The difficulties of using a bookshelf as a room divider

The O’Connors received a notice to cure from management over their bookshelves.

The O’Connors received a notice to cure from management over their bookshelves.

By Maria Rocha-Buschel
After getting a notice of termination last December over a disagreement on the placement of some bookshelves, 10 Stuyvesant Oval residents Leigh Anne O’Connor and Robert Leon were relieved in mid-March when the issue was cleared up and management declared that their apartment was in compliance, but not before what they felt was a long struggle about the definition of a legal room partition was.
Space is a precious and expensive commodity in Manhattan and New Yorkers have a long tradition of modifying their apartments with furniture to make the best use of the space. In a place like Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, residents have been in a back-and-forth with management for years about pressurized walls, temporary room dividers and what can be used legally to split the space so siblings and roommates aren’t on top of each other.
O’Connor and Leon had been using Ikea bookshelves to break up the space in one of the apartment’s bedrooms for their kids but they started having problems with management after an apartment inspection last September when they got a Notice to Cure, saying they were in violation of their lease.
Leon, who is in construction design, checked with architects and industry professionals about his situation and couldn’t find any building or housing code that they were violating with the shelves. But, he noted, he wasn’t looking to be difficult; he just wanted to come to an agreement and resolve the problem.
“It’s in my best interest to be on good terms with my landlord and if what they’re asking is reasonable I don’t mind complying,” he said, “but I can’t read their mind.” He added that it was difficult to get an answer from management about the standard for this issue.
Susan Steinberg, chair of the Tenants Association’s board, noted that there have been difficulties in defining exactly what constitutes a legal wall or partition.
“The law actually does not give very specific requirements for the legality of nonstructural walls,” she said. “It is very subjective. The basic rules are that every room in the apartment must have a means of egress for fire safety so if a bookshelf effectively divides a room in two and one new ‘room’ doesn’t have a window, it could be a problem. As you can imagine, the fact of whether or not the bookshelf divides a room could be debated.”
Changing the layout of an apartment can be a violation of building code and a spokesperson for the Department of Buildings said that adding a partition or other kinds of floor-to-ceiling dividers can change the apartment’s layout, even if it is a temporary installation, and thus would require a work permit.
Ultimately, Leon said that he was told that if he closed off part of a room by more then 50 percent, then that constitutes a wall. CWCapital spokesperson Brian Moriarty confirmed this. He said that the standard management goes by is the New York City Multiple Dwelling Law, which states that if more than 50 percent of an opening is blocked, it is considered a wall and is not in compliance with the lease.
“For example, if the length of the room is 50 feet and the bookcase is more than 25 feet, it is illegal,” he said. “If it blocks more than 49 percent of the space profile, the rear space will then be considered an interior room with no legal light and air.”

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