TenantNet Forum

Where tenants can seek help and help others

On Temporary Walls or Partitions

Basic Reference Documents

Moderator: TenantNet

On Temporary Walls or Partitions

Postby TenantNet » Wed Jan 21, 2009 5:59 am

January 30, 2005
Deaths of Two Firefighters Raise Issue of Safety Ropes
New York Times


Besides hoses bearing water, few tools have proved as durable and as useful to New York City firefighters as rope. In longstanding rescue practices and on-the-spot improvisations, firefighters have relied on rope since the days when horses pulled engines and volunteers fought fires, right through last Sunday when two firefighters used a rope to escape a burning building in the Bronx.

In that fire, however, four other firefighters did not have ropes and jumped from the fourth floor. Two died. In the aftermath, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said that that he would consider making ropes standard gear for every firefighter. Doing so would give them a tool with a rich history, but would add more weight to what is already a hefty load.

The uses of ropes by firefighters have expanded for more than a century, just as the city has. With buildings rising to greater heights, firefighters used ropes to lower people to safety. They still do. Firefighters also tie a rope when they enter a vast smoke-filled space and hold the line so they can find their way out. And ropes are used to hoist equipment at emergencies.

But perhaps the most crucial use of rope is as a self-contained fire escape for firefighters themselves. Fire Department ladders outside buildings cannot always be mounted in time to reach trapped firefighters. But a rope, carried in a firefighter's coat pocket, can be quickly unfurled.

The lifesaving utility of a rope was apparent last Sunday. Two firefighters from Rescue 3 who were trapped by fire in a room on the fourth floor of 236 East 178th Street, Jeffrey G. Cool and Joseph P. DiBernardo, quickly fastened a length of rope to child safety bars attached to a window, each taking a turn to lower himself part of the way to the ground.

That sort of desperate utility led the department in 1990 to order that all 11,000 firefighters be equipped with a personal safety rope, but the department abandoned that regulation in 2000.

The nylon ropes, which were three-eighths of an inch thick and 40 feet long, came coiled in a pouch that could be stored in the jacket pockets of the gear that firefighters wore and were attached to harnesses around their waists.

Some firefighters liked carrying a safety rope for emergencies. "You knew that you had a way out," said one former firefighter.

But some firefighters complained about the rope's bulk, especially after 1994, when the department issued heavier protective bunker gear with jackets that had shallower pockets than the old coats.

Other equipment changes during the 1990's required firefighters to carry more, including tools to break down doors, infrared cameras to search for fire through walls, fire protective hoods and harnesses that looped around a firefighter's waist and bunker pants. A firefighting coat, pants, boots and a helmet weigh a total of 29½ pounds. Adding an oxygen tank brings the weight of basic equipment to 56½ pounds. But some firefighters bearing additional tools can carry as much as 94½ pounds

In 2000, the department recalled all the ropes close to the expiration date of their safety certification and did not issue new ones. At the same time, the department reduced the number of personal safety harnesses it issued; these are used to attach to the two-person rescue rope that each company carries. The two unions that represents firefighters and officers filed a contract grievance against the city over the reduction of the harnesses, but an independent arbitrator ruled in favor of the city in August 2001, said Michael Axelrod, a lawyer for the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

Although the unions complained that the department was continuing a pattern of not investing in vital equipment, Thomas Von Essen, the fire commissioner when the ropes were withdrawn, said the reaction of some firefighters to the ropes led to the decision to discontinue their use.

"There were a lot of complaints in the field about the extra weight," Mr. Von Essen said. "It was one of the areas we felt the least critical at the time, to take these out.

"There was no reason for a lot of people to use them. We wish every firefighter could be carrying his own infrared camera and roof rope, but there's a limit to how much each man can carry."

Daniel Nigro, who retired as chief of the department in 2002, said he had heard complaints that the use of the personal harnesses was wearing out firefighting pants for which the department had paid $10 million. But he said he did not know if cost concerns had played a role in the decision to withdraw the ropes. "That's something they have to look at now when they revisit why the department went away from that and should they go back," Mr. Nigro said.

The city has opened several inquiries into the problems at the Bronx fire, including investigating why a loss of water pressure left firefighters on the third floor without water, requiring firefighters with a hose on the fourth floor to go down and help douse the fire.

Investigators are also trying to determine who built an illegal partition in a fourth-floor apartment that prevented six firefighters from reaching a fire escape. While there is little doubt that a series of failures left the firefighters trapped, it is clear that ropes proved critical as the drama on the fourth floor unfolded.

A breathing mask was lowered from the roof to the trapped men by what is believed to be a utility rope, said Chief Joseph Callan, the Bronx borough commander. Moments later the fire from the third floor burst through to the fourth, and that is when Firefighters Cool and DiBernardo lashed onto the window bars a rope that Firefighter Cool happened to be carrying.

For reasons not yet known, both men fell during their descent. Firefighter Cool, who went first, fell halfway down, and Firefighter DiBernardo fell when he was just 10 feet below the window, according to Firefighter DiBernardo's father, Joseph DiBernardo Sr., a retired deputy chief. Both men were critically injured.

Fire officials said they were still investigating the falls and could not say if the rope had snapped, how long it was or if the men had instinctively let go because the ropes burned their hands as they slid down.

Trapped in another room were the four firefighters who did not have rope and who jumped. Lt. Curtis W. Meyran and Firefighter John G. Bellew died as a result of their fall.

The two other firefighters, Brendan K. Cawley and Eugene Stolowski, suffered critical injuries and are still in a hospital.

From the roof, a firefighter from Squad 41 - using a two-person rescue rope issued by the department, called a lifesaving rope - was lowering himself to the fourth floor when the last of the men fell.

Of the six firefighters, all but Firefighter Cawley wore a safety harness, a Fire Department official said.

In 1980, two firefighters, Lawrence Fitzpatrick and Gerard Frisby, fell to their deaths in Harlem when the rope they were holding snapped. A five-month inquiry by the city's Department of Investigation faulted the department for "unprofessionally" handling its investigation of the accident and ignoring reports that the rope it had issued was insufficient.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, speaking on Friday on his weekly radio program on WABC-AM, said it was impossible to say for sure whether ropes would have saved the lives of the two firefighters in the Bronx.

"So we'll see whether they want to change it," the mayor said, referring to top Fire Department officials.

"But you know, sometimes things help, and sometimes they don't, and you have to look at it on balance, and you pray that the right decision was made for the right time. Unfortunately, there's no one answer for everything."
Last edited by TenantNet on Wed Jan 21, 2009 6:03 am, edited 2 times in total.
Posts: 8933
Joined: Mon Jan 21, 2002 2:01 am
Location: New York City

Postby TenantNet » Wed Jan 21, 2009 6:00 am

January 6, 2009
At Trial, Prosecutor Faults Tenants and Landlord in ’05 Firefighter Deaths
NY Times


The last recorded cries of a trapped firefighter — “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Ladder 27, Mayday!” — echoed in a Bronx courtroom on Monday as prosecutors sought to pin the blame for a deadly 2005 blaze on the owners of an apartment house and two tenants accused of illegally erecting walls that turned the building into a firetrap.

The doomed firefighter, Lt. Curtis Meyran, 46, was killed in a jump from a burning fourth-floor apartment, as was a fellow firefighter, John G. Bellew, 37. Four other firefighters, faced with the same choice of burning to death or jumping 50 feet, also leapt out, but survived.

The fire, at 236 East 178th Street in the Tremont section, during a blizzard on the 17-degree Sunday morning of Jan. 23, 2005, happened on the same day that a blaze in Brooklyn killed a third firefighter. A Fire Department inquiry into the Bronx fire found serious lapses in equipment and procedures, including a lack of safety ropes and breakdowns in communications.

But the Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson, secured grand jury indictments against the two tenants, Rafael Castillo and Caridad Coste, both 57; the former owner of the building, Cesar Rios, 52; and the current owner, a limited liability company called 234 East 178th Street, named for the second section of the two attached units of 13 apartments each.

The lead prosecutor, Jeffrey Glucksman, said, “The evidence will show that Ms. Coste and Mr. Castillo did not intend to cause these deaths.” But he said that by subdividing their apartments to create windowless bedrooms they rented out for $75 to $100 a week, they “created a death trap.”

They are charged with two counts of manslaughter in the second degree, two counts of criminally negligent homicide and one count of reckless endangerment.

Defense lawyers, in their opening statements at the long-delayed trial before two juries, which are sitting in separate judgment on the defendants, hammered away at the department’s own findings of shortcomings and depicted their clients as scapegoats.

“To fight a fire you need water — it has nothing to do with a partition,” said Lisa Pelosi, representing Mr. Castillo, a Guatemalan immigrant who she said was in the United States legally and had never been in trouble with the law.

Indeed, the prosecution’s opening evidence — the anguished radio transmissions — depicted ample confusion at the site. “We lost pressure, we lost pressure,” one firefighter yells as frozen hydrants and problems with the hoses impeded a flow of water. And when Lieutenant Meyran was shouting the alarm signal, Mayday, others seemed unclear where he was.

Then an unidentified voice calls out: “Kevin, a whole company just jumped out the rear,” followed by: “We need massive E.M.S. here. Massive injuries.”

Mr. Glucksman, the prosecutor, attributed the immediate cause of the blaze to one of Mr. Castillo’s makeshift rooms on the third floor, where a spliced extension cord had been plugged into an outlet. When the outlet sparked, he said, a bed that was pressed against it caught fire, and the flames channeled upward to Ms. Coste’s fourth-floor apartment. There, her partitions blocked firefighters’ visibility, he said.

But Neal Comer, the lawyer representing the current owner, whose principal he named as Leslie Berman O’Hare, a business partner of Mr. Rios’s, said the blame was misplaced. “They own the building,” he said. “They don’t know what’s going on in each apartment.”

Both sides took pains to describe the firefighters as heroes. Police officers may be viewed skeptically by some jurors, as recent acquittals of some defendants accused of murdering officers suggest, but firefighters seem to draw widespread appreciation.

The defense arguments drew some grumbles of disapproval from firefighters and Lieutenant Meyran’s widow, Jeanette. “This is adding insult to injury,” Ms. Meyran said outside the courtroom. She is now raising their son, 20, and daughters, 14 and 10, alone. “I thought I would spit.”

In an unusual arrangement, two juries were empaneled in State Supreme Court. One, designated Green and composed of seven women and five men, is hearing the case against the two tenants. The other, called Purple, with eight women and four men, is sitting in judgment of Mr. Rios and the real estate entity. Some evidence is to be heard by both juries, but some will not be heard by one of the panels because some testimony may be prejudicial to a co-defendant.

The reason became evident when Mr. Rios’s lawyer, David J. Goldstein, said he would introduce evidence to show that his client had tried and failed to get Mr. Castillo to remove his unapproved partitions.

“What do people expect him to do?” Mr. Goldstein told the jury. “What is he, a storm trooper? Take it down with his bare hands?”
Posts: 8933
Joined: Mon Jan 21, 2002 2:01 am
Location: New York City

Postby TenantNet » Wed Jan 21, 2009 6:03 am

Firefighter: Partition caused chaos at fatal blaze
2:25 PM EST, January 8, 2009


For several critical minutes, a Bronx firefighter testified Thursday, he couldn't find the flames that ultimately trapped his colleagues inside an illegally subdivided apartment, killing two from catastrophic injuries suffered when they jumped out the window.

"The smoke was very, very thick -- no visibility at all," Patrick McKenna said, describing his second search of apartment 4L. "You couldn't see anything. There was a lot more heat. In the back of my mind I was thinking the whole time, 'We're missing a room up here somewhere -- there's got to be a room filled with fire.' "

Moments later, with McKenna pulling stuff out of a closet, the fire roared out of the nearby kitchen.

"The next thing I know I was surrounded by fire,'' he testified. "It just lit up on us. It was basically just a big orange glow everywhere. It was coming out with extreme pressure -- like a blow torch."

McKenna, assigned to Rescue 3, was able to flee the apartment. Only later, he said, did he learn that six fellow firefighters in other parts of the apartment had been forced to jump 50 feet to a concrete courtyard in a last-ditch effort to cheat death.

But Lt. Curtis Meyran, 46, of Malverne, and John Bellew, 37, of Pearl River, died from their injuries. Four other firefighters were badly hurt.

And now two tenants, Cardidad Coste, 58, and Rafael Castillo, 57, landlord Cesar Rios, 52, and the Tremont building's corporate owner are on trial, charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide for dividing apartments into illegal warrens that created a death trap for firefighters.

Their lawyers, in turn, pin the blame on the obstacles that firefighters had to overcome -- fire hydrants frozen shut and no safety ropes. Indeed, a Fire Department inquiry concluded there were lapses in equipment and procedures, no safety ropes and a breakdown in communication.
Posts: 8933
Joined: Mon Jan 21, 2002 2:01 am
Location: New York City

Temporary walls turn NYC apartments into firetraps

Postby TenantNet » Wed Jan 21, 2009 6:04 am

Temporary walls turn NYC apartments into firetraps
Associated Press Writer
January 20, 2009


The firefighters responding to the blaze at a Bronx apartment building were trapped in a maze of illegal partitions.

With flames licking at their bodies and black smoke making it nearly impossible to see, the men had little choice but to jump from a fourth-floor window.

"Next thing you know, that I remember, is hitting the ground 40 feet below," firefighter Jeffrey Cool testified recently in court. "I was in a world of hurt. I was in the worst pain I've ever found myself in."

The trial now under way of four people charged in the blaze highlights the persistent fire hazard of using temporary walls for illegal apartment conversions _ a common problem in a city where rents are high and space is always in demand.

Two firefighters were killed in the January 2005 blaze after leaping out the window; another four were hurt, including Cool.

The former owner of the building, the current owner and two tenants face manslaughter and lesser charges for allowing the construction. All have pleaded not guilty.

Across the city, such makeshift warrens can be found in neighborhoods popular with college students, recent graduates on their first jobs and immigrants. A lock is often slapped on the extra rooms so they can be rented for extra money.

"Owners complain to me, every door of every bedroom has a padlock on it," said Frank Ricci of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents 25,000 property owners in the city. "It's tremendously difficult for them to gain access to their apartments."

To build such walls, a permit is needed from the city's Department of Buildings. If any electrical wiring is installed, an electrical permit is also needed. And the agency recommends working with an architect.

"Illegal walls can put tenants and first responders' lives in danger. Owners and tenants must obtain a permit to safely install a wall," said Buildings spokeswoman Kate Lindquist, whose department gets thousands of complaints annually related to illegal conversions.

Apartment owners often plead ignorant, saying they have little control over tenants because they rarely see what goes on within the apartments. But renters say owners are just as guilty.

In one example, tenants at Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town, a massive rent-regulated complex in Manhattan, complained to the Fire and Buildings departments about owner Tishman Speyer Properties advertising "convertible" apartments.

The firm purchased the complex in 2006 for a record $5.4 billion, setting off fears among tenants and some public officials that it was hoping to make a profit by seeking to charge market rates for the rent-stabilized apartments.

Jim Roth of the tenants association said he remembered the deadly fire in the Bronx when the association filed the complaint. "I thought, can they do this? The answer was no, not without a permit," he said.

Fire and Buildings officials told the company it couldn't advertise apartments with the suggestion that it was OK to add so-called pressurized walls, and that permits were needed for any changes. Since then, Tishman Speyer has obtained permits, and it declined to comment further.

In the last six weeks of the year, the city vacated at least four buildings in Chinatown because of building and fire safety violations, mostly because the floors were divided into single-room units that had little or no ventilation, blocked sprinklers and exits.

As a result, many of the tenants, mostly immigrants from China, were displaced, though some were relocated by the city. Both owners and tenants are pointing fingers, each claiming the other was responsible for the illegal construction.

In the case of the building at the center of the trial, tenant Rafael Castillo had added two bedrooms to his family's three-bedroom, third-floor apartment and rented them out. The blaze, which started due to a faulty electrical cord, spread to the fourth-floor apartment of Caridad Coste, who had also built extra rooms.

The former owner, Cesar Rios, has been charged along with the current owner, a limited liability company, and the two tenants.

The lawyers for the defendants argued that well-publicized glitches with Fire Department equipment caused the death of firefighters Curtis Meyran, 46, and John G. Bellow, 37. A subsequent Fire Department probe found serious lapses in equipment and procedures, including communication breakdowns and a lack of safety rope.

Cool testified he was carrying a safety rope that he bought six months earlier at a trade show. At the time, city firefighters were not provided with ropes, but the policy changed after the Bronx fire. He saw other firefighters jumping from a nearby window, and turned to his friend Joseph DiBernardo.

