Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bedbug epidemic attacks New York City

Daily News
Sunday, December 30th 2007, 6:45 PM

Unfed bugs are 1/4 to 3/8 inch long. They are brown or red-brown in color and the upper surface of the body appears crinkled. Recently fed, they are engorged with blood, dull red in color. AP

Unfed bugs are 1/4 to 3/8 inch long. They are brown or red-brown in color and the upper surface of the body appears crinkled. Recently fed, they are engorged with blood, dull red in color.
Daily News

A bedbug epidemic has exploded in every corner of New York City - striking even upper East Side luxury apartments owned by Gov. Spitzer's father, the Daily News has learned.

The blood-sucking nocturnal creatures have infested a Park Ave. penthouse, an artist's colony in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a $25 million Central Park West duplex and a theater on Broadway, according to victims, exterminators and elected officials.

Once linked to flophouses and fleabags, bedbug outbreaks victimize the rich and poor alike and are spreading panic in some of the city's hottest neighborhoods.

"In the last six months, I've treated maternity wards, five-star hotels, movie theaters, taxi garages, investment banks, private schools, white-shoe law firms, Brooklyn apartments in Greenpoint, DUMBO and Cobble Hill, even the chambers of a federal judge," said Jeff Eisenberg, owner of Pest Away Exterminating on the upper West Side.

The numbers are off the charts: In 2004, New Yorkers placed 537 calls to 311 about bedbugs in their homes; the city slapped 82 landlords with bedbug violations, data show.

In the fiscal year that ended in June, 6,889 infestation complaints were logged and 2,008 building owners were hit with summonses.

They must get rid of the pests within 30 days or face possible action in Housing Court, the city Department of Housing, Preservation & Development says.

The scourge has left no section of the city untouched: Complaints and enforcement actions soared in 57 of the 59 community boards.

In the most bedbug-riddled district, Bushwick in Brooklyn, HPD issued 172 violations this year, up from four in 2004; it responded to 476 complaints, up from 47.

Central Harlem chalked up 269 complaints, up from nine. Williamsburg and Greenpoint, home to the city's hippest galleries, racked up 148, up from 11 in 2004. Astoria and Long Island City saw the tally climb to 345 from 41.

Bedbugs come out of the woodwork at night to feed on human blood, biting people in their sleep and leaving large, itchy skin welts that can be painful. They are not believed to carry or transmit diseases.

A surge in global travel and mobility in all socioeconomic classes, combined with less toxic urban pesticides and the banning of DDT created a perfect storm for reviving the critters, which had been virtually dormant since World War II, experts say.

Prolific reproducers and hardy survivors, they can thrive in penthouses, flophouses or any environment where they can locate warm-blooded hosts, said Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the Museum of Natural History who keeps a colony of 1,000 bedbugs in his office and lets them feed on his arm.

"The female hatches as many as 500 eggs a year, and they can survive for a year and a half without a blood meal," he said. "They're at home in every neighborhood in the city, including Park Ave. and Fifth Ave."

The small, wingless, rust-colored insects hitch rides on clothing, luggage, furniture, bedding, bookbags, even shoelaces. They've been spotted in cabs and limos, as well as on buses and subways.

Those travel patterns account for the 1,708 verified bedbug cases in 277 public housing projects this year, the city Housing Authority says. The Department of Education has documented another 74 cases, spread across 50 schools.

They even contaminated five or six apartments in the swanky rental tower at 220 E. 72nd St. owned by Bernard Spitzer, the governor's 83-year-old father.

Several tenants described a persistent, if intermittent, infestation on the 15th, 16th and 17th floors.

One resident had to throw away rugs, bedding, curtains, 20 cashmere sweaters, an Armani suit, a couch, a headboard, a night table, a bedframe and an exercise bike. During extermination, he stayed at the Carlyle Hotel.

Spitzer, a prominent developer, said he was unaware of contamination problems in any of his buildings. He referred calls to the managing agent, Rose Associates.

"The company has worked aggressively and proactively to address this issue through ongoing extermination and apartment inspections," a spokesman said.

Spitzer's 28-story building sits atop the six-story home of Marymount Manhattan College, which discovered seven infestations in two residence halls. The problem was under control by October, a spokeswoman said.

City officials say HPD inspectors are increasing enforcement as complaints mushroom and the Health Department is handling education and prevention efforts. It's not more actively involved because its focus is on disease-spreading pests, officials said.

"That's not good enough," said City Councilman Gale Brewer (D-upper West Side.) "It's great that we're not smoking as much, and great that we're not eating trans fats, but we need to focus on bedbugs in the same aggressive manner."

Brewer wants to create a Bedbug Task Force and bar the sale of reconditioned mattresses, which the Bloomberg administration opposes because it "would adversely impact lower-income New Yorkers," a mayoral spokesman said.

I was getting up to 20 bites a night

Tiny bedbugs can take a huge psychological toll on their victims, like Caitlin Heller, a Queens College student whose Jackson Heights apartment was twice infested.

"I was getting 15 to 20 bites a night, and it was driving me crazy," said Heller, who runs Yahoo's Bedbug Support Group where sufferers commiserate. "I suffered mentally. I couldn't sleep at night, and I couldn't focus during the day because I had itchy, painful welts all over my body."

For therapy, Heller (photo inset) started her online support group in January 2006. In eight months, she had 70 members; today there are 555, almost all New Yorkers.

Bedbugs also take a steep financial toll - and can even keep families apart for the holidays, like the Delgados of Woodside in Queens.

Joyce Delgado, an office manager at a midtown firm, and her husband Joseph, who works in the back office of a brokerage house, always went upstate for Thanksgiving to see family in Wappingers Falls. Not this year. They used up all their vacation time battling an infestation in their apartment of 35 years and didn't want to risk contaminating the homes of loved ones.

It all began in September when Joyce Delgado saw a single bedbug on her husband's pillow at 2 a.m. "We threw out everything - a rug, couch, two upholstered chairs, wall-to-wall carpeting, drapes, towels, curtains, bedding - because we thought everything we owned was contaminated," she said. "We checked into the Grand Motor Inn in Maspeth during extermination. All told, we must have spent $2,000, and we still won't go back into our bedroom. We're living on a makeshift bed in the living room."


Unfed bugs are 1/4 to 3/8 inch long. They are brown or red-brown in color and the upper surface of the body appears crinkled. Recently fed, they are engorged with blood, dull red in color.

Daily News

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Leave It With the (Virtual) Doorman

The New York Times
December 23, 2007

JIM CRAWFORD lives in an apartment building where he doesn’t need a key to get past the locked front door. He presses a button on a key fob.

But when he lost that fob recently, all he had to do was walk up to the building, and before he reached the door a voice cheerfully boomed from the intercom, “Hey Jim, go right ahead,” and the door buzzed quietly until he was safely inside.

The idea of a formless voice coming out of the ether to welcome him home didn’t faze Mr. Crawford one bit. “I thought it was great,” he said. “It means they recognize me immediately, and they’re watching the building carefully.”

“They” are the operators at Cyberdoorman, a virtual-doorman service based in the South Bronx. While monitoring the building from a remote location, virtual doormen can receive packages for residents by giving delivery people access to a locked package closet in the lobby, and they can also help keep out unwanted visitors, like the nanny who was just fired or the boyfriend who was just dumped.

Since virtual-doorman services first appeared in New York about seven years ago, the technology they use has improved significantly, making them more reliable and more widely accepted, especially by developers of new buildings. Using cameras and an Internet connection that sends the images to a monitoring center, a virtual doorman can see and talk to someone at the door, but the doorman can only be heard.

Virtual-doorman services have been installed mainly at buildings with fewer than 40 apartments, where a real doorman would be prohibitively expensive. Residents at some of the dozens of buildings that use these systems say that over time, they have developed friendly relationships with their virtual doormen. And like real doormen, the people who watch the monitors — mostly women, in another twist on the profile of conventional doormen — say that they too feel as though they’ve gotten to know some of their tenants.

Even though Kristen Drewry, who lives in an 11-unit building in Greenwich Village, has never met or even seen Jenneile Bonet, an operator who works the day shift at Cyberdoorman — one of two established virtual-doorman services in the city — the two speak to each other almost every day. Usually, Ms. Bonet is calling to tell Ms. Drewry about a package or is opening the door because Ms. Drewry can’t find her key card, a plastic tag that she taps on an electronic reader to open the door.

“Jenneile is great,” Ms. Drewry said. “I love her. She always knows who I am.” She said she was actually surprised at how personal the service could be. “Considering it’s just a computer and people on a phone, they’re friendly and they know all the residents,” she said.

People who are used to a doorman who can physically open the door, say “Good morning” and flag a taxi for them will be unimpressed, Ms. Drewry said. “If you need that personal touch, this isn’t for you,” she said. “But if you’re not high maintenance and you don’t want to worry about tips, then this is just right.”

Ms. Drewry was not the only resident who felt relief at being freed from the anxiety-ridden exercise of holiday tipping. That is not to say, though, that virtual doormen are forgotten at holiday time. Nilka Dutton, who has been with Cyberdoorman since 2001, said that over the years, she and other operators had received Starbucks gift cards, personal checks and boxes of chocolate — all from residents they had never met. “We don’t expect it, but it’s nice,” she said.

