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Renters Smell a Rat When Property Owner Tries Pet Snitching Program

Times Staff Writer

Tranquillity returned Saturday to Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, huge red brick housing complexes on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Pet paranoia was over.

It started in December when the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the owner of the properties -- where pets are not officially allowed -- sent a letter to complex employees offering a bounty to any worker who discovered a pet in an apartment and notified the legal department.

The letter promised that if an apartment was repossessed or a pet was removed, the person turning in the report would receive a special bonus: a $150 American Express gift card.

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“Please be aware that this award is contingent upon the success of the legal action,” the letter said, “If we are not successful, there will be no award.”

Furor erupted when the letter leaked. Tenants accused MetLife -- whose symbol is Snoopy the beagle -- of trying to turn workers into snitches so the apartments could be rented to new tenants at higher prices.

Some apartment dwellers feared that the handyman they were calling to fix a broken stove or change the washer in a dripping faucet could be a spy.

Pets are forbidden in leases at Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. But residents said the clause was presumed to mean dogs, not cats, which have been permitted in the apartments for decades.

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“There has always been the understanding you can have cats and not have dogs,” said State Assemblyman Steven Sanders, who lives at Peter Cooper Village and represents the district in the state capital of Albany. “There are hundreds of tenants who have cats.... It never bothered MetLife before.”

“While the lease forbids pets, there was an informal agreement that cats were OK,” said Alvin Doyle, president of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Assn.

Faced with the possibility of vacating their apartments or losing their pets, some cat owners began to take precautions.

“I know that one of my neighbors needed to get a light bulb changed,” and when she called the servicemen to do it, she brought her cats into the bedroom, Doyle said.

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Sanders, Doyle and many other residents charged that the cats were being used as a wedge by MetLife to force out longtime tenants who pay below market rents. Most apartments in the complexes are covered by rent stabilization guidelines, which mandate fixed increases under state law.

But if an apartment is vacated, a landlord can significantly raise the rent, and increase it even further by making improvements to the premises. In some cases, the rent can reach $2,000.

At Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, the average rent is between $1,000 and $1,500 -- well below the going rate for two- and three-bedroom apartments elsewhere in Manhattan, where rents can run more than $4,000 a month.

Ever since they were built in the 1940s, the complexes -- with well-maintained buildings of 13 and 14 stories, and such amenities as playgrounds, basketball courts, and spacious lawns -- have been highly desirable. About 30,000 people, bigger than the populations of some small cities, live in the developments.

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“It is like a little oasis. It’s a little enclave in the middle of the city,” said Alice Sigel, a social worker in the New York City school system. “We’re very lucky. Usually it’s lovely, with all the grass and all the trees.”

Black and gray squirrels frolicked nearby as she spoke..

“This place has peace and quiet,” said Sigel, who pays “just under $1,200" for her two-bedroom apartment.

On Friday, prompted by the tenant anger, news reports in the New York Post and the threat by a cat food manufacturer to raise the ante by paying workers $160 to remain silent, Metropolitan Life abandoned its bounty plan.

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“The trial employee incentive program ... will end March 1st,” the company announced through its property manager.

“We are happy,” Doyle, the tenant association president, said Saturday. “It really set up the tenants and the employees as adversaries. That, I don’t think is good management.”


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