"I said, 'Joey, I've got a rope,"' he said. But there was nowhere to secure the line. DiBernardo held the rope while Cool descended, but it snapped and he fell. DiBernardo was able to lower himself part way before he fell, too. Both men survived, but Cool now walks with a slight limp and said he had to retire from the FDNY because of his injuries.
Posts: 8933
Joined: Mon Jan 21, 2002 2:01 am
Location: New York City

February 14, 2009 Tenants Found Not Guilty in Deaths of 2 Fi

Postby TenantNet » Fri Feb 13, 2009 5:54 pm

February 14, 2009
Tenants Found Not Guilty in Deaths of 2 Firefighters in Bronx
NY times
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/14/nyreg ... nx.html?hp

Two tenants have been found not guilty of manslaughter and other charges in the death of two firefighters who died after jumping from a window to escape an out-of-control blaze in a Bronx apartment building in 2005.

Prosecutors accused the tenants, Rafael Castillo and Caridad Coste, of contributing to the deaths because of illegal partition walls in their apartments that disoriented the firefighters, Lt. Curtis Meyran, 46, and Firefighter John G. Bellew, 37. But the jury found Mr. Castillo and Mr. Coste innocent of all charges.

A separate jury was deliberating the same charges against the former owner of the building, Cesar Rios, 52, and the current owner, a corporation called 234 East 178th Street. The tenants’ jury reached its verdict Wednesday but it was not unsealed until Friday so as not to influence the owners’ jury, which was still deliberating Friday.

The firefighters were fighting a blaze sparked by a faulty extension cord in one of the units in the building at 234 East 178th Street. The fire erupted on the 17-degree Sunday morning of Jan. 23, 2005, prosecutors said. It started in Mr. Castillo’s apartment and spread up to Ms. Coste’s fourth-floor unit, prosecutors said.

Lieutenant Meyran and Firefighter Bellew each died when they jumped 50 feet from the burning building. Four other firefighters jumped as well but they survived.

The lead prosecutor, Jeffrey Glucksman, said the apartments had been subdivided with walls to create windowless rooms that the tenants rented out for $75 to $100 a week. The set up created “a death trap” that blocked the firefighters’ visibility, Mr. Glucksman said when the trial opened last month.

The lawyers for Ms. Coste and Mr. Castillo argued that the Fire Department was at fault for the deaths. The fire exposed numerous deficiencies in the department’s in equipment and procedures, including a lack of safety ropes, and breakdowns in communications.

Firefighters could not be located as they made radio transmissions and water did not flow properly to hoses, according to the lawyers in the trial.

Lawyers for Mr. Rios and the corporation, named after an adjoining building it also owns and whose principal was identified as Leslie Berman O’Hare, argued that their clients should not shoulder the blame for the deadly blaze.

“They own the building,” Neal Comer, a lawyer for the corporation, said in his opening statement. “They don’t know what’s going on in each apartment.”

The deaths of Lieutenant Meyran and Mr. Bellew occurred the same day that a firefighter died during a blaze in Brooklyn. The day was called Black Sunday.

Mathew R. Warren contributed reporting.
Posts: 8933
Joined: Mon Jan 21, 2002 2:01 am
Location: New York City

Postby TenantNet » Thu Feb 19, 2009 3:54 pm

February 19, 2009
Bronx Landlords Guilty in 2 Firefighters’ Deaths
New York Times

The owner and the former owner of a Bronx apartment building where two firefighters died after jumping from a window to escape a blaze were found guilty Wednesday of criminally negligent homicide.

The jury also convicted the owners of reckless endangerment, but acquitted them of manslaughter, the most serious charge they faced.

Prosecutors argued that the firefighters died in the 2005 blaze because illegal partitions in two of the apartments left them disoriented and forced them to jump to their deaths.

But last week, a separate jury that heard the same case acquitted the tenants who were accused of installing the partitions to carve up their apartments into rooms they sublet. The tenants faced the same charges as the owners. The jury that convicted the owners on Wednesday was unaware of the earlier verdict.

The former owner, Cesar Rios, faces up to 4 years in prison, 11 years less than the maximum penalty for manslaughter. The current owner, the 234 East 178th Street Corporation, can be fined up to $15,000.

Mr. Rios, who remained free on bail pending sentencing, and his daughter rushed past reporters without commenting. His lawyer, David J. Goldstein, also declined to comment.

Neal S. Comer, the corporation’s lawyer, said he strongly disagreed with the verdict, especially given the other jury’s verdict. “One would have to ask: How could these people be guilty and those two tenants are not guilty? It just defies common sense.”

