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: