The two-bedroom apartment that Jesenia Ventura shares with her three young children, her sister, and her mother Amalia Martinez is so run-down that some windows will stay open only long enough to smash fingers, while others are stuck open even in winter. Frames of doors are ripped off, floor tiles are pulled up, and there is no running water in the bathroom sink, Jesenia says. There is green and black mold, drooping ceilings and a floor that is so warped that Jesenia’s son once tripped and cut his forehead. Jesenia worries that if she takes her kids to daycare, she’ll be reported to Child Protective Services. She says they regularly wake up in the middle of the night itching from painful-looking bedbug bites, and cockroaches crawl across their beds.
The conditions at 501-505 Grand Street, in Williamsburg, are so poor that in the summer of 2014, Amalia, Jesenia and four others organized a tenant association and filed official complaints to NYC Housing Preservation and Development. They hoped to persuade the building’s new owners, Manny and Eden Ashourzadeh of 501 EMR LLC, to make critical repairs.
This proved to be a false hope. Not long after the tenant association formed, 501 EMR filed eviction notices. Now the landlords want to tear down the building, and Jesenia and Amalia live in fear of losing their home of two decades.
In an Article 7A lawsuit that will be presented in court this week, tenants of 501-505 Grand Street, most of whom only speak Spanish, claim to be the victims of retaliatory eviction – a form of harassment that is illegal yet increasingly common in New York City’s gentrifying neighborhoods. They’re asking that, before their landlord’s eviction trial begins next week, an administrator be assigned to the apartments to ensure that their rent money is used for critical repairs.
According to Jesenia, the building was last renovated in the late 1980s. That’s when Amalia moved there from Mexico City to “begin a new life.” Jesenia, who works part-time at a daycare, splits the rent of $1,550 per month with Amalia; they’ve lived in the current apartment for 16 years.
When the property switched owners a couple of years ago, the old landlord introduced the tenants to the new one, 501 EMR. According to the tenants, there was no indication that 501 EMR wanted them out until last summer, when the man to whom Jesenia and Amalia pay rent told them they needed to leave by the end of this May or June so that he could make repairs in the building.
“We’ve all been in that building,” Jesenia told us. “We all grew up there. We have memories there — good memories and bad memories — and this landlord comes and says you have to move because I want to make more money and we don’t care where you go, what you do. It’s just not fair.”
Permit applications filed in May show that 501 EMR is seeking to replace the current three-story building with a six-story elevator building. Adam Meyers, who is representing the tenants on behalf of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, a non-profit that provides legal representation to low-income individuals and families in Brooklyn, believes the landlords “want to presumably market these as luxury rental properties in a gentrifying neighborhood.”
501 EMR didn’t respond to our request for comment. The company argues in court documents that it had a legal right to evict tenants like Jesenia and her mom because they aren’t under a lease agreement, and the building isn’t rent stabilized.
Meyers contends that the building is rent-stabilized, which would give tenants protection from eviction. But the matter is complicated. Though 501-505 Grand is one building, two different addresses are associated with it. Some services are shared and some are not. The court will follow a formula to determine if the building is one building with six units, or two buildings with three units each. If it meets the six-unit minimum it will be considered rent stabilized. Some factors are in favor of the landlords and some in favor of the tenants. In the case file being kept by Meyers it states that 501-505 Grand Street qualifies because “the Building has been owned, operated, transferred, registered, and occupied as a single building for at least 26 years.” In response, 501 EMR’s petition states that “of the 28 factors that courts have recognized as being relevant in determining whether a building is a horizontal multiple dwelling, 22 factors favor the Petitioner [501 EMR] and 6 favor the Respondents.”
“If these are in fact free market apartments then the landlord is not required to renew their leases,” Meyers admits. “But if it turns out it’s rent stabilized, then the landlord should have given them leases a year and a half ago or whenever they ended,” said Meyers.
In the meantime, Meyers says, the landlord has no right to ignore court orders calling for much-needed repairs to the building. “In any of these cases, the landlord should have made the repairs promptly when they were brought to his attention — and they were brought to his attention months and months ago,” Meyers said. “The landlord is never allowed to evict tenants in retaliation for organizing together as a tenant association or for asking for repairs.”
Meyers’s office has alleged 89 code violations, including molding ceilings, walls and cabinetry; toilets that don’t work; infestations of mice, bedbugs and roaches; cabinetry that’s falling apart; lack of carbon monoxide detection devices; leaking ceilings and sinks; floors that are falling apart; broken locks; doors without frames; busted windows; “defective water supply;” and problems with hot water in some apartments. Meyers also mentions “big problems with heat and hot water over the winter.”
Landlord negligence and harassment has become so common in New York that in February the City formed a task force to fight it. In June, the State increased fines for instances of harassment and in September, Mayor de Blasio signed three new measures into law that made it harder for landowners to threaten or buy out tenants.
Still, Alejandra Nasser, a tenant rights advocate at Los Sures who works with residents of 501-505 Grand, said the “epidemic” of landlord harassment is only getting worse. “Landlords see the opportunity now, especially when there are certain loopholes in place for landlords to push out tenants,” she told us. “They have other people come in who will gentrify the neighborhood and pay for rents that are upwards of $3,000, while a person who was under rent regulation was probably paying $700, $800.”
Jesenia shared memories of the neighborhood before it became gentrified. “Before, there were a lot of Hispanics here. Now, we don’t see a lot of Hispanics. Everybody says it’s too much to pay. They can’t afford to pay $1,600 rent. Most of us have kids and some landlords don’t want kids in their apartments,” said Jesenia. “My mother came here when I was very small. The neighborhood was very different. There were smaller buildings, you’d see a lot of families. Now you see big buildings, very elegant buildings. Nothing compared to what the neighborhood was a long time ago.”
Discrimination and exploitation tie into the numerous cases Nasser has seen. “We have a lot of tenants who feel that because of their race, because of their standing that they feel that that their landlord doesn’t want them there. That they’re looking to only please and service a certain demographic,” she said. She explained that some landlords harassed their tenants by making “repairs.” This took the form of removing a stairwell when the renters were disabled or elderly. Other situations she’s seen involved gutting out entire bathrooms or kitchens, which left tenants no other recourse than to use the bathroom of a neighboring restaurant.
Though there are services like Los Sures to fight discrimination and general harassment, they can’t speed up the legal process. By the time I spoke with Jesenia and Meyers, the tenants had been in court for about a year.
It only takes a visit to housing court, with its loud court rooms and multiple forms, or waiting in queues as long as the lines of impatience on people’s faces, to find others like the tenants of 501-505 Grand Street. Everywhere you go you’ll encounter people who are frustrated and confused by the legal system. “There really isn’t anything substantial enough to prosecute landlords as criminals, and that’s a big flaw in the system. A lot of what landlords are doing are incredibly criminal but it comes to no avail,” said Nasser. “The system still doesn’t see landlords as criminals when they do this type of thing: harassing people and trying to break people down to the point where they leave their homes and they’re out on the streets. Really, when you get down to it, it’s a human rights issue.”