259 West 139th Is An SRO, Not 2 Family…

I really don’t get real estate brokers sometimes. They get listings and just never try to understand them. In this case a broker for Sotheby’s is telling our broker that 259 West 139th Street (in Harlem’s prestigious Strivers’ Row) is a 2 family home when it’s actually an SRO (a Single Room Occupancy boarding house). In fact they even state the lie inaccurate information clearly on their own website (click the quote below to see an image of the full page it comes from)…

Quote from Sotheby's web site showing inaccurate information

If you know anything about townhouses in New York that statement looks very suspicious… A two-family “currently configured as a rooming house”? Rooming houses are never “zoned” two family. And zoning has nothing to do with the number of families anyway – zoning has to do with the height, bulk and general use of the building.

So what exactly is 259 West 139th?

Let’s start with what the NYC Department of Buildings says… The DOB’s property profile for the building says it is “SRO Restricted”. If you follow the link on that page to see the certificate of occupancy for the building you see there is a C of O for the garage that was issued in January 1950, but no C of O for the main building (which is typical of older townhouses). There is one other C of O linked to that property, but it’s an error – a temporary C of O for a completely different building.

Next, let’s look at what the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) says…

HPD's classification for 259 West 139th Street / Strivers' Row

The key thing to notice there is 0 “A Units”, 14 “B Units”. “A Units” are normal apartments, “B Units” are rooming house rooms. So 259 West 139th Street has no legal apartments and instead has 14 rooming house units. That means Sothebys is suggesting a illegal use of the space – you can’t rent an apartment that isn’t registered in some way with the City and DOB and HPD are the two ways to make an apartment legal.

So both DOB and HPD say the place is an SRO, ergo it’s an SRO.

When you head over to the Department of Finance you see a different story. There you see it’s building class C3 which stands for a 5-6 family home.

Department of Finance's classification of 259 W 139

Now, it’s typical for Department of Finance to get it wrong and in this particular situation it doesn’t make much of a difference since 5-6 family homes and SROs pay the same amount in taxes. But the point is if it were a 2 family home the owner would have it classified correctly with DOF since 4+ family homes pay 7 times the property tax as 1-3 family homes. That’s not an error you’d let slide for very long.

259 West 139 - Strivers' RowI am SO tired of real estate agents giving false and inaccurate information on their listings. It’s really not that hard to find out the truth. But it’s common for real estate agents to answer the question “Is there a certificate of no harassment in place?” with “the building can be delivered vacant”.

If you’re outside New York you’ll be excused for not knowing the absurdity of that answer but in the 1980s New York City went through a real estate boom and low income people were being evicted from their apartments and becoming homeless. Rooming houses are where the poorest people in New York live. If you lose your place at a rooming house there just aren’t any cheaper options and you wind up homeless. So in 1985 a moratorium was placed on conversions of rooming houses (SROs). A year or two later that was reworked so landlords who wanted to do an SRO conversion were required to get a “certificate of no harassment” where the City verified that the landlord didn’t force out or intimidate any tenants in the prior 3 years. You could also be turned down if there was an open violation for an illegal conversion.

Certificates of no harassment are vital for anyone buying an SRO and wanting to use it for something other than an SRO. It really doesn’t matter if it’s vacant and any licensed broker selling a townhouse should know that. And lying and saying it has a C of O that it clearly doesn’t have is completely inexcusable.

Thank god Property Shark and the City of New York put all the info online and make it easy to tell brokers they’re lying. It’s amazing how quickly their story changes when you say you’ve looked up the property up on Property Shark. Still, it’s a huge hassle that is completely avoidable. I feel sorry for the poor buyers who don’t understand how to find the information and learn the truth. If you don’t do your due diligence and you have a crappy lawyer who doesn’t do it either, it can devastate you financially.