Ms. Bonet, who has been a Cyberdoorman operator for three years, said: “Most of the tenants are really awesome people, and we talk to everybody as if they’re a friend or someone you work with. But we have our favorite tenants, people who we have a lot in common with.”

There’s the insurance adjuster who has an office in a mixed-use building in Yonkers who is named Evan, just like Ms. Bonet’s 9-month old son. “He’ll say what a great name it is,” Ms. Bonet said. And then there’s Sabrina Smith, a Greenwich Village resident whom Ms. Bonet speaks to regularly and who also has a young child. “She’s such a lovely woman,” Ms. Bonet said.

For her part, Ms. Smith said that she had used Cyberdoorman in a variety of ways and that Ms. Bonet had been one of the most familiar and most friendly voices there. Aside from receiving packages, Ms. Bonet has also received dining room chairs for her by directing deliverymen to leave the chairs outside Ms. Smith’s apartment door.

Cyberdoorman also helped Ms. Smith and her husband entertain one night when they had a party for about 70 people. With the guest list in hand, Cyberdoorman screened and let in all the guests, leaving the couple to concentrate on the party.

Ms. Smith recalled one instance where Cyberdoorman made her feel particularly well cared for. It was in the middle of the night, shortly after she had moved into the building last summer. The building’s fire alarm went off, and Ms. Smith was home alone with her baby daughter. She stood in the lobby pondering whether it might be another false alarm, when her cellphone rang. “It was someone from Cyberdoorman, and she said, ‘Ms. Smith, you look really worried; it’ll be all right,’” she said, adding that it was a virtual pat on the shoulder that came at the perfect moment.

Still, while a virtual doorman can be close to the real thing, the system is vulnerable in an extended power failure or Internet disruption. Either occurrence would be the equivalent of an unexpected and fully enforced doorman strike. And if a building had only electronically controlled doors and none with keyed locks, residents could be completely locked out.

Colin Foster, a vice president at Virtual Doorman, another New York-based system, said his company, which has its monitoring center in Maine, recently had to dispatch a locksmith to drill holes in a front door lock after a leak shorted out all the equipment. “There was no one in the building to come down and open the door, and no one that we reached had a key,” he said. “No question, a blackout is a weakness in the system.”

Virtual-doorman systems can range from very basic services with a few cameras and an Internet connection that allow the operators to watch a front door and accept packages, to space-age operations with biometric readers that scan fingerprints for entry or electronic tags that don’t even have to be taken out of a pocket to open a door — an E-ZPass, of sorts, for humans. Depending on the level of sophistication and the number of cameras, the services cost $10,000 to $70,000 for installation and $6,000 to $30,000 in annual maintenance.

When not dealing with residents or delivery people they know, Cyberdoorman operators will answer a buzz at the front door with a reference to the building like: “Welcome to Folio House; how may I help you?” And Virtual Doorman operators respond with, “This is your Virtual Doorman; how may I help you?”

In addition to being a convenience for tenants, virtual-doorman services can increase property values. Jonathan Miller, an executive vice president of Radar Logic and its director of research, said apartments with an attended lobby could expect about a 12 percent premium on sale prices over comparable apartments in nondoorman buildings.

“A virtual doorman is probably about halfway between not having a doorman and having a fully tended lobby,” Mr. Miller said, “because you don’t have a human being physically there, but you do get human interaction.”

Timothy Crowley, the managing director of FLAnk, a development group that specializes in smaller buildings and that has used Cyberdoorman in its projects, said having enough employees for full-time doorman service would cost more than $250,000 a year, which “in a small building would be a crushing expense, so this is a neat solution for what otherwise would be a nondoorman building.”

But Matthew Nerzig, a spokesman for the doormen’s union, Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, argued that “while cyberdoormen offer building managers a way to cut costs, they obviously can’t compete with actual doorman when it comes to providing professional service and security to tenants.”

For most buildings, a doorman — either real or virtual — gives residents a sense of safety. But Mr. Crowley of FLAnk said he believed that in some ways, a virtual doorman could make a building safer than a real doorman. “Whatever a virtual doorman lacks in arms and legs, it makes up for in security,” he said. “If someone’s up to no good, a virtual doorman can lock down a building.”

Ross Berman, a principal at New York Citiwise, a developer using Virtual Doorman in some of its projects, said a virtual doorman could immediately notify a resident of a delivery by phone, e-mail or text message, “but a real doorman couldn’t do that without leaving his station.”

Twenty-four-hour surveillance cameras can also provide visual records of any criminal wrongdoing. Both Cyberdoorman and Virtual Doorman have provided the police with video to help in investigations.

Seth Barcus, a systems designer at Best Monitoring, the security company that created Cyberdoorman, said the company had provided video of break-ins in garages and of vandalism. “There was also a case where someone had broken into something like 40 buildings, and we had cameras in four of those buildings,” he said. “This was a pro, and he got into a door within four seconds and looked like he used a key.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said video from building surveillance cameras could be helpful in criminal investigations, but she also said that buildings should have protocols for when video is released, to protect residents from wrongful disclosure. “The concern is that videotapes might be turned over to government to reveal innocent comings and goings of people that are inappropriately a target — say political opponents, for example,” she said.

In many buildings, co-op boards have requested cameras in places like elevators, hallways and garages, but Cyberdoorman does not monitor those cameras constantly. “We want to avoid being Big Brother,” Mr. Barcus said, “and we try not to look at the cameras that might intrude on people’s private lives.”

Video images, however, are kept for up to 100 days. Co-op boards have on occasion asked Cyberdoorman to retrieve incriminating video for things of a less than criminal nature, like a broken garage gate, a lobby Christmas tree that kept mysteriously getting moved and “things of a sexual nature happening inside an elevator.” Mr. Barcus said that the offender often “winds up being a resident in the building, and if we have to speak to them about it, they’ll say: ‘Wow, I didn’t even know there was a camera there. That was stupid, wasn’t it?’”

Toby A. Ten Eyck, a sociologist at Michigan State University, said the growing acceptance of virtual-doorman services says something about urban living. “We’re always in crowds in the city,” he said, “so people are always watching us at a certain level. Now technology allows us to have cameras everywhere watching what we do, and what’s interesting is we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t care that we’re being watched. We actually like it.”

Which is why residents can find it reassuring when a virtual doorman they have never met calls them by name and opens the door for them, he said. “It’s the ‘Cheers’ mentality of being somewhere where everybody knows your name,” he said, referring to the television show about a Boston bar and its regular customers. “Especially in a city where you’re pretty much an anonymous figure, you just feel good when people know who you are.”

As to whether virtual doormen can replace real doormen, Ms. Bonet’s husband, Kevin, who is a doorman on Park Avenue, gives a vehement no. “It’s better when there’s somebody at the door and not someone sitting in a building somewhere else,” he said.

He is quick to add, though, that he has watched his wife at work and is awed by the way she effortlessly monitors up to 17 buildings on four plasma screens.

The couple live in a nondoorman building, and when asked if they would rather live in a building with a doorman or a virtual doorman, both voted for the virtual one. She said she liked the reliability of video surveillance records. And he said, given all the comings and goings he sees, a virtual doorman offers more privacy. “With people watching your door, they tend to know your business more,” he said.

He figures not knowing and not having to face the person behind the camera can be a real plus.

Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

Operators at Cyberdoorman in the Bronx monitor multiple buildings at once.

Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

ON CALL Jenneile Bonet, an operator at Cyberdoorman, has struck up relationships with a number of the residents in the buildings she monitors. She knows them by sight, and they recognize her voice.

Ring the doorbell in a luxury apartment building in Manhattan and you just might talk to a call center in the South Bronx.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Graying Of the City: Young Families Fleeing New York

The New York Observer
by Tom Acitelli
December 11, 2007

Young families are leaving New York more and more, threatening to turn the city in the next few decades into one largely of older, childless and single people. It’s these young families that lay down the sorts of roots that animate a city’s culture and economy, and that ensure its long-term vitality. Lose young families and, eventually, lose a city’s soul and brainpower. (Exhibits A and B: Philadelphia and Detroit.)

“You have what’s been going on in other cities—the people staying are childless, and the people leaving have families,” said Joel Kotkin, author of The City: A Global History and a noted expert on the economic trends of cities.

He is co-authoring a report due out tentatively in March on the middle class in New York City, including population migration. Mr. Kotkin shared with The Observer last week preliminary results of the study. These show that more young families are leaving the boroughs, mainly because of higher costs of living—especially housing. As time goes by, they will make up less of the population.

New York City experienced a net loss of 8,163 young people with families in 2006, according to the preliminary results; in 2005, the city experienced a net loss of 8,034. These young people with families were defined as those between the ages of 25 and 45, with children and with at least a bachelor’s degree. Manhattan accounted in 2006 for the bulk of fleeing families, with a net loss of 3,477 or roughly 42 percent of the city total. Only Staten Island, among the five boroughs in either 2005 or 2006, experienced a net gain, adding 221 young people with families last year—but losing 725 in 2005.

The city’s own estimates show the school-age population as a percentage of the overall population dropping in every borough through 2030. Over the same time, the city anticipates that the number of 55-and-older residents as a percentage of the population will increase in every borough.

