By Sabina Mollot
When construction was underway on Stuyvesant Town’s new management office, for residents in the building housing it and the others closest to it, this of course meant months of constant noise and a lack of access to the walkway and playground between the buildings. Afterwards, CWCapital provided the impacted residents with $200 gift cards to local establishments as a way of thanking them for their patience.
But for one resident, the daily jackhammering and other noise that would start as early as 7:30 a.m. as well as the debris that would fly into her windows was so unbearable that she started withholding rent.
Naturally, she ended up getting taken to court, where a judge decided that she was in fact entitled to a partial abatement.
The resident, Caryn Chow, lives on the second floor of 276 First Avenue, which was so close to the construction that when it was ongoing, she said she could feel the walls vibrate. Considering that she’s a happiness coach and communication strategist who works from home, this meant making calls or doing other work-related tasks for long was impossible. Her daily routine of meditation was also of course disrupted.
“They’d start as early as 7:30 and the building is shaking,” said Chow, in a recent interview with Town & Village. “They said, ‘We’re in compliance,’ and they did prove that,” she added, of when she called management to complain. But, meanwhile, for her, the noise had become her new alarm clock, and an effective one at that. “They ousted me out of my apartment. I’m used to hearing sirens, but this was making everything shake and it was like being up against your ear.”
Like some neighbors, Chow also mourned the loss of seemingly healthy trees that were removed from the First Avenue Loop as part of the construction work.
“They chopped down all the trees; the cherry tree that used to greet me every day is gone,” she said.
Complaining to management, she added, didn’t get her very far. Some calls just went unanswered. At one point, CompassRock responded by offering her free access to the Oval Study library, but that ended up not working out as a substitute office space for Chow since no one’s allowed to talk on the phone in there. Additionally, since she was at home less, she was using her cell phone more and eating out more, which, she noted, added to her expenses.
Eventually, a fed up Chow started taking video footage and audio recordings on her phone of the construction work outside her window. She also took photos of the soot and debris that would accumulate on her windowsills and when the windows were open and fly inside the apartment, coating various kitchen appliances. “God knows what’s in that soot,” she said. Fortunately for her, the recordings wound up coming in handy later when management tried to evict her after three months of nonpayment.
It was in May of last year when she began her one-woman rent strike. This was after four months after work on the management office.
“In August I got an eviction notice,” said Chow.
In court, Chow argued that she felt the terms of her lease were not being respected, particularly the warranty of habitability.
Ultimately, she wound up getting a 30 percent rent abatement for the months she was impacted — and a stay on her eviction to give her some time to pay back the rest.
Chow admitted she would have liked to get more of an abatement, having tried for 80 percent.
In his decision, Housing Court Judge Jack Stoller explained the reason she didn’t get a higher abatement was that her arguments had mainly been about her inability to work from home during the months of construction.
“The warranty of habitability concerns functions which a residence is expected to provide,” Stoller wrote, adding that Chow’s lease “provides that the subject premises shall only be used as a place to live.”
Still, Chow said she’s satisfied with the outcome of the fight. “My goal is to help others if I can,” Chow, who once worked as a paralegal, said. She also made it a point to note that in the 24 years since she moved to Stuyvesant Town, this was her first major problem.
“I’m a peaceful person,” Chow said. “I meditate. I do a lot of yoga. I can take a lot. But in April, it started to affect me. I said, ‘I can’t wake up like this every day, being disturbed.’ I couldn’t even live there. When you start to disrupt my peace, that’s not acceptable.”
Chow’s attorney, Steven Rosen, noted that while noise is an issue for all New Yorkers, his client’s was particularly extreme.
“There’s construction in New York, there’s noise in New York wherever you are, so courts are generally hesitant to give rent abatements for ordinary noise,” said Rosen. But this project, he added, was “really, seriously disruptive, so the judge sided with Caryn.”
A spokesperson for CWCapital declined to comment on the situation.