Mr. Comer said he would file a motion to dismiss the charges.

A spokesman for the Bronx district attorney’s office declined to comment on the difference in the verdicts.

But Robert T. Johnson, the Bronx district attorney, said in a statement: “There is absolutely no verdict that can compensate the families of the deceased or the survivors of this tragedy for their loss, their grief and their pain. That being said, it is most appropriate that those, who through their greed caused this needless suffering, receive significant punishment.”

After the verdict was read in court, Eileen Bellew, the widow of one of the victims, Firefighter John G. Bellew, began to shake and smile as one of the firefighters who survived the blaze hugged her.

“I am satisfied with findings of the jury this afternoon, but I am still shocked, saddened and disappointed by the findings of the jury on Friday,” Ms. Bellew said in a statement. “To know that two people who are responsible for John’s death will not be punished while John serves the sentence for their crime is profoundly upsetting.”

At least one juror in the case against the landlords said she could not understand how the jury hearing the case against the tenants reached a not-guilty verdict.

“I feel that they should have been found guilty because they built partition walls, and they walked,” said Wendy Santos, 42. “They shouldn’t have walked, because lives were lost and there’s families that are hurting because of that loss.”

Firefighter Bellew, 37, and Lt. Curtis Meyran, 46, died after leaping 50 feet from the building to escape the out-of-control blaze on Jan. 23, 2005.

The deaths of the firefighters occurred on a 17-degree day in the Tremont section of the Bronx. That same day, a firefighter was killed battling a blaze in Brooklyn, and the day was dubbed Black Sunday in the Fire Department.

“The details of this case brought to light the grave dangers of illegally subdivided apartments or houses and the threat they pose to residents as well as firefighters,” Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said in a statement.

“We hope today’s verdict offers some comfort to the families of Lt. Curtis Meyran and Firefighter John Bellew as well as all of their colleagues and friends.”

Last week, relatives and friends of the fallen firefighters cried and angrily denounced the acquittal of the tenants, Caridad Coste and Rafael Castillo, both 57. The dead firefighters’ relatives and friends were happier as they left the courthouse on Wednesday, though not fully pleased.

Firefighter Jeffery Cool, one of those who survived the blaze, said the verdict was bittersweet because “it’s never going to bring Curt or John back.”

“Nothing’s going to make the Bellew household or the Meyran family whole again,” he said.

“But hopefully we are going to look at this case. We are going to look back on it and say we can make a difference in New York City.”

He said he hoped the city could pass tougher laws against illegal partitions in apartments. In this case, prosecutors argued that Ms. Coste and Mr. Castillo rented out the windowless rooms in their apartments for $75 to $100 a week.

Outside the courthouse, Firefighter Cool and his wife, Jill, hugged the jurors, and she told them, “You restored my faith that there is a justice system.”

The lawyers for Mr. Rios and the company, whose principal owner was identified in court as Leslie Berman O’Hare, had argued that the owners should not be at fault for what was going on in each apartment.

A lawyer for Mr. Rios argued in his opening statement that his client had tried to get Mr. Castillo to remove the partitions.

The defense lawyers contended that the Fire Department was at fault for the deaths. The fire exposed deficiencies in the department’s equipment and procedures, breakdowns in communications, problems with water flow and the lack of safety ropes, which had been standard issue until several years before the fire, investigators said. The distribution of safety ropes was reinstated soon after the blaze.

The jury in the case against the landlords reached its verdict after four days of deliberation, a day after it appeared to be deadlocked.

Ms. Santos said there was disagreement over whether to convict the defendants of manslaughter or the less-serious criminally negligent homicide.

Under state law, a person is guilty of manslaughter if he is aware that his action poses a significant risk of death, but ignores the risk.

A finding of criminally negligent homicide applies to someone who fails to see that his action poses a great risk of death, even though he should have.

One juror in the case against the landlords, Iris Minerva Perez, said she held out because she believed Mr. Rios deserved to be found guilty of manslaughter. She said that she eventually relented and voted for the lesser charge because the verdict had to be unanimous. “He got off easy,” she said.

Joel Stonington contributed reporting.
Posts: 8933
Joined: Mon Jan 21, 2002 2:01 am
Location: New York City

The Fall of Temporary Apartment Walls

Postby TenantNet » Fri Jul 23, 2010 4:24 pm

July 15, 2010
The Fall of Temporary Apartment Walls
By Marc Santora

After graduating from Duke University this spring, Karan Sabharwal landed a job in finance in New York City. He had a plan to make Manhattan living affordable.

He would lease a nice one-bedroom apartment, convert it to a two-bedroom space with a temporary wall and split the rent with a friend.

But when he went to check out the Rivergate, a high-rise apartment building in Kips Bay, he was told by the property manager that partitions were no longer allowed.

“I told her I had friends in nearby buildings that had put up the walls,” he said. “She said, ‘We have adopted the policy, like many other buildings in the neighborhood, that you will not be able to put up the full wall anymore.’ ”

As the city aggressively enforces a long existent but widely ignored code, walls are falling across Manhattan, radically altering the housing landscape for scores of young professionals. Thousands of renters are being told that the walls that have been put up over the years without approval from the Department of Buildings must come down. And new renters are being informed that if they wish to divide a space, they will need to rely on bookshelves or partial walls that don’t reach the ceiling.

“The impact has already been dramatic,” said Gordon Golub, the senior managing director for rentals at Citi Habitats. “Landlords are all trying to come to some sort of conclusion as to what they are going to do in allowing any walls or a different sort of wall that might go up, and it is affecting brokers and customers.”

Manhattan apartments are as varied as the roommates who decide to share a place. Because of this, there are no rules that apply universally. But in all cases, temporary walls must not block exit routes or interfere with the ventilation and sprinkler systems. And there are minimum requirements for room size.

The current focus on temporary walls is driven by two developments: prosecutors’ decision to level manslaughter charges at the owners of a building where a fatal fire occurred in 2005 and, more recently, the city’s drive to eliminate illegally installed temporary walls in Stuyvesant Town, the sprawling complex between 14th and 23rd Streets on the East Side.

After tenants’ complaints and subsequent inspections by both the Fire Department and the Department of Buildings, Tishman Speyer, the owner of Stuyvesant Town, embarked this spring on a review of all its apartments and moved swiftly to eliminate all walls that were not up to city code.

“It was determined that partition walls previously installed in some apartments were not in compliance with the New York City Building Code,” the company said in a statement. It declined to go into the extent of the complaints or who had lodged them.

Tishman Speyer is paying for the removal of the walls. It is also footing the bill for the installation of approved replacement walls for those tenants who had the landlord’s permission to build temporary walls.

City officials note that it has long been illegal to install a floor-to-ceiling wall without a permit from the Department of Buildings, even though landlords as well as tenants have often disregarded this requirement. But the strict enforcement at Stuyvesant Town has prompted many landlords to get into compliance.

The Manhattan Skyline Management Corporation, which manages thousands of luxury apartments across Manhattan, including the Rivergate, has been examining its entire portfolio to establish where walls were erected. The company has already informed hundreds of residents that even if they installed walls with the building’s approval, or moved into an apartment that already had such walls, they will have to rip them out if they are not up to code.

In a statement, the company said that because the Department of Buildings had “greatly restricted” the use of walls to subdivide rooms, “previously installed walls which were believed to be legally installed have to be removed.”

The company is offering tenants who erected walls with its approval $700 to help defray the cost of erecting new dividers, like bookshelves.

But for many residents, a bookshelf or a partial wall is no substitute.

“It’s not only inconvenient, but heartbreaking, since we love our apartment just the way it is,” said Daniela Zakarya, 25, and a broker at the Real Estate Group of New York.

Ms. Zakarya, who moved with her college roommate into a Gramercy-area apartment a year ago, said the wall had been in place at the time. She was informed in April by her landlord ­ whom she did not want to identify since she is still negotiating a solution ­ that the wall had to come down.

A week later it was removed, and now the living room has become the second bedroom while the roommates decide what to do next.

“It is a cataclysmic change and is the future of Manhattan share situations,” she said.

Ms. Zakarya quickly realized she was not alone. Many of her clients are young professionals looking to share places in doorman buildings where the average rent for a one-bedroom ranges from $3,000 to $3,500. As she has shown apartments in recent weeks, she said some potential renters have been surprised to find that the cost-saving room-splitting arrangements their friends made just a year ago are no longer an option.

And the bookshelves, screens and partitions replacing walls inevitably result in a loss of privacy.