“It’s not even a question of, they can’t afford what they want,” Mr. Kotkin, a Brooklyn native who lives in Los Angeles, said of younger New Yorkers today. “When it becomes a situation of, instead of an apartment in Manhattan, you’re paying a lot for an apartment a 40-minute subway ride to Manhattan, you start to think, ‘Is this worth it?’”

More young New Yorkers are shouting, “No!”

Take Staten Island as an example. It is the smallest and most suburban of the city’s five boroughs, a last stop in affordability for anyone who wants to remain in New York City. Traditionally, home prices in Staten Island have been a fraction of what they were in Manhattan or Brooklyn, and even in large swathes of Queens and the Bronx.

Still, the percentage of 18-to-34-year-olds as part of Staten Island’s overall population has shrunk since 1980, from 28.3 percent then to barely 20 percent in 2000, according to a report released in April by the Center for an Urban Future. And, they’re not fleeing simply because it’s, well, Staten Island. The report points out that the median sales price of a single-family home in the borough increased 101 percent from 2000 to 2006, the sort of titanic home-price increase that’s happened citywide this decade and that few New Yorkers alive have ever witnessed.

“Families are leaving the boroughs; it’s not just Staten Island,” said Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future. “And it’s not just stockbrokers and lawyers. … These are predominantly middle-class families.”

That New York City is expensive, and that that expensiveness may make living within the city limits impossible, is not news. But it’s no longer a question of affordability—it’s a larger, almost ethereal question of livability as created by this lack of affordability.

Do New Yorkers want their city in 25 years animated purely by commuting suburbanites, and full of gray-hairs and singletons who treat it merely as a Disneyesque playground, all safe and homogenous? Worse, do New Yorkers want their city to commence another long period of decline and decay as those who might have a vested interest in its upkeep and allure—say, the parent raising a child to pass a private home onto—disappear further into Hoboken, Stamford, Port Washington, et al.?

“Let’s say I was living in San Francisco and I wanted to move to New York in the early 1990’s,” said Mr. Kotkin. “I could do it. New York was more net affordable.”

Not anymore. Like in Staten Island, homes have become prohibitively expensive for most New Yorkers. In Manhattan, the median price of a condo—likely the point of entry for first-time home buyers as it requires a smaller down payment than a co-op and there’s no co-op board to pass—jumped 133 percent from 2000 through September 2007, according to research firm Radar Logic.

The average Queens home is more expensive than the average Suffolk County home (excluding the North Fork and the Hamptons), according to Radar Logic—and, hey, Suffolk County is barely a two-hour train ride away, the sort of commute one could get used to in exchange for much cheaper housing of similar or better quality. And, in a few years, it should be noted, that Suffolk commute will likely end not in the current low-ceilinged Penn Station but in a more expansive, much sunnier one as part of the Moynihan transit hub.

Then there’s Brooklyn. The city’s single greatest real estate story of the past 15 years or so has unfolded there: the gentrification, and the concurrent rise in home prices, within neighborhoods once thought undesirable. A midyear report from the Corcoran Group—a major brokerage that, like other Manhattan-based firms, had no Brooklyn offices until the late 1990’s—concluded that the median condo price in brownstone neighborhoods like Park Slope and Carroll Gardens had increased 11 percent from midyear 2006, to $650,000.

People with children already generally pay more for housing than childless people, according to Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, who with her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi, a former McKinsey & Company consultant, wrote the 2003 book The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers & Fathers Are Going Broke. Ms. Warren suggested that The Observer check out chapter two of the book, which had some pretty sobering statistics on how costly a young family’s housing can be compared to a childless singleton’s: “No matter how the data are cut, couples with children are spending more than ever on housing.”

That spending in New York City has only ballooned this decade. Couple this with stagnant job growth and job uncertainty in the mighty financial services industry, and it’s little wonder more young families are traipsing reluctantly beyond the city’s limits.

“I think people want to stay in New York if they can,” Mr. Kotkin, the author, said. “People leave because they have to.”

Nigel Holmes; Source: Center for an Urban Future

Sunday, December 9, 2007

There's no such thing as a subprime NYC co-op loan

New York Post
December 9, 2007

To the rest of the country, New Yorkers may seem like an odd lot. We jaywalk with impunity, we order-out more than we cook in and we tend to wear black 24/7.

And if we decide to settle down, particularly in Manhattan, we often find ourselves buying into a co-op - that uniquely New York arrangement - whereby your would-be neighbors set the size of your mortgage and assess your suitability to weather a financial tsunami.

To those with upstate relatives or a cousin on the coast, moving into a New York co-op has long been fodder for conversations that always begin with: "Can you imagine they would put up with that? Referring to what appears to others as a draconian down payment and FULL financial disclosure.

Want to re-finance or re-model? The co-op board will have to sign off on that as well.

To be sure, few that have been through the co-op vetting process look back on it with fond memories. Today, however, New York City co-op owners are having the last laugh. Co-op prices remain firm, and a Google search of "co-op and foreclosures" only turns up one article - from 1991.

There's a lesson in all this for the nation's homeowners and lenders. Burned by the New York real estate collapse in the mid-70s, co-op boards around Manhattan (making up 70 percent of all apartments) have toughened their standards in recent years. At the same time, the banks making the mortgage loans were lowering theirs.

With rules that require hefty down payments of sometimes 50 percent or more, and extensive financial disclosure requirements, the Manhattan co-op is basically the complete opposite of the no-doc subprime slime that has brought the national real estate market to its knees.

Imagine if in 2006 every mortgage borrower needed eight letters of reference from employers and associates to secure a loan?

Sure, during the bubble years from 2002-2006 co-op prices didn't go up as much as the rest of the market, but tight lending and re-financing standards have insulated prices which are still showing few signs of weakness.

This is not to say the co-op model is perfect, far from it, or that co-op prices won't weaken if Wall Street layoffs ensue. But there is a lesson in this seemingly arcane process. What the co-op model does tell us is that buying a home shouldn't be as easy as buying a pair of new shoes.

When lending standards are set high enough, and the process of buying a home is kept close to home - the chances of losing your home are less likely.

TERRY KEENAN is anchor of Cashin' In, an investing program that appears on Fox News Channel on Saturday mornings at 11:30. E-mail

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Latest Hot Co-op Topic: Secondhand Smoke

New York Sun
BY BRADLEY HOPE - Staff Reporter of the Sun
December 6, 2007

Benjamin Zitomer lived happily with his family in a two-bedroom apartment at 99 Jane St. in the West Village for six years before a new tenant moved in next door and brought an unexpected menace: It wasn't rats or cockroaches or even noise; it was secondhand smoke.

"It came in through the bedroom wall and permeated in through the front door," Mr. Zitomer, 49, a database administrator, said. "Our apartment was filled with smoke almost every night. We had to have the windows open in the middle of the winter."

Secondhand smoke is overtaking noise as one of the most common complaints coming before condo and co-op boards. While the issue isn't new, real estate lawyers say that with New Yorkers prohibited from smoking at work, in bars and restaurants, and even directly in front of buildings, the battle against secondhand smoke is increasingly taking place at home.

"This is the hot controversy in condos and co-ops right now," a real estate lawyer who gets a new smoking-related case about once a month, Aaron Shmulewitz, said. He added that with more science confirming the dangers of secondhand smoke and fewer people picking up the smoking habit, homeowners are more sensitive to the problem.

"We were really upset and frustrated," Mr. Zitomer said of his experience. "We couldn't go out to escape it. My son had to go to sleep just as it started up at night, and it lasted until 4 or 5 a.m. This guy was something of a night owl."

The president of the board at 99 Jane St., Salvatore Rasa, declined to comment. He said secondhand smoke "is an issue we are all learning about."

For Mr. Zitomer, the problem wasn't so much the initial assault of the smoke on him, his wife, and his 3-year old son as it was his lack of legal recourse.

All told, it took him 10 months to resolve the issue — the condo board eventually rejected the smoker's request to renew his lease when it came up in August — but it could have dragged on for years.

The issue of secondhand smoke represents murky legal territory for lawyers, with little case law on which to base a claim. Essentially, condo and co-op boards must make a reasonable effort to determine the source of the smoke and attempt to mitigate the effects. If they fail to do that, homeowners and tenants can refuse to pay maintenance fees or rent, Mr. Shmulewitz said.

"A board that ignores complaints like this is acting at its own peril," he said.

There are several difficulties for building boards. Namely, secondhand smoke is subjective, with some people sensitive even to the suggestion of smoke, while others are not bothered unless it is happening directly in front of them.

"Another interesting question comes down to payment," a partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan who is the chairwoman of the New York City Bar Association's Committee on Cooperative and Condominium Law, Eva Talel, said. "Does the smoker pay to fix the problem or the tenant or the board? Or do they share the cost?"

A real estate developer and former general contractor, Eitan Baron, said it would cost $2,000 to $2,500 to block up seepages in sockets, floors, and windows with fireproof foam and other airtight material that would prevent smoke from coming into an apartment. He suggests that both a smoker's apartment and the nearby units be fixed up with these protections.

Another possibility is to ban smoking altogether in a building, but that, too, presents difficulty. To do this, at least two-thirds of the shareholders would have to vote through a proprietary lease amendment.

A 20-unit cooperative in Hell's Kitchen at 341 W. 54th St. reportedly rejects applicants who list themselves as smokers. The president of the board could not be reached for comment.

