Over the years, Mandingo Tshaka has earned a reputation as an activist and something of a gadfly – demanding action from city agencies to correct some wrong or go after some wrongdoer. Now he’s on the other end of the system.
The 78-year-old is facing a whopping $27,400 in fines and penalties – after an Environmental Control Board hearing for an “immediately hazardous violation” at his childhood home in Bayside.
“They say I illegally altered the building,” he said, gesturing toward the two-story house at 206-41 46th Avenue. “But it’s been this way since I was child. Nothing has changed.”
Yet someone called in a complaint on May 25, saying Tshaka was running a Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel. When a Department of Buildings (DOB) inspector arrived on June 4, he wrote up a violation for “SRO – Illegal Work/No Permit/Change in Occupancy or Use.”
“I let the inspector in, and he found the rooms upstairs with Yale locks on the doors. He commented ‘This is old.’ Then he found the upstairs kitchen and some food in one of the rooms, and I wound up getting the ticket,” Tshaka said.
As a long-time critic of the city, including the DOB, and former member of Community Board 11, Tshaka is familiar with the building code. “I have two boarders – which is legal – and a personal aide,” he explained. “This house is exactly the way it was when I inherited it. Everything is ‘grandfathered’ because it predates the current [zoning] resolution.”
At a hearing on July 28, he was issued a $2,400 violation for altering the property, having “admitted” guilt. “They didn’t believe me,” he said.
To correct the violation, Tshaka had the door locks changed and all food removed to the first floor kitchen, and disconnected the stove on the second floor. He filed a certificate of correction on August 21.
A week later, he got another notice – that added a $25,000 “board approved minimum penalty” to the fine. “The hearing officer never said how many days I had to file the correction,” Tshaka insisted.
Born James Waymond Garner in Flushing, Tshaka insists that his grandmother, Lillian Ely Selby, bought the property in 1914, built a one story home in 1921 and added the second floor with rooms for rent in 1935. Selby passed away in 1973.
“She worked as a domestic and there were no places for domestics to live in northeast Queens in those days,” he recounted. “Because she was a good cook, she even had a restaurant on the second floor, ‘Ma Selby’s Tea Room’. “Under the zoning resolution of 1919, it was legal to have hotels on residential blocks. There were several in the area,” Tshaka said.
Department of Buildings records confirm that the house was built in 1921. Alteration permits were issued in 1931, 1933, 1934, 1935 and 1952.
A complaint was made in February, 2007 for “Construction debris strewn all over the property, but an inspection found no such debris six days later.
In 2003, Tshaka was cited for “Illegal Conversion,” but the ticket and daily penalties were dismissed four months later.
Tshaka has filed an appeal. “This is insane,” said his attorney, Paul E Kerson, who has filed an appeal including depositions attesting to the continuous use of the house for lodgers, “Not just the violation for a condition that obviously predates the law, but also the penalty.”
“I believe that because I’m such an activist, this is being pursued as my comeuppance,” he speculated.