Dispute at Ritzy Address Is Emblem of NYC Rent Control Debate

New York Times, April 13, 1997

NEW YORK -- To walk by the majestic Apthorp building is to feel a flutter of wonder, mingled with a stab of envy. Grandly arched entryways tunnel into a courtyard the size of a small park, replete with fountains whose gurgling music tickles the ears of such celebrity denizens as Nora Ephron and Cyndi Lauper.

But these days, the atmosphere behind the wrought-iron gates of this limestone landmark on the Upper West Side is less fairy tale than melodrama, farce or even horror story.

Rumors and recriminations echo through the marble and gold-leaf foyers, as tenants and landlords summon each other to court, and some residents whisper of shifty, clandestine deals for apartments and warn of toxins in radiators, poisons in paint, danger in invisible nooks, disaster in remote crannies.

By the time a dead woman was found on the building's roof in mid-February, it struck some tenants not as an oddity but as a metaphor, a sign of how surreal life in the Apthorp had become.

"This is like the House of Usher," Joe Winogradoff, a longtime tenant, said recently. "Beautiful on the outside, but on the inside, it's a corpse, and its guts are rotting away."

In Manhattan, such florid language is almost customary in discourse between landlords and tenants, whose relations run a gamut from frosty to fiery, bypassing tepid altogether.

But the Apthorp seems in part to be an emblem and microcosm of something else as well: the high stakes and determination on both sides of the debate over the state's rent regulation laws.

At the root of much of the unrest in the building, which occupies a square block bordered by Broadway, West End Avenue, West 78th Street and West 79th Street, is the tension between longtime tenants holding tight to rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartments and landlords eager to liberate those apartments from such economic constrictions, thereby restoring them to market value and perhaps quadrupling the rents.

For example, while old-timers in the Apthorp pay less than $2,000 a month for apartments as expansive as eight rooms, newcomers may pay closer to $10,000. That sort of discrepancy has led landlords to challenge some tenants' claims to apartments, and tenants to retaliate.

Moreover, as tenants of the Apthorp who benefit from rent control or stabilization consider the prospect of lawmakers in Albany scrapping those protections, they cannot help but shudder, because the deregulation of their apartments would force many of them to abandon not only the Apthorp but also a way of life they could not maintain anywhere else in Manhattan.

"Everyone is living in a building on the verge of a nervous breakdown," Ms. Ephron said, speaking of Manhattan in general and the Apthorp in particular. "This place is a hilarious, unbelievable psychodrama of a New York apartment building."

A resident of the Apthorp for nearly two decades, Ms. Ephron, a film maker and writer married to the writer Nick Pileggi, said she lives in an eight-room apartment that is not covered by rent regulations. She declined to specify her rent.

Others at the Apthorp said they faced the possibility of steep increases, or outright eviction orders, and some of them are fighting to stay in the building with every weapon they have, seizing any and all ammunition to demonize and embarrass the building's landlords.

To wit: Although the corpse on the roof, identified as that of Gabriele Opferman, a 41-year-old German visitor to this country, had no apparent connection to the sparring between tenants and landlords, it quickly became a prop in the battle between the groups, with some tenants citing it as evidence of insufficient security in the building and railing that landlords were deliberately depriving tenants of information about the police investigation.

That investigation is still in progress. Autopsy tests completed last week showed that Ms. Opferman died from exposure to the cold, that she was not intoxicated and that she had no injuries or wounds.

"It's bizarre," said Dr. Charles S. Hirsch, the New York City medical examiner. "As best we and the police have been able to determine, nobody knew her. So how did she wind up on the roof of a building that's not a tourist attraction?"

Her body apparently lay there for several days until it was spotted by members of a construction crew on a taller building nearby.

The discovery was jarring because the Apthorp, built in 1908, has long been synonymous with gracious living, its name hovering alongside those of the Ansonia, the Dakota and the Belnord in the pantheon of luxurious residences on the Upper West Side. Countless television and movie scenes have been filmed in and around its manicured courtyard, a sort of lush urban valley surrounded by 12-story mountains of stone.

There are 189 apartments, and it is unclear how many are occupied by people who view the building's managers as sinister and conspiratorial. Some tenants say they have no problem with the management. Lawyers for the building say the malcontents are a tiny, albeit truculent, band, all of whom are on the verge of legal, justified evictions and are desperate to stave off that reality.

"The number of unhappy tenants is no more than a handful," said Howard Wenig, a lawyer for the partnership that owns the Apthorp, 390 West End Associates.

Winogradoff disagreed, producing a list of nearly two dozen tenants involved in litigation since 1993. That year may not be insignificant, because in 1993 and 1994, new state and city laws produced rent regulation provisions, commonly known as luxury decontrol, that gave landlords a new way to deregulate apartments that were vacated and changing hands.