"Shareholders are talking about this at several buildings," Ms. Talel said.

There is one case that may provide a benchmark for other lawsuits based on secondhand smoking. In Poyck v. Bryant, Judge Shlomo Hagler ruled in August 2006 that a tenant who stopped paying rent because the landlord wouldn't address a secondhand smoke issue did not have to pay the more than $10,000 the landlord claimed he owed.

Drawing on health research from the surgeon general, the judge ruled that the landlord's inaction breached the warranty of habitability.
Mr. Shmulewitz said he is expecting an onslaught of cases to be filed with similar claims in the coming years.

"The conditions that are conducive to second hand smoke, like improperly constructed buildings, are going to increase," he said. "As it is difficult to resolve these complaints, there will be more and more lawsuits."

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

City beefs up enforcement of window guard regulations

Daily News
Tuesday, December 4th 2007, 4:00 AM

A new city regulation puts some muscle into the requirements for landlords to make sure apartments with young children have safety window guards installed.

Failure to install the guards will now result in a landlord being issued a violation by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Nine children under age 16 have been injured or killed so far this year because of unprotected windows, according to city records.

That is down from 48 in 1993, thanks to public awareness campaigns and more enforcement.

"We're trying to make it less bureaucratic, so the end result we're all aiming for gets done as quickly as possible," said HPD spokesman Neill Coleman.

Previously, only the Health Department could issue violations to landlords when inspectors spotted missing window guards. If the landlord did not install one within five days, the department would put a guard in and bill the owner.

Now, HPD, which spends more time in apartments, can also issue violations for the Health Department and install the guards. According to HPD's numbers, its inspectors spot about 1,000 windows each month that need safety guards.

Before the amendment passed at a Health Department meeting in October, HPD had been issuing "dummy" violations the department could not keep track of or follow up on.

"The new way is better. It isn't us issuing a violation that doesn't show up," Coleman said.

It is a landlord or homeowner's responsibility to install window guards in buildings with three or more units that have children 10 years and younger, or for any tenant who requests it.

Window guards are required on all windows except ones with fire escapes. Guards for fire escape windows must be FDNY-approved and installed by the tenant.

Window guard safety is a major priority for both departments.

"When our inspectors go in for any inspection window guards are one of the things they always check for," Coleman said.

Monday, December 3, 2007

"When Are You Going to Fix That?" And other things not to say in your co-op-board interview

New York Magazine
By S.Jhoanna Robledo
Published Dec 3, 2007

Getting the offer accepted is, strange as it sounds, often the easy part. It’s passing muster with the co-op board that’s tough. Assembling a killer package is key, of course (stellar references, wad of cash in the bank). Then comes the interview—and by this point, it’s your game to lose. “Ninety-five percent of the work has been done. The 5 percent is up to you, and that’s a very important 5 percent,” says Prudential Douglas Elliman broker Jacky Teplitzky. Most rules are standard—arrive early, dress conservatively—but brokers say some strategies appear counterintuitive. Take name-dropping. Though it may seem advantageous to mention friends in the building, agent Alison Rogers, author of Diary of a Real Estate Rookie, says skip it, unless you’re certain they’re adored by their neighbors. “You may score points with some, but annoy others who may not like them,” she says. In fact, steer clear of talking about anything specific about the building in general (the new fitness room or the chatty doorman). Those are what Corcoran’s Deanna Kory calls “hot points.” The gym could have come at a massive and controversial hike in maintenance; that doorman may be on his way out. “Somebody on the board may hate [them],” she explains—and your innocent enthusiasm will leave a bad taste in their mouths. Samantha Kleier Forbes of Gumley Haft Kleier once had a buyer, hoping to look interested in the future of the co-op, ask if the lobby was scheduled to be renovated. Unfortunately for him, the lobby had just been done over. “The board meeting is never the time to ask these questions,” she says.

Served on the board of your old building? Resist touting your accomplishments. “That’s a big N-O!” says Teplitzky. No one likes a braggart, for starters, and you may unnerve board members who like things the way they are. And though it may seem smart to dress to the hilt to gain entry to a chic co-op, Bellmarc’s Cayle White recommends leaving the diamonds and Birkin bag at home. “You don’t want to look like you’re trying to look rich. It’s very ostentatious and gauche,” she says. “Your financial information speaks for itself.” And, says Kleier Forbes, “you don’t want to look like someone who’ll steal someone else’s husband. No one’s ever been turned down for looking boring.”

Illustration by Peter Arkle

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Behind All the Smoke: Are Laws Restricting the Right to Smoke in Condominiums, Townhomes and Apartments Really Necessary?

December 2007
By Nancy Le

Efforts to ban smoking in private residential units are not all "smoke and mirrors". Section Fellow Nancy Le undertakes a thoughtful analysis of whether more regulation of smoking in private multi-family buildings is necessary in light of existing legal principles.

Read the full article here:

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Through the Roof

The New York Times
November 18, 2007

IN the classic New York City real estate dream, the sleeper discovers a room, maybe an entire wing, that he or she never knew existed. Then, just as the exhilaration of the newfound space starts to settle in, the dreamer awakens to crashing disappointment.

But for some New Yorkers, the dream is not so far-fetched, because they can build those illusory rooms on the rooftops of their own buildings. Squeezed by rising maintenance costs and in search of new sources of income, dozens of small-to-midsize co-ops and condos across the city are looking to their rooftops — the latest frontier for cashing in on every available inch of space — and are opting to sell building rights to top-floor residents or to other apartment owners.

The owners of the top-floor apartments pay for the chance to expand their apartments into duplex penthouses and to create roof decks with panoramic city views. The buildings, in turn, get money to pay for major projects like replacing the elevators or remodeling the lobby, as well as additional monthly income through higher maintenance or common charges as a result of the new space.

"We're seeing more of this now, and it's simply because the value of space has become so dear and rooftops always were the undiscovered value in this city, the underappreciated surface," said Tony Goldman, a developer and a restaurateur who has renovated many buildings in SoHo and the financial district.

The roof additions tend to be in loft conversions and brownstones — smaller-scale prewar buildings that have not been built to the full height allowed by zoning regulations. Large postwar buildings, on the other hand, tend to have already maximized their allowed square footage.

Jonathan Miller, an executive vice president of Radar Logic and its director of research, said that the "popped up" rooftop in loft conversions was probably what prompted many existing co-ops and condos to consider building upward.

He said that Miller Samuel, the appraisal arm of his business, has gotten more requests to appraise roof space in recent years. "Co-op and condo boards are looking for new ways to bring in money," he said. "They're naturally looking at everything that has been underutilized and that now has enormous value."

The city's Buildings Department says that by late October, 35 buildings in Manhattan had applied for rooftop additions, already exceeding the 2006 total of 34. In the 1990s, there were just a handful of applications each year.

But since 1999, just about the time that the city's real estate boom took hold, there have been a few dozen rooftop applications annually.

Of course, as with any co-op or condo issue that involves major construction and large sums of money, the perils are many. In any building, there is likely to be at least some disagreement over who gets to buy what and for how much, as well as anger and frustration over how disruptive and time-consuming rooftop construction can be.

Structural engineers must review the designs to make sure the building can physically support the addition. The projects also often require contractors to extend existing vents and chimneys. Buildings' proprietary leases and bylaws can vary, but in most cases, any deal will have to be approved by at least a majority of the owners, and project plans will have to be approved by the building's board.

But penthouse owners who have weathered the travails connected to cracking through the roof say that in the end, the results are worth all the trouble. They get more space without having to move, and they point out that buying similar quarters in a newly constructed building would probably cost them much more.

Juan Urrutia bought the rights to build on top of his Greenwich Village building about six years ago when the co-op wanted to raise money for renovations. It took more than five years, but his 1,500-square-foot apartment on the 16th floor grew to include a 300-square-foot screening room on a mezzanine level, an 800-square-foot addition with two bedrooms, a bath and an office area, plus two terraces with more than 1,200 square feet of outdoor space.

He is now in contract to buy an additional 750 square feet of space to provide a buffer around his penthouse. "We ended up having to buy more to protect what I had already bought," he said. "It guarantees the view forever."

The price per square foot in his building started at $65 and has since risen to $450. "The whole process was a lot more complicated than it sounds," he said. "And it's very expensive to build, but I still figure it would have cost me twice as much to buy it already done."

Mr. Urrutia credited his architect, Arpad Baksa, with finding ways to maximize the amount of buildable space and giving his duplex a seamless feel even though only a part of the top floor is directly above the original apartment.

It was Mr. Baksa who pointed out that an unused water tank — a remnant of a factory sprinkler system — and other ductwork on the roof could be removed or moved to make Mr. Urrutia's addition more functional.

Mr. Baksa, who has completed about 35 rooftop additions since the late 1990s and is currently working on six such projects, said that buildings have also hired him just to figure out how much additional space is permitted under zoning regulations and how many square feet can actually be built, two figures that are not always the same.

"You might have the square footage but not be able to use it," he said, noting that zoning restrictions can limit the usable space. Rooftop additions in landmark districts, for example, must be set far enough back that they cannot be seen from the street.

