Freedom from security: Part 1, the landlords’ and tenants’ perspective

December 13, 2012 | Affordable Housing, High-rise, Innovations, New York City, Occupancy, Regulation, Security

By:David A. Smith


F x S = k: The product of Freedom and Security is a constant.

Larry Niven, Niven’s Laws


Whose stoop, whose lobby, whose right to stop?  Janeia Sandiford outside her building


Would you rather be free or be safe?  That question lies at the policy heart, if not the legal head, of a class-action lawsuit, reported in the New York Post (October 19, 2012) (black Arial), putting those issues in play via a challenge to the New York Police Department’s twenty-year-old Operation Clean Halls program:


A pending suit, spearheaded by the New York Civil Liberties Union, alleges that “overzealous” cops have been making life miserable for minority residents of “Clean Halls” buildings by subjecting them to stops — and even arrests — when they run errands or visit neighbors.


The issue is non-private space within a larger multi-family structure.  Remarkably, it’s completely taken for granted and unvoiced in all the pixels burned on the topic, and yet it’s the absolute core. 


Fair warning?


As cities become more dense and more vertical, occupancy shifts from freestanding homesteads to individual apartments within much larger, more complex buildings, and they have public and quasi-public spaces – entryways, lobbies, corridors, and elevator banks – that if left unwatched and unprotected became duck blinds for crimes such as robbery,  prostitution, and drugs.


An IMPACT cop in a Mott Haven stairwell: Taken from the Daily Mail


When the building’s occupants are wealthy, the building pays for a doorman, but when the residents are poorer, a doorman is unaffordable, and security depends on the front door, and if one of the residents is friends with (say) drug dealers who live nearby, then that is no security at all, as revealed by the Hunt’s Point Express (October 26, 2012) (dark red font):


Police have been particularly vigorous in the 600 block of Manida Street, according to a tenant who did not want to be named because she feared harassment by officers for speaking out.


Two years ago, 621 Manida Street was the site of a massive drug bust, and the group of buildings at 621-627 Manida Street has become notorious for the thousands of building violations its landlord had racked up. The apartment complex is now being renovated by a new owner.


A good new owner that acquires a ruined building from a bad owner cannot simply make the current residents disappear even if it wishes; even though the likelihood is overwhelming that some of the crime inside the building occurred with the active or tacit support of some residents, residents who have leases are quite properly presumed to be in good standing.  To make sure that the new rules are enforced, the new owner sought to impress the observant herd of residents that there was a new sheriff in town.


Whose freedom, whose security?


“Police still harass us from how things were then,” said Janeia Sandiford, 27, a resident of one of the Manida Street buildings. “We are labeled by the 41st Precinct from past charges. Cops don’t care that people change. They took this law [sic: It’s not a law, it’s a program – Ed.] and abused it.”


On behalf of Ms. Sandiford and others, the New York Civil Liberties Union decided to sue:


In March, the New York Civil Liberties Union, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and The Bronx Defenders filed a class action lawsuit charging that Operation Clean Halls was unconstitutional and that it employs racial profiling. A federal judge began hearing testimony in October.


The NYCLU has provided a summary (orange font) of the complaint (pdf), whose legal bases boil down to these:


The NYPD has a practice of stopping, questioning, searching, and arresting residents of Clean Halls buildings and their visitors without justification.


A stop-and-frisk-patdown


The NYCLU argues this violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against ‘unreasonable search and seizure.’  As a legal matter, this is more complex than the NYCLU makes it out to be, because:


A search occurs when an expectation of privacy that society considers reasonable is infringed by a governmental employee or by an agent of the government. Private individuals who are not acting in either capacity are exempt from the Fourth Amendment prohibitions.


Unlike homeownership, where the occupancy and use right is vested in title, rental is governed by a contractual agreement – to enter and occupy another person’s property for a stated period according to stated rules – between two private parties, the renter and the landlord.  Though I’m no Constitutional lawyer, as a matter of common sense the landlord should be able to define the rights of occupancy, ingress/ egress, and access to the property, and in tough neighborhood like the Bronx, the landlords overwhelmingly like it:


440 East 182nd Street, Bronx, owned by the Belmont Arthur Avenue Local Development Corp.


Bronx landlord hails stop-by-and-frisk


A South Bronx landlord had nothing but praise yesterday for an NYPD “stop-and-frisk” program that’s under fire from civil-liberties groups.


Consolato “Joe” Cicciu testified the low-income buildings owned by his nonprofit used to be plagued by large groups of young men who blocked the entrances by gathering on the steps and in the vestibules.


Other problems included pools of urine, broken mailboxes and open-air pot smoking, he said.


All these are evidence of the broken-windows effects of property neglect.


But Cicciu, executive director of the Belmont Arthur Avenue Local Development Corp., said the mess had been cleaned up since he enrolled the group’s 70 properties in “Operation Clean Halls.”


280 East 166th Street, Bronx, owned by BAALDC.


The list of BAA LDC properties makes clear that Mr. Cicciu and his non-profit have taken on many of the city’s toughest properties:


For almost 20 years, BAALDC has been involved in a variety of housing initiatives that have helped stabilize not only the Belmont/Arthur Avenue community, but also its adjacent sister communities throughout the Bronx.  … BAALDC is actively involved in building upon prior efforts to both develop and stabilize the housing stock of the community.


An important BAALDC objective is to prevent the deterioration and abandonment of troubled buildings throughout the community. To achieve this objective, BAALDC has become the community leader in anti-abandonment housing programs.


Abandonment is a real risk, because when there is no landlord at all, not only does that building rapidly become a threat to itself, the entire surrounding community is placed at risk.  BAA LDC steps in to stabilize and reoccupy buildings that need it:


Boarded up shells, Morrisania, Bronx, NY


Their tasks include physical inspection of property, facilitating contact and outreach with landlords, disseminating information to residents about housing code violations and enforcement issues and to landlords about financial service available through HPD.


Once BAALDC is improving a property physically, the owner wants to protect it operationally and as a community, so it signed up for Operation Clean Halls:


The voluntary program lets cops patrol privately owned buildings to crack down on drug dealing and other crimes.


As even the NYCLU concedes, the program has been successful for twenty-plus years:

Operation Clean Halls has existed in some form since 1991 with the purported purpose of combating illegal activity in apartment buildings, particularly in high-crime areas.


I struck the NYCLU’s gratuitous and unjustified ‘purported’ – there’s no evidence whatsoever that the program has any purpose other than its stated one. 


In a subset of Clean Halls buildings, police officers conduct regular floor-by-floor sweeps, called vertical patrols, and engage in particularly aggressive stop, question, frisk and arrest practices.


This includes many NYCHA properties, which definitely need improved services.


Guns drawn, Officers Luis Lerebours and Miguel Vargas, both 28, first swept the roof with flashlights, their radios turned low.


The NYPD says these so-called vertical patrols discourage drug dealers from doing business in the buildings and reduce other crimes.


One has to believe they do.


Further up Manida Street at Julio Carballo Fields, the park that also houses the Hunts Point Recreation Center, Frances Rivera, 34, watched her son at play and enjoyed the afternoon weather.


Bronx filmmaker Mark Makowski giving a talk on special effects at Hunts Point


Years ago, she said, she wouldn’t have felt comfortable letting her son play outside.

“I hear Hunts Point is better now,” said Rivera, who moved to the neighborhood 2 ½ years ago. She calls Operation Clean Halls a “nice idea” that can help it stay that way.


Certainly the landlords think so, as with them the program is enormously popular:


Approximately 5,000 privately-owned buildings in the Bronx are enrolled in Operation Clean Halls, according to the City Law Department.


In some Bronx neighborhoods, nearly every private apartment building is enrolled in the program.


Why then is it under challenge?



[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]