore, the owner continued to cash rent subsidy checks from the New York City Department of Social Services for weeks after the tenants finally vacated the apartment, according to the allegations.

Endangering Workers

Vashovsky and Cohen are further charged with recklessly endangering the lives of the site’s construction workers from Feb. 2, 2016, until the DOB issued a full Stop Work Order on March 3, 2016.

The Stop Work Order followed an inspection which uncovered, among other violations, the absence of key structural elements, including load-bearing walls and floor joists, as well as the building’s central staircase. As alleged, the site lacked proper ladders between floors, as well as safety nets or other measures to prevent workers from falling.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s Asset Forfeiture Unit has also filed a civil forfeiture lawsuit against the indicted defendants and their companies, seeking the forfeiture of more than $3 million in connection with the criminal case.

‘Not Guilty’ Pleas

The three men were arrested Tuesday and pleaded not guilty, reports said.

Bail for Vashovsky and Cohen was set at $1.25 million bond or $555,000 cash, while Ohana was held on $450,000 bond or $150,000 cash, the New York Daily News reported following the arraignment proceedings.

Vashovsky’s attorney John Carman reportedly told the court that his client, who owns multiple residential buildings throughout the city, bought the East Harlem building with the understanding it was unoccupied, noting that prosecutors describe “a landlord’s efforts to rehabilitate a building that was demonstrably degraded and in need of repair,” the report said.

The New York Times also quoted Carman as saying his client was “not the first landlord to be wrongfully accused by a nonpaying tenant with an obvious and substantial reason to make false claims.”

Cohen’s attorney reportedly said the city’s description of the case is “not entirely accurate.”

Ohana’s attorney said that his client denies “knowingly putting anyone in danger,” the reports related.

The Daily News also notes that Vashovky is a father of nine; Cohen fathers three children and has a pregnant wife; and Ohana has seven children and has been married for 30 years.

   

Tagged categories: Building codes; Building owners; Fraud; Health and safety; Renovation

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