The painter found out about the Bronx building for creative types on Craigslist. So did the fashion stylist and air quality technician who calls himself “an aspiring artist.”
The six-story building with 30 spacious lofts offered the kind of space a creative could find in a modern building in Manhattan’s SoHo or TriBeCa for a fraction of two-bedroom rentals that cost $2,000 a month.
But renters said they got an unexpected benefit when they moved in: a community. Together, they built a fire pit and grill in their shared yard where they talked business and shared inspiration. They held cookouts, and would surely have veggie burgers available for vegan tenants. Some of the tenants even became friends with the landlord, Yizhak Kohen.
And then, in a quick turn of events, everything changed, setting up a classic tenant-landlord feud with multiple lawsuits, accusations of retaliation and harassment, and an unexpected twist.
Kohen told tenants earlier this year that he planned to sell the building. At the same time, some tenants began calling 311 to complain that Kohen and his family were opening up empty apartments for short-term rentals and filling them with multiple guests. In May, building inspectors began showing up to investigate, hitting Kohen with one violation after another. Back then there was no gas, the tenants couldn’t use their stoves and they didn’t have hot water. In mid-August, firefighters ordered the tenants to vacate the house and placed a padlock on the door.
It turns out that the building at 220 East 134th Street is an illegal conversion. Originally built for commercial use, the building was never properly zoned or renovated to accommodate residential living, a violation of the law that Kohen described as an open and unspoken secret. “We try to stay discreet. I knew what we were doing there was illegal,” Kohen, 53, said in a brief telephone interview.
But some tenants say they didn’t know they were living in an illegal building. Several have now joined together to form a residents’ association and have requested that the building be officially declared a legal loft, according to the city’s loft law.
Many tenants say they suspect Kohen wanted to sell the building, so he began creating uninhabitable conditions. Others say it’s simply New York City’s real estate cycle: the Bronx has succumbed to the market and gentrification has finally reached the last corner of affordability, devouring the building from it.
A 2009 rezoning freed Mott Haven for a residential development boom. The area, previously populated by auto repair shops and storage facilities, saw shiny skyscrapers such as Brookfield Properties’ Bankside and Chess Builders’ The Arches emerge in the years since. The motto, a 23-story rental development in Mott Haven, is currently under construction around the corner from Mr. Kohen’s building.
“The South Bronx is the last frontier for real estate speculation in New York to make a lot of money,” said Johnny Rivera, a board member of the East Harlem/El Barrio Community Land Trust, a community preservation group across the country. river. “The pressure is on all owners to sell for a profit, at all costs.”
Asked if he planned to sell, Kohen said, “Maybe eventually.”
‘Vibrance and energy’
The Bronx once had a wealth of artist lofts like those at 220 East 134th Street, said Viviana Bianchi, executive director of the Bronx Council on the Arts. Today, it is one of the few buildings of its type left.
Kohen, who owned a local moving company in the 1990s and has homes in the Bronx and Florida, said he intended to use the storage building for his moving company’s business, but converted the units into loft apartments about 20 years ago. Building records show that almost immediately, the building department began receiving complaints of an illegal conversion.
Tenants said the ads they saw for the building did not say it was illegal. In an online listing from October 2020, a two-bedroom home was described as “beautiful, elevated” and “in one of the last remaining warehouses.”
“One of the nicest apartments of its kind, this unit is NOT to be missed,” the ad said.
These ads attracted people like Paul Fearon, who said he saw the building on Craigslist about 15 years ago.
Fearon, a British immigrant, jumped at the chance to snap up the fifth-floor artist loft for $2,000 a month. Mr Fearon, who describes himself as an “aspiring artist”, laughed as he explained that he only carried out air sampling for environmental monitoring companies.
About six years later, his girlfriend Ebonie Cannon moved in with him, leaving their Midtown Manhattan apartment. Ms. Cannon, a fashion designer and holistic wellness practitioner who had moved to New York from Chicago, worried that the South Bronx wouldn’t be ideal for her.
But the neighborhood surprised her. “This place had life, vitality and energy that I didn’t experience in Manhattan or Brooklyn,” she said.
The apartment adapts to your growing needs: Mrs. Cannon and Mr. Fearon I have two children, now 8 and 2 years old.
And they started a family with the building’s other tenants with cookouts on the patio and shared interests.
Olivia Jakubik, a fashion stylist from Poland, moved into the building in 2020. Her boyfriend is a photographer, she said.
Painter Geoffrey Rawling moved there in May 2021. The neighborhood became his canvas. He hung samples of his surreal mixed media art on the gray walls of the hallway leading to his apartment.
Although some tenants said Kohen rarely communicated beyond collecting rent, Cannon and Fearon also considered him a close friend.
Then came the chaos of short-term rentals, inspections and what tenants say was a forced eviction.
With no gas and eventually no electricity, Ms. Cannon, Mr. Fearon and their children took cold showers, ran a generator on the fire escape and cooked in a microwave.
Unable to contact Mr Kohen, the tenants called the police, who discovered the electric meter was missing. Building inspectors found an disconnected sprinkler system, fire escapes in disrepair and other violations.
“We found serious safety issues that posed an immediate danger to the building’s occupants,” said Andrew Rudansky, press secretary for the Department of Buildings. “This landlord’s apparent disregard for his legal responsibility to ensure a safe and legal home for the occupants is reprehensible.”
The tenants were ordered to leave, and Ms. Cannon, Mr. Fearon and their children moved into a shelter: a one-bedroom apartment provided by the city Department of Social Services in nearby Longwood. The family sleeps in two single beds. There is no Wi-Fi and the shelter has a curfew. “It’s absolutely humiliating,” Cannon said.
At least “my kids can take hot baths and eat here,” she said.
Fearon filed a complaint in Bronx County Court in July, and a judge ordered Five-Boro Storage Inc., of which Kohen’s ex-wife, Orit Yaron, is listed as executive director, to restore services to the building. Services have not yet been restored.
Separately, Mr. Rawling, Ms. Jakubik and four other tenants are suing Five-Boro in civil court for harassment.
Five-Boro Storage also has outstanding penalties for 16 violations, each of which carries $50,000 fines.
In an interview, Kohen, who goes by Isaac, said he once shared an emotional connection with some of his tenants. “We were family for over 20 years and overnight it was like, ‘Isaac, you’re gone,’” he said.
Tenants hope all their efforts will force the building to reopen.
Enacted in 1982, the city’s loft law provides a path for commercial units to legally convert to code-compliant residences. Applications are presented to the board of directors, which has the final say. The process is similar to a lawsuit, involving discovery and hearings within the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.
Several residents say they are ready to return. In August, firefighters allowed former residents to come in and collect their belongings. Mr Rawling illuminated the way with one of the flashlights that tenants kept in the hallways during the power outage as a shared emergency service.
Within its space, the ceiling light bulbs were not necessary anyway. “Look at this lighting. That’s why I love this apartment,” Rawling said of the natural sunlight flooding the space.
Like other tenants, he has little sympathy for Mr. Kohen.
The words are now painted on the outside of the building: “Landlord Beware.”