The price of roof rights is linked directly to the apartment beneath it and varies greatly, said Mr. Miller of Radar Logic. He said that rights generally sell for anywhere from 15 to 50 percent of the value, on a square-foot basis, of the apartment that will be connected to it, depending on whether the buyer plans to build a terrace or a new room.

So in a building that has top-floor apartments worth $1,000 a square foot, rooftop space could sell for $150 to $500 a square foot. "It's really what the market will bear because you're giving somebody the potential to upgrade their apartment," Mr. Miller said.

At 56 West 82nd Street, Eric Rath, a Bellmarc Realty agent representing the one-bedroom apartment on the top floor, urged the seller to take the option to purchase the roof rights above the $695,000 one-bedroom. "The option was a few thousand dollars, and it gives whoever winds up buying the apartment the exclusive right to buy the roof rights within a year," Mr. Rath said.

"It was the logical thing to do," he added, because otherwise another resident in the building could buy the space and build above the apartment. Actually purchasing the rights to build a 500-square-foot addition on the roof would cost $60,000, he said.

When Lara Sullivan bought her top-floor apartment in an Upper West Side brownstone in 2003, roof rights were included. The previous owner had already acquired the rights to the entire roof, including the space above a neighboring apartment. But because of that, Ms. Sullivan paid a premium for her 600-square-foot one-bedroom.

Stuart Moss, a broker with the Corcoran Group who handled the sale, said that about 30 percent of the $362,000 that Ms. Sullivan paid was attributable to the roof rights. But after she completes a $250,000 rooftop expansion next month, he estimates that the apartment will be worth about three times what she paid.

Ms. Sullivan, who is a principal in a private equity firm specializing in health-care investments, started planning the rooftop addition in 2005, but getting city approvals took more than a year, and she was disappointed to learn that even though she had the rights to nearly 1,400 square feet of roof space, zoning and landmark regulations limited her addition to 270 square feet.

Still, the renovation will give her a more open living space downstairs and a larger bedroom on the upper level, along with two terraces with more than 1,100 square feet of outdoor space.

"It feels like a different world on the roof," she said. "The price I had to pay for it was all the aggravation and the time it took to finish it."

Ms. Sullivan said that when the co-op board approved her plans, it also voted to increase her maintenance by $130 a month, to $850, which she thought was reasonable. "The number of shares I own in the co-op went up, but I think it was the right thing to do for the building," she said, "because I had the smallest space in the building to begin with and I now have close to the largest."

Penthouse apartment owners, of course, are not the only ones presenting building boards with rooftop proposals. Burt Wallack, president of Wallack Management, which manages about 60 apartment buildings, said several developers had approached him with proposals to build new penthouses on top of their buildings.

When that happens, he advises the building's board to get an independent appraisal, and to offer the space to residents before selling the roof rights to an outside developer. Getting residents' approval is important, he said, because construction can cause lots of disruptions.

"If it's done right, it could be an excellent thing for a co-op or a condo," he said. "But if it's not done right, it can easily turn into a nightmare."

Stuart M. Saft, a real estate lawyer who is the chairman of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, said developers who propose building a new penthouse for sale to outsiders face an uphill battle because top-floor residents "generally won't want their apartments devalued with something on top of them, and they don't want the risk of noise that doesn't exist right now."

When Dennis Mitchell and his wife, Akiyo Matsuoka-Mitchell, opted to expand their top-floor apartment in SoHo three years ago, they had to grapple with many disappointments and complications.

A neighbor initially thought she, too, would expand above her apartment, so they limited their project to the space above theirs, only to learn later that the neighbor had decided not to build. "We would have liked to have the extra space, but by then it was too late for us to change our plans," said Mr. Mitchell, a fashion photographer who was president of the co-op board at the time.

They paid $100,000 for the right to build a 450-square-foot master bedroom suite, along with 600 square feet of deck and a 400-square-foot terrace on top of the addition.

Along the way, the roof height on the addition had to be scaled back from 16 feet to 12 feet after inspectors from the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission examined a mock-up of the expansion, created with sticks on the roof, and ruled that a penthouse with 16-foot ceilings would be visible from the street, a violation in a historic district.

The commission also required them to scrap plans for a stucco exterior and to substitute more expensive brick, to match a nearby chimney.

On the plus side, they were also able to buy about 50 square feet of hallway space on the lower floor. They paid $68,000 for the interior space, significantly more per square foot than what they paid for their roof rights, but it allowed them to create two bedrooms downstairs for their young children, one of whom was born during the construction period.

"We love the area and the building, and I feel like we were so lucky that we didn't have to move when the family expanded," said Ms. Matsuoka-Mitchell, who runs a jewelry design business from the apartment. "The space was able to grow with us."

Who Can Tell You What?

Finding out whether you can build an addition on your building's roof is more complicated than you might think.

The Department of City Planning can tell you the zoning and height regulations for your property, but it's the Buildings Department that tracks what has been built at any given location over time, and neither agency will answer your rooftop expansion questions.

Because roof rights involve the overlapping jurisdiction of both agencies, Kate Lindquist, the press secretary for the Buildings Department, recommended that owners of co-ops or condos consult a licensed architect or engineer with professional expertise in zoning and building regulations.

But Arpad Baksa, an architect who has advised many co-ops and who has done dozens of rooftop additions, said that the Web site could give you a good idea whether your building has any buildable space.

To get a ballpark figure for how much more space your building can add on, plug in your address at

If a building has available space, the site will list a number for "SF under FAR," which stands for the amount of unused square footage under the allowed floor-area ratio, or FAR. The ratio is used to determine the maximum building size allowed under zoning regulations.

PropertyShark's disclaimer makes clear that the numbers are an estimate. "They tell you their guess from maps, but they haven't actually measured the site," Mr. Baksa said, "and they don't know if there are other regulations that mean you can't actually build. But it's an amazing start."

Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

Stairway to the stars Dennis Mitchell, Akiyo Matsuoka-Mitchell and their children, Leo and Lena Mitchell. The couple enlarged their top-floor apartment in SoHo with a master-bedroom suite on the roof.

Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

The roof is reached by a sweeping staircase.

Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

Eric Rath, who has a listing for a top-floor apartment at 56 West 82nd Street, urged the seller to take an option for rights to build on the roof

Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

Lara Sullivan is expanding upward.

Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

Arpad Baksa designed a penthouse and two terraces for Juan Urrutia.

Who's Got Your Number? Your broker does. And your board package, full of financial data, could be catnip to identity thieves

New York Magazine
By S.Jhoanna Robledo
Published Nov 18, 2007

Laura Matiz's client was insistent: For safety reasons, he didn't want his entire Social Security and bank-account numbers printed on his co-op board application. When his request was denied, he caved, but he asked that the copies of his package be returned after the interview. "Clients are getting more concerned, and it'll become more of an issue," says the Bellmarc agent, who says she was happy to comply. Years before, another client had had fraudulent credit cards opened in her name after she'd sent documents to a brokerage's general fax number.

A board application can be dangerous, and not just because it risks rejection. It's a treasure trove for identity thieves, thanks to the data it collects: bank and investment records, employment history, that all-important Social Security number. (Rental applications are fodder, too, providing much of the same information.) "It's amazing, when you think about it," says veteran broker Janice Silver. "It's every detail of your financial history."

And yet few safeguards exist, says Avivah Litan, an identity-theft analyst. This despite the fact that "the housing industry has the most flagrant examples of abuse," says Litan, who adds that real estate would be a "gold mine" to an identity thief. (The assistant who's been charged with the murder of super-broker Linda Stein was apparently once arrested for identity theft.)

Though the state licensing application asks Realtors if they've committed a crime, they aren't subjected to background checks—and neither are their employees. Nor has the government imposed data-privacy regulations, as it has with the banking and health industries. Michael Slattery of the Real Estate Board of New York says its code of ethics states that confidential information cannot be disclosed for personal interests, but doesn't require brokers to protect client information. (When asked if they have policies about destroying sensitive paperwork, representatives from Halstead, Corcoran, Brown Harris Stevens, and Prudential Douglas Elliman declined to answer.)

Management companies are supposed to shred board packets, but they don't always. And then there are the packet handlers, from those who collate copies to doormen charged with handing them out to board members. "I have a friend who sits on a board, and she says they throw them in the garbage!" says one prominent broker who's had two buyers ask for extra precautions in recent months. (One opted to spell out his Social Security number in e-mail.) Until changes are made in the system, though, it's up to consumers to watch their backs, and for brokers to help protect them. "It's a huge responsibility," admits Silver.

Illustration by Peter Arkle

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Back to Basics

The New York Times
November 11, 2007

A FEW years ago, developers created amenities to make their buildings stand out from the pack. Buyers returned the favor, rushing to the newest building with the latest gimmick and snapping up apartments as fast as they became available.

Many of those people are now living in buildings with pet spas, basketball courts, screening rooms and the occasional climbing wall.

But now developers are waving white flags, trading in outré amenities for well-executed must-haves and quality construction. "Absolutely, it's back to basics," said Harry Dubin, director of sales and marketing at the Athena Group, a developer based in Manhattan whose recent projects include the A Condominiums in Jersey City.

Buyers, too, are becoming increasingly wary, developers and marketers say. Manhattan condominiums now cost, on average, $1,178 a square foot, according to a recent report by the Miller Samuel appraisal company for Prudential Douglas Elliman, and many buyers are hesitant to spend a lot of money on extras. And with one eye on the resale market, they don't want expenses that drive up monthly common charges.