Under these provisions, which were altered slightly by the New York City Council last month, landlords can deregulate apartments, allowing rents to rise to market value, if they make improvements to the apartments that are costly enough to justify an increase in rent to $2,000 a month, and if the new tenants have a household income of at least $250,000 for two years in a row.

But however many opponents there are at the Apthorp, residents who do not count themselves among the opposition say that it has managed to kick up enough dust to suffuse the building with unease and suspicion.

"There's a general atmosphere of tension," said Jennet Conant, a writer for Vanity Fair magazine who moved with her husband, the "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft, into the building in October. "You're very aware of it."

Ms. Conant and Kroft are favorite objects of the Apthorp's vigorous rumor mill, which concerns itself to a great extent with how much newcomers are forking over for apartments that the building's management has succeeded in exempting from rent regulation. To longtime tenants paying relative pittances for rent-regulated apartments, those lofty sums are like incipient threats -- proof of how badly the Apthorp's landlords must want the old-timers to go away.

Residents say Ms. Conant and Kroft are shelling out about $10,000 a month for a four-bedroom, 3,200-square-foot apartment. Ms. Conant declined to comment on how much the couple was paying.

But the tales that are repeated more often, and are known by seemingly every resident one encounters, concern under-the-table, possibly illegal payments that some newcomers are rumored to be making to longtime tenants, and to landlords, in order to get their apartments.

Several affidavits filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan in connection with a pending lawsuit describe a strange scene attending the transfer of an apartment in the Apthorp from Shirley Heller, the ex-wife of the writer Joseph Heller, to new tenants.

According to these affidavits, from Ms. Heller and other people who say they observed the transfer, the new tenants brought with them a plastic bag bulging with $135,000 in small bills, $35,000 of which was to go to the building's landlords, who paced outside a room while one of Ms. Heller's friends tallied the cash.

Wenig said that the incident is pure fiction. He scoffed as well at an oft-repeated bit of Apthorp lore that one famous tenant who recently moved in paid $250,000 -- $50,000 of which went into the building's coffers. "I'm sure it's untrue," Wenig said.

Some tenants further claim that the landlords at the Apthorp have succeeded in getting apartments exempt from rent regulation through a variety of bullying or illegal tactics, like false assertions that newcomers are using their apartments as secondary residences, and that landlords have misstated the amount and nature of work done to the building to obtain rent increases under rent regulation laws.

These charges, which Wenig says are false, are among the allegations made in a racketeering lawsuit that longtime tenant Tony Lazzarino filed against the building's owners and managers in federal court in Manhattan earlier this year.

A previous version of Lazzarino's suit was dismissed, and Wenig said the resurrected incarnation also has no foundation.

"We have a wonderful system in this country," Wenig said, "and that system is that any person can write something down on a piece of paper and call it a lawsuit."

To discuss that lawsuit on a recent night, Lazzarino and Winogradoff gathered three other tenants inside Winogradoff's apartment. All but one of the five residents were fighting or had fought not to be evicted from the Apthorp. All occupied rent-regulated apartments.

In the cases of Winogradoff, 45, a freelance television commercial producer, and Denise Yuspeh-Hidalgo, 37, a freelance writer and editor, the apartments in question had belonged to parents who had died in recent years.

Winogradoff and Ms. Yuspeh-Hidalgo claim that they are entitled to keep the apartments because they each lived with their parents for years leading up to their parents' deaths, and thus qualify under rent regulation laws for succession rights and continued rent control.

The Apthorp's lawyers contend that Winogradoff and Ms. Yuspeh-Hidalgo, in fact, lived elsewhere, moving into the apartments around the time of their parents' deaths, and that their apartments should thus be rented to new tenants.

For both sides, there is considerable money at stake. Winogradoff pays $1,000 a month for a five-room apartment and Ms. Yuspeh-Hidalgo pays $1,700 for an eight-room apartment. Both apartments would command significantly higher rents if liberated from rent regulation and put on the open market.

But as these tenants pleaded their cases, their complaints ranged far beyond eviction threats as their voices coalesced into a buzz of near-hysteria. One moment, they described the brackish water cascading from their faucets; the next, they were tallying cases of breast cancer in the building. Snippets of conversation that began with complaints about asbestos veered without warning into speculation about phone taps and anonymous threats.

Neither Lazzarino nor Winogradoff would be photographed for this article for fear of what might befall them if their faces became known.

Ron Blumer, the one tenant at the meeting who had not faced the prospect of eviction, said that he and many others in the building were transfixed and spooked by the travails of those entwined in thickets of litigation.

"The writing is on the wall," said Blumer, 55, a writer for public television who pays $1,500 a month for a four-room, rent-stabilized apartment that he moved into in 1983. "Someday, they'll come after me."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company