Airbnb apts. still an ongoing issue in ST

By Sabina Mollot

In October, Governor Cuomo signed a law that will impose steep fines on Airbnb hosts who break local housing regulations. The short-term rental listings giant sued over the law though the company recently settled with the city of New York once it was made clear that hosts and not Airbnb were the target.

Short-term rentals in apartments were already illegal in many cases in New York City if the stay is under 30 days and the apartment’s tenant of record isn’t also staying there. Additionally, the practice also violates lease terms at some properties, including Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, though this hasn’t stopped tenants from listing their homes on Airbnb and other sites.

In recent years, this has been a worry for tenants who are concerned about problems like the spread of bedbugs as well as safety in an environment where they don’t know who’s staying next door. Four years ago when there was an uptick of bedbug sightings in the complex, then Tenants Association President John Marsh suspected that might be the reason. At one point, representatives from the ST-PCV Tenants Association and management met with representatives from Airbnb. The meeting resulted in the company agreeing to issue a pop-up notice on its website stating that rentals are illegal if the site’s user tries to advertise a Stuy Town or Peter Cooper address.

Yet, the practice has persisted.

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Letters to the Editor, Jan. 29

Jan29 Toon Silver gray

TA has been quite active in bedbug battle

Re: “Bedbugs are nothing new,” T&V letter, Jan. 22

To the Editor:

An anonymous writer in last week’s T&V made the wildly mistaken suggestion that the mention of bedbugs in a recent ST/PCV Tenants Association email regarding a City Council hearing on “short term rentals” such as Airbnb was the organization’s first acknowledgement of the serious bedbug problem in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village.

To clarify the matter: In 2012, the TA established a Bedbug Registry on its website. Since then, approximately 100 residents have reported to the Registry that they have had an infestation or have had their apartments inspected in management’s “cloverleaf” inspections of apartments adjacent to an infested one. The site keeps residents informed of trouble in their buildings, warns potential renters of the problem and, in some cases, alerts management to cases that may not have been reported to them.

In August 2013, in an all-out effort to raise the alarm on the spreading bedbug problem, the Tenants Association — at enormous expense — mailed to every one of the community’s 11,227 apartments a pamphlet from the NYC Department of Health explaining how to protect against infestations and actions to take if the bugs strike. The TA’s letter that accompanied the pamphlet noted that infestations had been reported in 20 percent of ST/PCV buildings in the previous three years. Anyone confronting a bedbug problem should notify Resident Services and go online to stpcvta.org, the TA’s website, click on the Bedbug Registry at the top left of the site, and let the TA know. The Registry asks only for building address and floor number, not a resident’s name or apartment.

Soni Holman Fink, PCV​

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Letters to the Editor, Jan. 22

Jan22 Toon Uber gray

Cartoon by Jim Meadows

In defense of de Blasio on horses and pandas

Re: Cartoon in T&V, Jan. 8, depicting a panda driving a horse-drawn carriage in front of an irate Mayor de Blasio

Dear Editor,

I disagree with attacks and cartoons aimed at Mayor de Blasio with regard to his defending the rights of horses in this city. He is concerned with the treatment and welfare of them living in a very noisy, overcrowded city where they do not belong “working” in traffic. This is not early 1900s NYC with few cars going about 15 miles an hour on virtually empty streets with few pedestrians walking around Central Park, no steel drums, no electrifying manhole covers and stray voltage, no taxis careening in and out, no millions of horns continuously blasting nonstop at everyone and everything. Quite honestly, this is not even a peaceful place for humans to live.

As for pandas, I wouldn’t subject these adorable animals either to a life in this noisy city. Politicians note: Pandas cost a fortune to feed and the taxpayers will pay for this – in a city where humans go hungry and homeless.

Politicians joking about de Blasio imply he must “hate horses” when he took a stand against the inhumanity of having carriage horses in this city, surely must know that animal lovers of this city have a conscience and do vote. Everyone should take a lesson from de Blasio’s comment and get a better understanding of treating these animals more humanely which will reflect upon us as a more caring and humane society.

