Two Manhattan landlords took an unusual — and illegal — route to double their rentable space: cutting their two condos in half horizontally so they could rent out 18 tiny apartments in their Lower East Side building, according to the New York City Department of Buildings.
"The ceiling heights were 4.5 feet to 6 feet tall on each level, depending on where you were standing," Department of Buildings spokesperson Abigail Kunitz said in an email to NPR.
When an inspector visited the building this month, he found half-size doors and low ceilings, forcing him to kneel in an improvised hallway. A small staircase connected the two floors. Along with unapproved structural changes, the Department of Buildings says, the inspector found the space riddled with unpermitted electrical and plumbing work.
The compressed living spaces prompted New York City Council Member Ben Kallos to compare the arrangement to the movie Being John Malkovich, which features a cramped office — and a tiny door — on floor 7 1/2 of a Manhattan building.
"It was funny in fiction but a horror story in real life," Kallos said, according to the New York Post, as he described the living conditions that tenants endured on the top floors of the building at 165 Henry St.
Bathroom space was also tight: While the lower-floor unit had an illegal bathroom added to its legal bathroom, the upper unit had only one bathroom to share among the nine micro apartments.
The building is called the Beracah. According to the Abarim online dictionary of biblical Hebrew, the name comes from barak, "meaning either to kneel or to bless."
Housing officials became aware of the illegal subdivisions last week after receiving an anonymous 311 complaint about one of the condos. Together, the units occupy a corner in the building's two top floors.
"Upon arrival to the scene, [Department of Buildings inspectors] discovered that a new floor had been illegally constructed inside of apartment #601, one of the apartments between the existing 4th and 5th floors, which was being occupied by 9 illegal Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units," the agency says.
According to the Gothamist website, the condo is listed as a 634-square-foot unit. If it had been divided evenly into the nine subunits, each living space would measure about 70 square feet. While rental rates weren't officially disclosed, one tenant told the Post that he had been paying $600 a month.
Officials promptly ordered all occupants to vacate Apartment 601, hitting the owner, Xue Ping Ni, with a potential maximum fine of $144,750 in civil penalties and ordering the subunits to be stripped out of the space. The penalty is set to rise, as the city will also fine Ni $1,000 every day that each illegal subunit remains on the premises, for up to 45 days.
The tenants who had been living in the minuscule spaces "were offered emergency relocation assistance by the American Red Cross," the NYC building agency says.
Days after the initial discovery, building inspectors also found that the unit one floor above Apartment 601 had been segmented in a similar way, creating another nine living spaces. The 701 unit is owned by Jing Ya Lin of Havre de Grace, Md., according to the building office.
The revelation about the top-floor condo — whose layout was hinted at by the peculiar arrangement of air conditioners in both the upper and lower windows of the floor — stemmed from a referral by the New York City Fire Department, which had been called to the same building on Friday.
In addition to flouting occupancy and permitting rules, the illegal units were found to lack a secondary exit in case of emergency.
"Every New Yorker deserves a safe and legal place to live, which is why we're committed to rooting out dangerous firetraps and ordering the landlords to make these apartments safe," said Kunitz of the Department of Buildings.
Kunitz added, "Tenants living in truncated windowless dwelling units like this poses an extreme hazard to their safety, as well as the safety of their neighbors and first responders. Dangerous living conditions like this cannot be tolerated in our city, and we are holding these landlords accountable for their egregious failure to keep the building safe and livable for tenants."
In a sign of how expensive it is to live in New York City, a discussion about the practice of people cramming themselves into tiny apartments broke out in the comments section of the Gothamist story. In at least one commenter's opinion, "$600/mo is pretty reasonable actually."