“Everyone who wishes to save money on rent and convert their apartments may need to get used to this,” Ms. Zakarya said.

Tony Sclafani, a spokesman for the Department of Buildings, said the city’s regulations had not changed. He emphasized that a work permit had always been required to add a wall.

“The addition of a partition, pressurized wall, or other floor-to-ceiling divider, even if intended as a temporary installation, results in a change to the layout of an apartment,” he said.

To get a work permit, one must hire an architect or engineer to prepare plans of the proposed layout and other construction details as well as to apply for plan approval, Mr. Sclafani said. After the plan is approved, the contractor must get a work permit. After the work is complete, the architect or engineer must inspect it and then sign off on the job at the Department of Buildings.

Certainly, thousands of renters have skirted these rules in the past without penalty. The Department of Buildings does not randomly inspect residences, and mostly acts in response to complaints.

But ever since a deadly fire in a Bronx apartment building in 2005 in which two firefighters died after leaping from a window, the city has had illegal room dividers in its sights. Prosecutors charged the building’s former and current landlords, as well as two tenants, with manslaughter. The city’s position was that illegal partitions erected by the tenants to subdivide the apartments had disoriented the firefighters and led to their deaths.

The tenants, who were said to have installed the partitions to create small, windowless rooms that they then rented out for $75 to $100 a week, were acquitted.

The owner and former owner were convicted of criminally negligent homicide by a separate jury. But that verdict was overturned in February by the State Supreme Court, which found the prosecution had failed to prove the defendants had known about the illegal partitions.

Since that fire, the Department of Buildings has cracked down on the most dangerous situations, issuing 1,200 vacate orders in 2009 for people living in illegally subdivided apartments, the majority in Queens. Manhattan shares drew little attention until recently, when landlords and real estate agents could not help hearing the rumble of walls falling in Stuyvesant Town.

Because apartment layouts vary widely, it is difficult to generalize about what types of walls meet with city approval, but officials at the Department of Buildings said the major considerations had to do with “egress routes” to ensure “maximum travel distances in the building code are not impeded, sprinkler coverage areas (where sprinklers are provided) are not obstructed, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are relocated or supplemented if necessary to comply with the building code.”

Any electricity work must also meet guidelines.

“Keep in mind that the elimination of a common living room to create a three-bedroom, zero living room apartment may result in a rooming-unit situation that is not permitted by the Housing Maintenance Code,” Mr. Sclafani said. “In addition, since each apartment is generally required to have at least one room of at least 150 square feet, the installation of a partition may run afoul of this requirement in certain cases.”

He said anyone with questions about whether an apartment is up to code can call 311 and request an inspection by the Department of Buildings.

In any case, despite the firm stance taken by some major property owners, thousands of renters are still using pressurized walls, which are relatively inexpensive, easily installed and easily removed.

Donny Zanger, the project manager at All Week Walls, which specializes in installing and removing pressurized walls, said his business was so far unaffected.

“We are growing like crazy,” he said.

“If these walls did not exist in New York,” Mr. Zanger said, “it would be a very difficult situation for students and young professionals and even professionals who make more money.”

He says he follows all the city codes and regulations when installing a wall. He also says he does not understand how erecting large bookshelves to divide a space is any safer than properly installing a pressurized wall.

In practice, it has not been the responsibility of the installation companies to obtain the necessary building permits; it has been the landlord’s or the owner’s. But many companies use their Web sites to advise potential customers to secure approval from building management.

The cost of a wall starts around $700, and Mr. Zanger said his company had put up 300 to 400 walls in the past year. There are dozens of similar companies ­ a testament to just how common the practice of dividing rooms in Manhattan has become over the years.

It remains to be seen whether many landlords will follow the lead of Stuyvesant Town and other major property owners in Manhattan, but during a June meeting of landlords and brokers hosted by the Real Estate Board of New York, it was the hot topic.

Meanwhile, many renters new to the city find themselves in a position similar to that of Mr. Sabharwal, the Duke graduate.

“I heard that if you have a month, that is plenty of time to find something,” he said. But in light of the crackdown on temporary walls, his options seem more limited and he might have to reassess his $1,600 budget.

“It is a whole different experience than my friends had,” he said.
Posts: 8933
Joined: Mon Jan 21, 2002 2:01 am
Location: New York City

Return to Tenant Reference materials

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests