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Flushing tenants cut deal in illegal conversion case

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After six years of litigation, nine Flushing tenants have settled a lawsuit against their landlord that was filed after they discovered their ground floor apartments were actually illegal.

The settlement could have large implications for how illegal conversions are handled in Queens, the attorney for the plaintiffs said.

The Marcy Realty Co., the landlord of Marcy Towers at 144-31 41st Ave., agreed to pay $138,000 to the nine tenants, all of whom are Korean immigrants, said their attorney, Mark Sternick.

Marcy, however, admitted no wrongdoing in the case.

The tenants said they were happy with the results of the suit, not because of the money but because the settlement encourages immigrants to speak out against such abuses and discourages landlords from perpetrating them.

"I don't think the landlord is going to do it again," said Wayne Yi, one of the tenants who joined the suit as he celebrated the settlement with the other tenants at a Flushing restaurant Tuesday evening. "That's why we feel better."

The lawsuit, which has been covered in the Korean press, stemmed from damage done to the three of the apartments after the building's boiler broke.

On Feb. 3, 1997, the boiler in the seven-story apartment building broke down, flooding the apartments, Sternick said.

"There is quite a vivid videotape that one of the tenants has," Sternick said. "There was a lot of water. It was above the ankles but below the knees."

The tenants contacted Sternick. After investigating, he discovered that the ground-floor rooms were cleared for commercial use but not residential, making them an illegal conversion.

The tenants stopped paying their rent and filed suit against the landlord, charging that the company knowingly deceived them, their attorney said. They sought $2 million in damages.

The tenants originally sought to pressure Marcy to take the necessary steps to legalize their apartments. But shortly after the lawsuit was filed, both Sternick and Marcy's attorney, Niles Welikson, determined that zoning laws made it impossible to legalize the dwellings and the tenants eventually moved out.

Bobby Heo, the nephew of one of the tenants, Chung Kim, said Marcy deliberately sought Korean immigrants as residents since they would not complain.

"[They] only put space for rent in the Korean newspapers," Heo said.

But Welikson said the two principals of the realty who converted the space into apartments in the 1980s probably did not know what they did was illegal. Both are now dead.

"Knowing the people that were involved, I believe it was a mistake," he said.

Before the boiler broke, some of the residents noticed small problems in their apartment, but none thought they were living in an illegal residence.

Sarah Kim's apartment had a door that opened up to the street, and people often knocked, thinking it was a secondary entrance to the building, she said.

Yi, a limousine driver who lived with his wife and son, found that the temperature of his floor would change significantly with the seasons due to pipes directly underneath.

"Summertime the floor was very cool. Wintertime, it was very hot," he said.

Yi noted the windows in the apartment were too high for his son to open and would have been difficult to escape through in a fire.

"It was dangerous," he said.

Sternick believes the settlement is legally important in that it holds landlords responsible for telling their tenants whether or not their apartment is legal.

"I think it's a significant case from the point of view of addressing the problem of illegal conversions in Queens, a problem that is in some ways out of control" Sternick said. "I think there is a private remedy that can be employed. Essentially, this is not left entirely to an overwhelmed Buildings Department."

Welikson, however, said he believed the relatively low payoff after six years of legal fees was not enough to entice similar lawsuits.

"I just don't think the law favors this," Welikson said.

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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