With regard to carriage horses bringing income into the city through tourism, why can’t carriage horse drivers decorate and drive Pedicabs – the city would be cleaner and by pedaling pedicabs, the drivers would be healthier!

Siobhán Cronin, ST

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Airbnb grilled at packed Council hearing

Stuyvesant Town tenants Arlene Dabreo and Marina Metalios were among hundreds protesting Airbnb outside City Hall before  a legnthy hearing attended by Airbnb execs, hosts who use the service, tenants and politicians. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Stuyvesant Town tenants Arlene Dabreo and Marina Metalios were among hundreds protesting Airbnb outside City Hall before a legnthy hearing attended by Airbnb execs, hosts who use the service, tenants and politicians. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

Airbnb, the controversial home sharing listings site, was the subject of a lengthy and contentious hearing on Tuesday that consisted mainly of accusations being traded between politicians and the company’s director of global policy.

At the heart of the conversation was whether Airbnb was making efforts to comply with state law that forbids short-term rentals in most residential buildings, which the hearing’s chair, City Council Member Jumaane Williams, said he doubted. Meanwhile, Airbnb’s representative, David Hantman, threw in — at every chance he could get — a chance to defend Airbnb users who rent their homes out infrequently, who he said make up the bulk of the service’s users — and asked repeatedly why the law couldn’t be changed to exempt them. Instead, he argued, the law should just focus on “bad actors,” tenants or landlords who regularly rent apartments to tourists for short-term stays, making life hell for neighbors.

Most of the people in attendance were tenants opposed to Airbnb, due to illegal hotel activity in their own buildings, but there were also a few dozen supporters of the company, including hosts, with both groups demonstrating outside before the hearing. Those against the company carried signs with slogans like “I don’t want strangers for neighbors” and “sharing = selfish.”

A couple of demonstrators in that camp were Stuyvesant Town residents Arlene Dabreo and Marina Metalios.
Both said they’d seen suspected illegal activity in the community.

“We’ve seen it for sure, definitely in the past year,” said Metalios. “A lot of people coming in with suitcases and garbage being kept in the wrong place.”

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Also at the event was ST-PCV Tenants Association Chair Susan Steinberg, who’d hoped to speak about illegal hotel operations in Stuy Town, but finally gave up at around 5 p.m. since she had a meeting to go to. At this time the hearing, which began at around 11 a.m., was still going on. Since the City Council chambers were filled with around 200 people, some of them standing, the rest of the attendees, like Steinberg, had gotten herded into an overflow room.

Had she been able to give testimony, Steinberg said she would have focused on how, when residents’ use of Airbnb started to take off in 2011, it coincided with an uptick in bedbug infestations in Stuy Town buildings where short-term rentals were taking place. Following meetings with company reps alongside reps from CWCapital, illegal hotel activity in the complex has decreased, though it hasn’t ended completely.

Steinberg also had included in her testimony how the TA had heard concerns from neighbors about their safety when they challenged short-term renters who wanted to gain entry into buildings. In one case, an irate guest “just pushed their way into the building.”

One tenant who did get to testify at the hearing was West Side resident Audrey Smaltz, who said she’d lived in a penthouse apartment in her building since 1977, always feeling safe with the same neighbors for many years. But in recent years, this changed, with the owner renting vacant units as hotel rooms. “The entire fourth floor is for short-term rentals and (there are) many units on other floors,” she said.

As for Airbnb supporters, not too many had signed up to testify at the hearing, which Hantman had explained as being because they’re working people who can’t afford to wait around five hours.

“They have jobs; they have no voice right now,” he said.

However, politicians seemed less than sympathetic about the plight of New Yorkers resorting to home-sharing to help pay their own rent.

Council Member Corey Johnson, who represents Greenwich Village, said he lives in a tiny studio apartment for which “the rent is too damn high,” but added with what New Yorkers pay in rent, they should have the right to not be surrounded by transients.

Another Council Member, Robert Cornegy of Brooklyn, asked Airbnb for their revenue in 2014 and projected revenue for this year, which Hantman said he wouldn’t be allowed to provide. “I’ve got to FOIL that?” Cornegy asked him. “You’ve got to go to our finance people,” Hantman responded.

When questioned about how the attorney general had found that 72 percent of Airbnb rentals to be illegal, Hantman said this was “inaccurate,” especially since Airbnb has since removed thousands of listings by users who don’t provide a “quality” experience.

In response, Williams blasted Hantman for mentioning the word “quality” more than once when discussing hosts’ renting practices.

“You keep mentioning quality — you never once mention following the law,” said Williams. “I’m sure you have lobbyists that can try to change the law, but I don’t know how you can be a business person and never mention state or federal law. You only mention quality of experience. That’s not an effective business model in the City of New York.”

Hantman had argued that very few Airbnb rentals turned out negatively out of two million people using the service to stay in New York over the past few years. He also said 1400 of those people had found places to stay when they were impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side, asked about quality of life issues related to short-term rentals, when Hantman mentioned Airbnb has a neighbor hotline that can be called if a resident wants to report problems with an Airbnb guest or host. Rosenthal challenged this, asking “How would they know?” if a neighbor is in fact an Airbnb user as opposed to a client of some other home-sharing service or that the number even exists for the reporting of such issues.

When accused of putting tenants at risk for eviction for hosting, Hantman said the company does have a pop-up on its site for New York City users warning them hosting may not be legal in their buildings or allowed in their leases.

“We know how much they earn, but we don’t know what their lease is,” he said. “We ask our hosts to obey the law.”

One host there to support the company, Lee Thomas, told the panel about how after he became ill with cancer, his high-paying career on Wall Street came to an end and the only means he had of supporting himself was by renting out his getaway cottage. In response, Williams told him the illegal hotels law didn’t even apply to him because it applies to multi-family buildings while his property was just a two-family one.

Along with Airbnb, also getting quite a bit of criticism was the city office tasked with investigating illegal hotel activity, with Council members accusing its director of not doing enough or having the resources needed to adequately deal with the ongoing problem.

Elizabeth Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, kept saying she believed her office was doing a good job at keeping up with complaints, but politicians countered that the system shouldn’t just be complaint-driven. Rather, Rosenthal said, it should be proactive enough to keep up with any suspicious short-term rental listing. This was after Glazer had said her office last year had received 1,050 illegal rental complaints, up from 712 in 2013. In response, Rosenthal told her there were over 2,000 listings in Council Member Antonio Reynoso’s district in Brooklyn alone.

“I publicly take issue with what you’re saying,” said Rosenthal.

When asked how the office investigates tips of illegal activity, Glazer said there is “an array of techniques that we use,” but she declined multiple times to say what they were.

This answer didn’t impress Council Member Peter Koo, who threw back, “I don’t see you using them though.”

He told Glazer about how he’d seen an inspector show up at an address where there was suspected illegal activity and knock once. When no one answered, the inspector knocked again. Then, after a few minutes more, when the door remained unanswered, he was gone.

“How come it’s so hard to open a door?” asked Koo. “Pretend you’re a tourist. Send a decoy. Tell them they’re here to give a massage.”

Despite getting some chuckles from the audience, Koo was then cut off by Williams. Koo said he represents an area in Flushing that’s become a “gateway of Asian tourism.”

Also sitting in at the hearing were the authors of the 2010 illegal hotels law, State Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Richard Gottfried. Krueger said what she hoped would come out of the event would be more and not less enforcement of the law at the city level.

“Without enforcement at the local level, it’s as if we didn’t pass it,” she said.

According to Glazer, out of the 1,050 complaints received in 2014, 883 resulted in inspections and 495 violations being issued.

Council Member Dan Garodnick, who was not at the hearing since he is not a member of the housing committee, later said he does support “more aggressive enforcement” of the law.

From hot kosher meals to hoarding intervention

How one local organization is helping poor and isolated seniors

Project ORE Associate Director Jackson Sherratt and Director Tara Rullo at the center’s dining room (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Project ORE Associate Director Jackson Sherratt and Director Tara Rullo at the center’s dining room (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

Give us your poor, your homeless, your isolated, your elderly, your mentally ill, your hoarders on the brink of getting evicted.

This is essentially the mission statement of a nonprofit organization that has been based out of the Sirovich Senior Center building on East 12th Street for the past 28 years. Called Project ORE, its focus is on helping people who fall into those categories, as well as observant Jewish seniors, whether the assistance comes in the form a hot kosher meal or advocacy in housing court.

Project ORE is named after the Hebrew word for light as well as being an acronym for Outreach to the Elderly. It’s run by the Educational Alliance, the parent organization of Sirovich as well as the 14th Street Y. While almost all of its members are seniors, Project ORE isn’t technically a senior center. In fact, to even qualify for ORE’s services, participants have to be older adults who fall into three of the following categories: Homeless, formerly homeless, mentally ill, low-income, isolated (meaning no nearby family or support network) or Jewish. To find out if someone qualifies, a would-be client is invited to come by for lunch and then an assessment is done with an on-site social worker.

Around half of the organization’s members come from the surrounding neighborhoods of the East Village, the Lower East Side and Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village. The rest, however, arrive by train from Staten Island, Brooklyn and the Bronx. There are also some homeless members living in shelters, but just a handful.

“We have very few street homeless,” said the center’s director, Tara Rullo. “I would say most live with friends or family members.”

Still, there’s no shortage of housing challenges faced by members. Project ORE’s Associate Director Jackson Sherratt noted a recent example of a client whose income was too low to qualify even for low-income housing. However, by earning $16,000 a year, the same client was also considered too rich for Medicaid. As for what ORE can do, Rullo said if a client has a history of homelessness or mental illness, the organization can apply for supportive housing.

“We can help navigate the system,” she said. “There are more housing options available and we will research and push for that person to have housing. It can be difficult to navigate. If someone’s in a shelter we’ll advocate for them because once you’re in there you need someone on the outside fighting for you.”

Then there are the clients in rent-regulated apartments who end up facing eviction due to hoarding, or worse, hoarding that leads to infestations of bedbugs. While Project ORE doesn’t employ attorneys, its social workers have advocated for tenants in court and there’s also in-house psychiatric support available that’s specific to helping hoarders. The organization will also communicate with landlords and co-op boards to assure them they’re working with the resident to alleviate the problem. And while ORE’s staffers have certainly encountered landlords who don’t want to be cooperative, they’ve yet to see a case where an accusation of hoarding is just an excuse to get rid of a low-rent paying tenant.

“The problem is real,” said Rullo, “and quite extreme. There’s all kinds of risks associated with this behavior; there’s a risk to other tenants. If you hoard, your bedbugs are my bedbugs.”

Additionally, because it’s such a widespread problem, a current goal of the organization is to provide training on dealing with the issue to other organizations and agencies, from community boards to hospitals to the FDNY. “We’ve become kind of the face of hoarding,” said Rullo. “We’ve done conferences. We’re going to do a webinar.”

For clients with a problem, clearing out apartments is sometimes done through contractors, as well as onsite psychiatric help, as long as clients agree to it.

“It’s the client’s choice; we’re not going to do it behind their back,” said Rullo. But, she added, when faced with keeping their cluttered household or being made to move, the process isn’t usually resisted. “When there’s a risk to a rent-controlled or a rent-stabilized apartment, it’s a great motivator.”

However, not all Project ORE clients have problems that require intervention services. While many are facing some kind of crisis, social isolation is also a big reason for showing up to the center.

“This is a place where they can come in and make friends or partake in Jewish services,” said Rullo.

The kosher meals are also a draw, with the center serving 40-50 people for lunch each day. At the dining room, meals are brought to clients rather than having anyone wait on line. This, said Sherratt, is to make it as different from a soup kitchen as possible so clients feel welcome to stick around.

“You’re not getting line, you’re not getting a ticket. The idea is to have a place where you’re being served,” said Sherratt. Additionally, the dining area is going to be expanded soon, to make it more like a cafe. Clients will then be able to have coffee, tea or pastries from a mobile cart and have access to WiFi. “It’s another opportunity for socialization,” said Sherratt. “They can meet a friend or maybe hear some poetry or something.”

ORE’s headquarters, located in the building’s mezzanine level, overlook East 12th Street west of First Avenue, with the dining room its main common area. On a recent day after lunch was served, there were still half a dozen seniors sitting around either chatting or dozing at their tables. Several client-made paintings were on display on the walls. In a room nearby, a few others were watching a film.

One client who was sitting in the dining room, a resident of the East Village, said he started utilizing ORE’s services after finding out about them through a friend. The man, who asked that his name not be published, said his friend had gotten sick and ended up at Bellevue Hospital. When he went to visit him, the friend asked that he let someone named Lenny from Project ORE know that he was there. When the patient’s friend went to the center to find Lenny, who turned out to be a social worker, Lenny asked him if he wanted to stay for lunch. So he did.

Ten years later, the client still comes each day after walking over from his East 4th Street apartment. He does this, he said, for the exercise as much as for the meals, which come from a kosher caterer in Brooklyn. He also enjoys the center’s classes, which include Yiddish, a torah study group and fitness.

Funding for ORE’s services comes largely from grants from the UJA Federation of New York, as well as individual donations. The annual budget is $700,000 for Project ORE as well as for Safety Net, a sister organization that’s geared towards the needs of local seniors who are homebound. At this time, Safety Net has 172 members while Project Ore has around 200. Due to a steady demand for its services, which are all offered for free, Project ORE has always run on a deficit, and Rullo said the organization is going to have to start relying more on private funds.

“We can’t fundraise enough,” she admitted, “because it’s such a needy population.” Along with donations, the organization is also seeking volunteers, especially for the holidays, to do things like help serve lunch and connect with clients.

One volunteer who was interviewed by Town & Village, Stuyvesant Town resident Dianne Vertal, said she recently got involved with ORE after hearing Sherratt speak about its mission. This was at an event at her congregation, Town & Village Synagogue. Prior to that, she’d also heard about Project ORE from a friend who’d been doing a research project on Jewish poverty in New York. When her friend mentioned that ORE needed help for a Veterans Day lunch, Vertal volunteered.

“People think it’s one of the wealthier ethnic groups,” said Vertal. But, she added, “many of our elderly present a vast array of needs.”

Letters to the Editor, Aug. 30

Bed bug situation is being addressed

Re: “Residents reeling from bedbug ‘incompetence,’” T&V, Aug. 23

I am the person who led the 280 First Avenue bedbug meeting at the Community Center. I would like to clear up a few inaccuracies in last week’s article about it.

We have had at least six known (to us) bedbug infestations in the past few years, not six currently active bed bug infestations. There are two currently active infestations that are undergoing abatement.

There is a bed bug epidemic in NYC, so the fact that we have had a number of infestations over the past few years is not necessarily cause for alarm.

Our cause for alarm was the discovery that three of these infestations took place one after the other in adjacent apartments. Let’s call the infested apartments 14x, 14y, and 13y to protect people’s privacy.
These three infestations began this past April after apartment 14x tested positive for bed bugs and underwent a successful abatement.

Then in June, after getting numerous bites, the tenant in the apartment directly next door, apartment 14y, called management to schedule a bed bug test. 14y also tested positive for bedbugs and underwent abatement. During the course of abatement in that apartment, the apartment directly below, 13y, became infested and is still, to my knowledge, undergoing abatement.

That suggested to us that management’s pest control team might not have our situation under control. So the purpose of our meeting was twofold: to educate our neighbors about bedbugs and to discuss how we might find a way to work together with management to develop a comprehensive building-wide plan to rid 280 of bed bugs now, and to better contain any infestations in the future.

There is another active infestation (unrelated) undergoing abatement in a lower level apartment on a different line.

Thanks,

Name withheld, ST

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