The economic crisis caused by the pandemic has put the city’s housing crisis in great relief. But a group of tenants from Brooklyn are fighting back.
It’s been years since Patricia Edwards’ top-floor apartment in Brooklyn felt like an approachable home. When it rains, water seeps into the kitchen and living room. It also flows through a crack so large in the ceiling of the bathroom that Ms. Edwards only needs an umbrella to use the toilet.
Still, at about $1,100 a month, the rent-regulated one-bedroom unit in Crown Heights is relatively inexpensive in the rapidly gentrifying New York City neighborhoods where the average rent is more than twice as high. For 20 years, Ms. Edwards, 63, said she almost never missed paying rent.
But when the pandemic struck last year, leaving many of her neighbors struggling financially, Ms Edwards, a retired bank employee, decided to do something she had never done: she refused to pay.
Ms Edwards became one of a dozen residents – nearly half the building’s tenants – who are withholding rent until the landlord forgives a loan owed by residents affected by the pandemic and repairs a building that They say it has been neglected for a very long time.
The protest at 1616 President Street is in some ways a microcosm of the way the pandemic has pushed many tenants to the brink in the nation’s largest city and most expensive housing market.
Across New York, many tenants who lost their jobs following the city’s lockdown are facing millions of dollars in unpaid rent and have been house-housed. their homes by government aid programs and state eviction moratoriums ending in January.
But the pandemic has also mobilized some tenants to compete with landlords who have done little to improve their living conditions and pushed them into a new kind of activism.
What has unfolded in the President Street building is perhaps an extreme example. The building’s landlord has been described by officials as the most negligent in New York and the city has filed suit against the owner for repeated failures to address long-standing problems.
The landlord argues that the property has been properly maintained and in some cases the tenants themselves have blocked access to their apartments and prevented them from making repairs.
Several residents, including Ms Edwards, have filed eviction lawsuits against her. With her protest in her 17th month, tenants owe more than $256,000, including about $18,000 that Ms. Edwards has set aside in a bank account.
“I took good care of the apartment for them,” said Ms Edwards. “He refused to take care of it for me.”
In February, the city’s Department of Housing sued the owners and managers of 1616 President Street in Brooklyn Housing Court, accusing them of not carrying out significant repairs, falsely claiming that dozens of violations were addressed and “baseless” charges against tenants. Eviction lawsuits were filed. The lawsuit seeks to impose financial penalties and force the landlord to fix all problems in the building.
Jeremy House, a spokesman for the department, said it was “using the full force of its enforcement powers” to support tenants.
“Landlords cannot ignore their responsibilities to maintain safe, quality housing,” he said.
For some residents of the Presidential Street building, it sparked the pandemic and housing and financial woes, prompting them to risk eviction and challenge their landlord.
“Before the pandemic, I don’t think I would,” said Vincia Barber, who lives in the building and is helping lead the protest. “I think the power that this landlord has, if it were just you, it wouldn’t have happened. It had to take some numbers.”
Several issues were well known before the pandemic: landlord dealing with tenant Jason Korn Nominated by the City Public Advocate’s Office last year As the “worst” in the city, based on hundreds of open violations of the housing code in many of his buildings, including 1616 President Street.
Housing Department records showed that as of the week of September 27, there were 220 open breaches at the property, of which 32 were deemed “immediately dangerous”. Problems included a cockroach and rat infestation and lead-colored peeling off the wall.
Mr Korn did not respond to messages left for him at the phone numbers listed.
Although Mr. Korn was listed as an officer and managing agent for the building, the actual owner of the building appeared for years as a limited liability company called 1616 President Street Realty.
Limited liability companies have become a widespread tool used to protect property owners from personal liability while obscuring their identities. In some cases, they have made it difficult for city officials and tenants to hold the actual owners accountable for bad conditions. It is not clear whether Mr. Korn was also an owner.
The owners’ attorney, Josh Rosenblum, said he believed the “building was being maintained” and that open breaches showed problems that were corrected but not updated in the city’s database.
“It created the impression that there were actually more severe conditions than there were,” he said.
Records filed with the city also showed that in September the building was sold to another limited liability company named 1616 President Street Associates for more than $3.1 million.
Residents said employees of Gilman Management Corporation, a Long Island-based company, had recently come into the building and claimed to be the owner. City records show reports of a limited liability company that has its office at Gilman’s headquarters.
Messages left with Gilman and company to several executives were not returned.
The protest at 1616 President Street began with fanfare in May 2020, when tenants of hundreds of buildings across the country pledged to withhold rent until their rental obligations were erased – as part of a rally to “cancel the rent” – and have long Maintenance issues were addressed.
It is not clear how many of those protests continued, especially as landlords, many of whom have also suffered financial losses, made deals with tenants over their debts.
Ms. Barber, a nanny, moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the President Street building in May 2019 – a larger unit than her previous one-bedroom home, giving her and her 15-year-old daughter more space.
But she soon realized there was a problem when she found a leak in her bathroom after being there for just a month. She said the apartment was also infested with cockroaches.
When the pandemic hit, Ms. Barber lost her job, and was quickly unable to pay rent. She got a new job earlier this year, but as of September, she said she was owed more than $38,000. By withholding rent, she said she wanted to force the landlord to fix problems that were previously only addressed superficially.
“I think if I don’t continue to do what I’m doing, it won’t change,” she said.
The protests have involved months of high-stakes posturing and negotiations.
For a period of several months last year, tenants in many cases refused to move into their apartments to make any improvements to Mr. Korn or the contractors hired by the landlord or the property owner.
He saw this as a way to pressure the landlord to come up with robust solutions that he said only temporarily addressed leaks or mold that fixed problems permanently, rather than quick repairs.
But for the landlord, Mr. Rosenblum said, the move essentially prevented him from making the repairs that the tenants were demanding.
“You can’t really have it both ways,” he said. “You can’t claim the terms and then deny access.”
Tenants have also eroded New York’s pandemic rent relief program as a point of leverage. Through the program, low-income renters can have a state-paid rent loan, with the money going directly to landlords.
Tenants said they would apply, but only after the landlord agreed to make some repairs, according to JohnAugust Bridgford, a tenant organizer with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a non-profit housing group that helps President Street tenants. does.
Mr Rosenblum and the tenants both said they were close to a settlement before selling the building. That settlement would have addressed the outstanding repairs and provided some sort of rent relief to the tenants, Mr. Rosenblum said.
It is now unclear what approach the new owners of the building will take. And the prospect of having to deal with someone new has irked many tenants.
“I am sincerely sorry to be involved in this,” said Ms Edwards. “Now that I’m in, I can’t stop because of the treatment I’m getting.”
Kitty Bennett Contributed to research.