So instead of trying to tempt buyers with a long list of luxurious amenities, developers are trying to provide only those that buyers see as essential. The new standard calls for a gym, a party room and outdoor space like a common roof deck, if possible.

Kelly Wines, 28, has a dog, a fitness regimen and a busy schedule. And yet, when she went shopping for a condo, she wasn't looking for a pet spa or a fancy gym with treatment rooms.

"I don't need a dog run," said Ms. Wines, whose toy poodle is named Chloe. "When I walk her, I walk her wherever I'm going. And I don't think it's that hard to get my dog to the groomer. There are so many services in New York that cater to pets, I didn't need one in the building."

Top priorities for Ms. Wines were outdoor space and a chef's kitchen, because she likes to cook. She found what she was looking for at 100 West 18th Street, a building with 43 apartments developed by the Brauser Group. The one-bedroom apartment she is buying has the private balcony and the high-end kitchen appliances she wanted.

The building, still under construction, will also have a common room, a refrigerated room for grocery deliveries and a gym, which Ms. Wines has decided is "nice to have," even though she is already a regular at a Pilates studio.

Ms. Wines says she is paying "under $1 million" for her apartment, and the common charge will be around $1,000 a month. Even so, she believes that she's getting a bargain.

"For condos, its tough to get a decent-priced common charge when you have so few units," she said. But because the building's features were just what she wanted, "I'm not paying for something I'm not going to use," she said.

Some amenities have a life span all their own. In the 1980s, buildings with swimming pools were all the rage, and they made a comeback in the most recent boom. But there is a downside. "When you put a pool in, everyone says it's great," said Allen Goldman, president of SJP Residential Properties. "Then, after it's in, they say, 'My God, why are the condo charges so big?' A pool is incredibly expensive to maintain. Then they say, 'No one is ever there.' And you know what? No one ever is."

SJP is putting the finishing touches on 45 Park Avenue, a 105-unit condo at 37th Street with a concierge, terrace, gym and lounge. It does not have a pool.

Even Louise Sunshine, once the grande dame of extravagant amenities, senses a scaling back. Ms. Sunshine, who began her career working for Donald Trump in the 1970s, founded her own marketing company in 1985. It merged with the Corcoran Group two years ago, and she is now director of development for the Alexico Group.

"We started out with a few amenities," she said, "then we kept adding as time went on."

Over the last 10 years, Ms. Sunshine said, the trend was "one-off amenities, things that made people feel better about living in their buildings, made their buildings more exciting." As examples, she cited pet-washing salons, elaborate family activity centers and bowling alleys.

Then the shift toward simplification began a few years ago, Ms. Sunshine said, when "name" architects started to design new condominiums. "Those stars began to create a world of their own, a value of their own, a lifestyle for these buildings of their own," she said. "You don't need a badminton court when you have great architecture, great design, great views, great quality and the basic requisites."

Of course, for Ms. Sunshine, basic is relative. At the Laurel, a condominium being developed by Alexico on the Upper East Side, prices average $1,800 a square foot, with amenities that include a triathlon training center (with two pools), a screening room and a game room.

"As a developer, I think it's much more preferable to do a few things and to do them well," Ms. Sunshine said. "There's a point at which amenities don't have much of a return — they don't make all that much sense."

As developers take a second look at the bottom line, they are considering not just amenities but also escalating construction costs and the lack of buildable land in Manhattan.

Veronica Hackett, the managing partner in the Clarett Group, says that the math on pricing is evolving.

Consider a 1,400-square-foot apartment priced at $1.68 million. "If I'm going to take 50 square feet out of that apartment and put it into a gym, a pet spa or whatever, that leaves me with 1,350 square feet," she said. "I still need the same $1.68 million for that unit, or I'll never achieve my 25 percent profit margin.

"As a developer, I'm going to ask myself: What are the things that are most attractive to my buyer at that price range, in that location?"

The Clarett Group is currently developing the Sky House, a luxury building with 139 apartments at 11 East 29th Street. It features a concierge, a gym and a children's playroom. Marketing for the building focuses on its skyline views.

"When it comes down to it, people are going to look at a total package," Ms. Hackett said. "Do they want a pet spa, or do they want a great kitchen and the right windows? Things come and go, but quality and classic never go out of fashion."

David Wine, the vice chairman of the Related Group, said that the "less is more" trend could be attributed, at least in part, to construction costs. "Costs are through the roof," he said. "If a developer is going to plan something, they're really going to think twice in terms of cost. A developer today has to make every square foot as productive, economically, as possible."

Then, there is the dwindling availability of large lots throughout Manhattan, leading some developers to focus on smaller projects that can be built and sold in far less time than a behemoth.

"I don't want to be the guy with 250 condo units to sell in this market," said Scott Aaron, director of development at the Brauser Group. "You don't want to be out there selling for two, three years. You like to be able to sell out within the time frame that you're constructing the building."

There are, of course, exceptions. At the highest reaches of the market, hotel-style living is still the rule, and residents expect swimming pools, spa services, high-end room service and hefty monthly charges to match.

At buildings in up-and-coming areas — Harlem, say, or Long Island City, Queens — amenities can still serve as a lure, and buyers may rely on in-building services if they are in short supply in the surrounding neighborhood.

But these are the exceptions, developers say, and the paring down of costs is even extending to the suburbs.

Last fall, Marianna Greenberg and her husband, Marlon, looked at new condominiums in Jersey City. "I wasn't interested in the humongous buildings with the swimming pool, tennis courts, all those things," said Ms. Greenberg, 38, who operates Besu Salon and Day Spa in the Gramercy Park area. "Who would really, in real life, come home and play tennis every day? Even if you live in the building, you end up paying for it. It's in your maintenance."

Though they looked at developments like the Shore Club Condominiums and Trump Plaza Jersey City, the couple settled on the A Condominiums, the Athena Group's development, which has 250 apartments, each with outdoor space, as well as a gym, a party room, a common terrace and a parking garage.

The Greenbergs' two-bedroom cost $705,000, and the relatively low monthly common charge of $780 sealed the deal.

"The building is beautiful, clean and convenient, and it has all the amenities I'd like to use," Ms. Greenberg said. "That's more than enough for me."

Alex di Suvero for The New York Times

NOT JUST FOR SHOW At the A Condominiums in Jersey City, the Athena Group pared the amenities to a usable handful: a gym, party room, common terrace and garage, plus outdoor space for each of the 250 apartments.

James Estrin/The New York Times

SORTING OUT WHAT’S IMPORTANT Kelly Wines did not need a pet spa for her dog, Chloe, but she did want outdoor space and a chef’s kitchen.

Alex di Suvero for The New York Times

Marlon and Marianna Greenberg, who are buying a two-bedroom at the A Condominiums in Jersey City, did not want to pay high monthly charges for amenities they would not use.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Condo Fee Defaults Surge in Manhattan

New York Sun
BY BRADLEY HOPE - Staff Reporter of the Sun
November 8, 2007

A precipitous rise in the number of condominium owners who are defaulting on their common payments, an important indicator of future foreclosures, is being reported.

Much has been said about Manhattan's perceived real estate invincibility in the aftermath of the subprime meltdown, but lawyers representing dozens of condominium boards in some of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods say they are seeing these default cases increase as much as 25% this year.

"There has been a very substantial increase of cases involving condominiums," a lawyer who is the president of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, Marc Luxemburg, said.

Monthly common charges, which include general upkeep costs for the common area of a building and often reach into the thousands of dollars, can be the first indicator of foreclosures because homeowners stop paying them if they are having trouble with their mortgages.

During the last housing downturn in the early 1990s, there was a similar increase in defaults preceding numerous foreclosures, Mr. Luxemburg said.

"This could be an indication that something larger is going on," a partner at Breier Deutschmeister Urban & Fromme, Lisa Urban, said. Last year at this time, she had one such case of a default on common charges; now, she has seven.

A partner at the firm Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman, Aaron Shmulewitz, said he has seen a 25% increase since the beginning of the year.

Buildings where condo liens are being processed include a nine-story apartment building at 2 South End Ave. in Battery Park City; a 12-story building at 114 E. 13th St. in Greenwich Village; a 27-story building at 420 E. 58th St. on Sutton Place; a 32-story building at 40 E. 94th St. on the Upper East Side, and a seven-story building at 205 E. 22nd St. near Gramercy Park. Calls to many of the managing agents that represent these buildings were not returned.

When a condo owner stops paying the building's common charges, the condo board files a lien to begin foreclosure proceedings. Liens are rare, as condo boards often end up negotiating with the owner out of court. Recently, however, condo boards are having a tougher time resolving such issues.

Mr. Luxemburg said that defaults on common charges have become so numerous that he is planning to discuss the problem at length at his organization's Annual Housing Conference next Sunday.

A senior management executive at Lawrence Properties, which represents 420 E. 58th St., Fred Balic, said that negligent tenants tend to let common charges accrue for months and sometimes years unless a lien is filed.

While most foreclosures are now in marginal neighborhoods, it may be just a matter of time before wealthier neighborhoods get hit.

In the third quarter, foreclosures in Queens rose 69% over last year to 2,702, according to real estate firm RealtyTrac. The Bronx saw filings surge by 43%, to 1,011, while in Brooklyn they were up 31%, to 2,498. In Manhattan, there was a 14% increase in foreclosures, to 402.

"Sometimes these things trickle down to people you don't think would be affected," the president of a foreclosures publication, Profiles Publications Inc., Jessica Davis, said. "Increases in defaults on common charges would be an early indicator of worse things to come. We haven't seen the end of this yet."

Monday, November 5, 2007

A New Arena in the Fight Over Smoking: The Home

The New York Times
November 5, 2007

Jill and Joanie Shockley just want to breathe clean air in their homes. Neighboring tenants want to smoke in theirs.

The Shockleys are sisters who live down the hall from each other in an apartment complex in a suburb of St. Paul, where tobacco smoke from other units wafts daily into their homes.

"It's frustrating," said Joanie Shockley, 59. "I like to have my grandchildren come over, and I don't like for them to be exposed to people smoking."

The Shockleys are part of a growing movement to restrict smoking in apartments and condominiums that is having some success.

This year, two California cities passed laws restricting smoking inside multiunit residential buildings. In the last 14 months, two large residential real estate companies with apartment complexes in several states banned smoking inside units.

Thousands of smaller apartment complexes across the country have taken similar steps, said Jim Bergman, founder of the Smoke-Free Environments Law Project, which is based in Michigan.

And about 60 public housing authorities across the country have smoke-free policies, compared with less than 10 three years ago, Mr. Bergman said.

Health advocacy groups call housing one of the smoke-free movement's final frontiers.

Owners of apartment buildings have largely ignored the issue but are starting to recognize the demand for smoke-free housing, said Mr. Bergman, one of the organizers of a meeting of about 75 smoke-free housing advocates from around the country held in October in Minneapolis.

Edward Sweda Jr., senior lawyer at the Tobacco Control Resource Center of the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, says he has studied the legal issues of secondhand smoke for 28 years and knows of no law in the United States prohibiting residential property owners from banning smoking.

At least 27 lawsuits have been filed since 1991 over smoking in multiunit housing, and judges have often sided with the nonsmoker, Mr. Sweda said.

But many in the real estate industry believe that banning smoking in such buildings would be discriminatory and therefore illegal. When asked by residents to enact a smoke-free policy, property managers often say they cannot because of federal fair housing laws.

In fact, the federal Fair Housing Act protects nonsmokers in cases where people have breathing disabilities aggravated by smoke.

In the summer of 2006, First Centrum, based in Virginia, adopted a smoke-free policy for more than 5,000 units at its 46 apartment communities for older residents in Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, said Robert Couch, president of the company's management division.

Over the last seven years, Guardian Management, which is based in Oregon, has banned smoking in units at five properties, and in August extended that policy to 8,000 rental units at 100 properties in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Texas and Washington, said Tom Brenneke, the company president.

"It was an easy decision," Mr. Brenneke said. He said Guardian was motivated primarily by health and financial considerations, and he pointed out that a smoker's apartment cost $1,500 to clean when a tenant vacated, compared with $400 for a nonsmoker's.

Cities in California have taken the lead in adopting smoke-free housing ordinances.

On May 8, Temecula passed an ordinance that applies to apartment buildings with 10 or more units. The law requires landlords to designate at least 25 percent of their units, including balconies and patios, as nonsmoking. The ordinance is being phased in over five years.

On Oct. 9, Belmont adopted an ordinance that bans smoking in all units of multistory, multiunit residences, including balconies and patios. The ordinance goes into effect 14 months after passage.

The City Council of Calabasas is drafting an ordinance to regulate smoking in multiunit housing and is scheduled to discuss the issue on Nov. 28. The city's existing smoking ordinance states that owners and managers of private residential property may voluntarily prohibit smoking throughout the property.

Smoke-free housing legislation has also been raised at the state level.

Utah passed an amendment in 1997 stating that tobacco smoke may be considered a nuisance when it drifts from one residential unit into another. It also states that apartment complexes and condominium associations may adopt smoke-free policies.

Though smoke-free housing legislation is hailed by many nonsmokers as a step toward healthy living, it has drawn opposition from smokers and real estate groups.

The power to enact such policies should remain with the property owners, said Mark Ingrao, vice president of government affairs for the National Apartment Association. Smoke-free housing laws are "an erosion of private property rights," he said.

Some who oppose smoke-free-housing laws argue that if smokers can contain the smoke in their units, they should have the right to smoke there.

Researchers have analyzed whether smoke can be contained in various kinds of apartment buildings and found that the percentage of shared air generally ranges from 10 percent to 50 percent, with upper floors most at risk, said James Repace, a biophysicist who performs research on secondhand smoke in collaboration with the Tufts University School of Medicine.

"There is a tremendous unmet demand for smoke-free housing in America," Mr. Repace said, "and it boggles my mind that the real estate industry has not recognized that and tried to profit from it."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Can Parents Move Into a Co-op?

The New York Times
October 28, 2007
Q & A

Q We plan to move out of our co-op but would like our elderly parents to be able to live in the apartment. Since we will still be paying the maintenance, will we have to obtain co-op board approval? Does this constitute a sublet?

A “As usual, it would be necessary to review the proprietary lease to provide a definitive answer,” said Elliott Meisel, a Manhattan co-op lawyer. “This is especially so for this question because the answer may turn on one word.”

Most proprietary leases address who can occupy an apartment. Some allow the shareholder or the shareholder’s spouse, their children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters. But the more common proprietary lease substitutes the word “and” for the word “or” in the preceding sentence.

Mr. Meisel noted that the courts have held that the use of the word “and” means the other members of the family may live in the apartment only if the named shareholder also lives there at the same time; they cannot reside there instead of the shareholder.

“Any other occupancy would constitute a subletting,” Mr. Meisel said, and unless the lease contained the less restrictive “or,” the letter writer would have to get the permission of the co-op board for the parents to occupy the apartment.

Address questions to Real Estate Q&A, The New York Times, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018, or by e-mail to Answers can be given only through the column.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Can You Hook Me Up With a Maytag? Most buildings ban private washer-dryers. But that doesn't mean they don't get in anyway

New York Magazine
October 15, 2007
By S.Jhoanna Robledo

When the laundromat near her Brooklyn apartment closed down and a pickup service proved unreliable, Rachel, a photographer, went online and bought a washer and dryer. But she didn't tell her landlord. "We didn't ask for fear she'd say no," she admits. She was right: When her neighbor saw the flattened boxes at the curb the next morning, he recommended she hide them. "I used to have one," he told her, ominously.

The appliances that the rest of America takes for granted are, in all but the newest condos, major luxuries here. The plumbing in many older buildings can't handle them, and others ban laundry machines owing to concerns about overflows and leaks. "It's really a problem," says Sloane Square NYC's Amy Tucker Meltzer, "to buy a $4 million apartment but have to go to the basement to do laundry." For many clients, especially those with children, "an apartment without one is a nonstarter," she says. "I've had people tell me a washer- dryer is more important than a doorman."

Important enough, in fact, for some owners to install a machine on the sly. Appliance stores won't admit it to a reporter, but when a New York staffer posing as a shopper called, several said that they often make clandestine deliveries. Anne, who had a machine shipped to her apartment near Columbus Circle, requested that her neighborhood retailer use an unlabeled box. Branches of one major chain admit to hiring subcontractors—paid in cash—who rewrap machines in TV boxes or camouflage them with bubble wrap.

Rachel says she already plans to disconnect her washer and wheel it into the bedroom if the super needs to enter her apartment. But Anne worries she's been found out: Recently, her washer flooded, damaging her floors. "We're going to say it's the toilet," she says, adding that she's getting rid of the machine. "It's too much trouble, and I don't want to take the chance again." Halstead broker Denise Rosner wants to avoid problems, too, which is why she's showing a one-bedroom on the Upper West Side with a space in the kitchen where a prohibited portable washer-dryer stood until recently. (Some boards, in fact, now check apartments before they approve a sale, she adds.) "People see [it]," she says, "and I tell them, What a great place to have a wine cooler."

Additional reporting by Catherine Coreno.

(Photo: Anthony Marsland/Getty Images)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Co-op applicants draw more scrutiny

The Real Deal
October 12, 1:26 pm
by C. J. Hughes

Despite a national housing slowdown and the credit crunch, Manhattan's real estate sales market continues to hold its own, and the stringent standards of co-op boards have been credited with sheltering the city from the turbulence around the country. But those co-op boards are becoming ever more vigilant.

With the health of hedge funds in question, and the size of year-end bonuses anybody's guess, many financiers once considered shoo-ins for the city's top co-ops now have to be extra careful with their applications, real-estate brokers said.

Co-ops are giving financial-services workers more scrutiny, Fritzi Kallop, a managing director and senior vice president of Brown Harris Stevens, recently told The Real Deal.

"They're becoming more stringent about hedge-fund managers," Kallop said.

Unlike with most condos, buying a co-op requires a rigorous dissection of a buyer's tax records and bank statements. A co-op board also typically demands that the buyer has assets worth at least three times the apartment's value, even after the sale.

Kathy Sloane, a Brown Harris Stevens managing director whose Wall Street clients flock to Upper East Side co-ops, said younger financial service workers might now require a guarantor.

While recommendation letters are becoming more essential, Paula Manikowski, a senior vice president at the Corcoran Group, said co-op boards can't afford to be too picky or they could scare off decent buyers.

Five years ago, 15 percent of the for-sale units in Manhattan were condos and 85 percent co-ops. Now, the share of condos has grown to 35 percent, so co-op boards understand that "if buyers aren't prepared to deal with a certain level of scrutiny, they will head to the condo market," she said.

Another factor that makes searching for co-ops difficult is the limited supply. In a third quarter report released this month, Radar Logic's Jonathan Miller reported that inventory levels for co-ops fell 32.8 percent to 2,472 units, compared to last year's total of 3,680 units. The average sales price of a New York City co-op increased 2.8 percent compared to last year, while the median sales price fell 2.4 percent.

No matter what happens on Wall Street, Michele Kleier, president of Gumley Haft Kleier, said that the "very top Park and Fifth Avenue co-ops are always concerned. They have a Depression-era mentality, and they're always afraid the liquidity won't be there."

Kleier said if the buyer pays mostly cash, co-op boards often believe that a high-income buyer will remain wealthy.

"I had a client who had a $30 million bonus last year, and I doubt he will again," she said. "But if he gets $10 million this time, they're not going to send a collection agency after him."

Peter Comitini, a Corcoran vice president, said the fear that year-end Wall Street bonuses could dip has not influenced most co-op boards, because decisions are typically based on buyers' tax returns for the past two years, and not the current year's expected salary.

Barbara Fox, president of Fox Residential Group, said a client employed by a hedge-fund recently closed on an Upper East Side co-op with a fairly standard presentation, though she said, "I think there could be a difference down the road."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Ansonia Is Plagued by Cockroaches, a Lawsuit Says

The New York Times
October 10, 2007

The Ansonia has been home to Babe Ruth, Igor Stravinsky and Angelina Jolie, but now an Upper West Side couple say that a substantial part of the 14th floor in the historic building has become home to “a horrific plague of roaches.”

The couple, Alan Arkin (not Alan Arkin the actor, but handily for this purpose, a lawyer) and his wife, Suzanne Bagert, a consultant to private equity funds, say that since mid-September, they have hardly been able to sleep at night and have stopped using their kitchen, for fear of the pesky invaders. They started seeing roaches about a year ago and had an exterminator spray, which helped only temporarily.

Ms. Bagert, who works at home, imagines roaches crawling on her neck. “My hair brushes my neck and I scream,” she said in an interview yesterday.

Her husband found a roach in his sock yesterday morning, and Ms. Bagert has stopped cooking gumbo from her native New Orleans, or anything else for that matter, emptying her kitchen of all but a few staples like organic milk, lemons and walnuts.

She goes out for coffee since finding a roach in the coffee maker. She sleeps with the light on, she said, ever since she woke up in the dark and found a roach crawling on her.

So yesterday, after what Mr. Arkin called “a biblical-type explosion of roaches,” the couple filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Manhattan against the Ansonia’s management, Sirius L.L.C., charging them with interfering with their ability to “use and enjoy their apartment” and causing a nuisance through its own negligence and reckless conduct. Mr. Arkin is serving as his own lawyer.

“This infestation,” Mr. Arkin wrote in his court papers, “has rendered their apartment completely unfit to live in.”

The lawsuit, almost breathless in its detailed recitation of the problem, seeks a trial for unspecified damages from the building management.

Mr. Arkin’s lawsuit says that his complaints have been met by “doublespeak and half-truths” from the management. Representatives of Sirius have told Mr. Arkin and his wife that if they are so upset about the roaches they should move, according to the lawsuit, and that management is “doing all they can” and that the couple needs to be patient.

A call and several e-mail messages to Sirius requesting comment on the lawsuit were not returned last night.

In his court papers, Mr. Arkin says that management has said the infestation is caused by an elderly tenant on the same floor who will not allow her apartment to be treated.

The couple lives on the 14th floor of the Beaux Arts building, with its corner turrets and mansard roof, which is said to have been the inspiration for the Hotel Gloriana in Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day,” and was home to Walter Matthau’s character in “The Sunshine Boys.”

Formerly a residential hotel, the Ansonia converted to condominium apartments in the early 1990s.

Mr. Arkin and Ms. Bagert rent their one-bedroom apartment from its owner, a family friend, they said, for $2,400 a month, though similar apartments in the building on Broadway between 73rd and 74th Streets rent for much more, Mr. Arkin said. Mr. Arkin, 36, has lived there since 1996, and his wife, 39, moved in more recently, but they have never seen anything like this, they said.

They live with a Yorkshire terrier, Cali, who unfortunately does not hunt roaches.

The nadir was the night of Sept. 14, the lawsuit says, when the situation got so bad that the roaches were on the floor, the walls, the ceiling, the curtains and even the couple’s bed.

As evidence, they have collected about 50 dead roaches over the last three days, storing them in a jar, and they are also keeping a log of roach sightings.

Management, he says, has responded by sending a maintenance worker to knock cockroaches off the hallway wall, vacuum them up and then wash the walls with soap and water, a treatment that Mr. Arkin calls “grossly and negligently” insufficient.

Winter Miller contributed reporting.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Couple spent $1.4M on a home but can't get mold out

New York Daily News
Monday, October 8th 2007, 1:09 PM

Sometimes even the very rich cannot solve the ordinary nuisances of apartment living in New York City.

Take the case of Norman and Janet Baker of the upper East Side. They have spent more than $1.4 million to try to stop pervasive leaks and an overwhelming mold infestation in their $4 million, three-bedroom penthouse duplex at Madison Ave. and 80th St.

The mold has forced them and their teenage daughter out of their co-op home with its four terraces and knockout views of Central Park - and has taken over their lives.

"It's not just the money, because you can't buy the months and years back," Janet Baker said.

The Bakers have spent months living at The Carlyle hotel the past four years. One three-month stay cost $35,000. Today they're renting an $8,500-a-month apartment around the corner from their co-op.

The ordeal has spawned a daisy chain of lawsuits. The Bakers sued the co-op board, the building corporation and the managing agent. In turn, those entities sued two roofers, alleging they failed to repair leaks - and the roofers sued the structural engineer.

"And the leaks still haven't been fixed," Norman Baker said. "And we haven't gotten a penny back."

The Bakers' tale shows how the lives of even the most affluent can be turned upside down by circumstance. Their dilemma is one example, albeit severe, of leaks and mold that affect thousands of apartments in the city.

In the fiscal year ending June 30, housing inspectors handed out 13,935 mold violations to landlords of multiunit dwellings. About 15% of those posed an immediate health threat and were ordered corrected within 24 hours.

While mold is typically a problem in rundown buildings, it also affects the high end. Bianca Jagger had to abandon her Park Ave. apartment, and Ed McMahon has filed a $20 million mold suit over his Beverly Hills home.

The Bakers' horror story began in July 2003, when they noticed black splotches on their 26th-floor bedroom wall. An environmental testing company found they had high levels of seven different kinds of mold.

Mold soon ate their carpets and furniture, and the Bakers moved into The Carlyle. In October 2003, they moved back to their apartment after a mold remediation company ripped down affected wallpaper and sprayed and cleaned.

"They came in 'Ghostbuster' suits," Janet Baker recalled.

In December 2003, a structural engineer found damage to the roof above the Baker's apartment and damage to brick and mortar from rainwater.

The Bakers continued to stay in the apartment, but in March 2004, they found broken brick and concrete on their terrace. The city Buildings Department issued a violation against the co-op. Two months later, the first roofer began work, but heavy September rains triggered flooding.

"The Fire Department came because water was pouring out of the electrical panel," said Janet Baker. The firefighters told the Bakers to evacuate. Over the next nine months, the Bakers evacuated and returned seven times.

"Whatever furnishings weren't damaged went into storage," Janet Baker said.

Finally, workers began gutting the once-sumptuous apartment. It turned out the roof, parapets and exterior brick walls were damaged and had insufficient drainage, according to engineers' reports.

They've been living in their two-bedroom rental for more than two years, but have continued to deposit the $5,300 monthly maintenance on their co-op into an escrow account.

"Eighty percent of the time I'm crying, and the rest of the time I have to find a joke," Janet Baker said.

The apartment smells dank and earthy, despite large sections of wood floors, walls and ceilings being ripped out.

Janet Baker charges that the co-op board president and managing agent ignored the problem by insisting there was no mold or moisture.

Bernard Friedman, head of Penmark Realty Corp., the managing agent, did not respond to calls, nor did a lawyer for the structural engineer. A lawyer for the roofers declined comment.

Co-op board President Bernard Klapper wouldn't discuss the case but did say, "I'm not minimizing their difficulties."

Adding insult to injury, the Bakers' home insurance policy does not cover the damage.

"So this is where we are," said Norman Baker with a shrug and a deep sigh, looking out over the terrace. "We're not filing any claim that the mold made us sick, but we really, definitely would like to get our apartment fixed up, and move back in."

Norman and Janet Baker return temporarily to mold-infested home on the upper East Side. Family has been forced to rent another apartment nearby.

Bakers' penthouse duplex shows the ravages of mold and the extensive work that has been carried out in a vain attempt to fix the mess.