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Apartment dividing under investigation.

The Building Department recently launched an investigation into the growing practice of using temporary dividers in rental apartments. The investigation was prompted by a recent news article highlighting the practice.

The dividers, if installed properly in conformance with building and fire codes, appear to be legal, but the Building Department is now launching the full-scale investigation after the news report peaked their interest and REW started asking questions.

"They are probably legal if they are not permanent," said Dan Margulies, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), an owners' group. "I would be concerned if they blocked off egress to the part of the apartment where the fire escape is located."

Margulies warns of possible violations of the standard lease provisions should the tenant not seek permission to install the divider.

Sharing of units doesn't apply to most of their clients, said Clifford Katz, senior vice president and director of Fine Residential Rental Property for Ashforth Warburg Associates. But it does apply to their clients' children when they have graduated and want to share a junior four with a sleeping alcove. The dividers then, he said, are "very helpful and very inexpensive."

When it comes to co-ops, however, Katz said the question is whether they will let the kids share at all. "We have to be very sensitive," he said. "Anything we've seen done has been more of a soji screen type thing than anything that's remotely structural. The owners would never permit it."

If a partition is put in that's permanent and has an archway and door, he warned, it raises C of O issues. "It's the same reason you can't just buy the apartment next door and knock the wall down," Katz added.

Rent Stabilization President Joseph Strasburg said he can't believe that an owner, knowing they could rent out an apartment to anybody, would expose themselves to a possible violation. "There are several issues and now they are on notice and have to do their homework," he said.

Two companies that create temporary dividers to enhance the living space for roommates, families and those that work at home, say their products remove one obstacle to high Manhattan rents. Both The LivingSpace Company and THE WALL's owners say they will only install their dividers with permission.

LivingSpace owner Steve Polo says he will only install the temporary dividers with the consent and cooperation of the building owner or board of directors. He says his company, founded in 1988, maintains close relationships with the owners, who receive a copy of the lease between LivingSpace and the tenant, and copies of insurance certificates.

"The usual question is, 'Can we sneak it in?,' Polo says his tenant clients ask. "And that answer is 'No.'"

If the tenant leaves without removing the divider, Polo wants the owners to call so it can be removed immediately and the apartment re-leased.

"We have a close relationship with owners because we don't do any damage," he said. "If anything, we are more stringent in what we install than some carpenters and builders out there."

Polo says all of his materials are fire rated to both ASTM-84 and ASTM-119 tests, and he complies with building codes.

Polo also claims he will not do an installation that divides a small one bedroom into say, four or more spaces. "We know where the line is drawn and what is acceptable and don't go beyond that," Polo said.

According to building codes, it is illegal for an apartment to be shared by four or more unrelated persons, a provision that is rarely enforced. That is because of the many people that need to share apartments all over the city - ranging from college students to immigrants - and the lack of affordable housing.

Polo prefers working on dividers that are installed in flex spaces, such as dining areas, that were legally intended to be divided off and already have windows.

He can install windows and doors as well. Polo often recommends partitions that leave a full floor to ceiling opening where, for instance, a tenant wants to separate a home office work area, create a room for a new baby, or simply needs more wall space for furniture placement.

For the creation of bedroom privacy, however, LivingSpace installs a full door with a privacy lock, similar to what would be installed in a bathroom. They will not install a full lock because of the need to access areas in fire emergencies.

A typical 12 x 8 foot partition costs $595 plus tax and requires a $200 refundable deposit. It takes about one and a half hours to install and about a half hour to remove. The panels are pre-built in Polo's New Jersey factory and are installed so they don't leave marks when they are removed.

Because Polo works on slim profit margins and feels their quality work does not harm the building and enhances the unit, he does not pay referral fees to owners or brokers.

But his competitor, THE WALL, does. Bianca Vukovic, a rental agent with Manhattan Apt.'s Downtown office happily refers a caller to the "pressurized wall" company. "Tell them Bianca sent you," she said, adding that "Building owners don't want their apartments damaged, that's their main concern. And the people have privacy when they put the wall in."

She refers tenants to LivingSpace's competitor, THE WALL, owned by Scott Webb, who does pay referral fees to brokers that have registered with his Forest Hills company.

Webb named his firm, in existence for two years, after the Pink Floyd album. But he admits the name does give the wrong impression, as he too only installs temporary room dividers. Albeit these can have doors and windows. But nevertheless, Webb's system is also based, like Polo's, on a pressurized system, and is supposed to leave no damage when removed.

THE WALL is fully created on site and uses aluminum studs. It is also fire rated, Webb said, adding that he complies with building codes.

"We will build our dividers around the heating and air conditioning units so there is enough room for the building to access it," he said. "We have taken into consideration all the factors, all the problems."

But Webb says he does not seek permission from building owners. "It's up to the tenant [to get permission]. We will not go in and do anything that's against management," he added. If he is barred from entering the building, he said, he assumes the tenant was not given permission.

"There have been a couple of instances where people tried to get us in on the sly and we won't do that," he added.

THE WALL's typical 8 x 12 product is $550 plus tax, plus a $150 deposit, and takes four or five hours to install because it is constructed on site. Webb also asks owners to call him to remove THE WALL should the tenant depart.

Webb, a contractor by trade, got his start in the business when a friend asked him to construct a room divider. He was turned away at the door of the building but saw the possibilities and created his own system.

"How can a young person move into the city on their own and get a start in life?," Webb said. "I feel I'm offering them a solution to a widespread problem. I am greeted with unreserved enthusiasm because I am giving them an option."

LivingSpace owner Polo is upset that competitors build similar dividers in illegal situations and that his company could possibly be subjected to a Building Department investigation. Polo says he met with a Buildings representative back in 1988 or 1989, who reviewed their specs and informed them they were up to snuff.

"We as a company have bent over backwards in not only confronting building codes and fire codes, but living by them for years and actually sacrificing business because of it," said Polo. "Now we're likened to a small time carpenter and we're being dragged into an investigation."
COPYRIGHT 1996 Hagedorn Publication
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Lois, Weiss
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Sep 25, 1996
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