Monday, March 23, 2009

Tenants Fight Years Long Battle Against Landlord

June 2007


For Lupe Rodriguez living most days without heat or hot water in the fall of 2001 left her with a litany of problems. Her family and neighbors were always sick because of this, she said. To make matters worse, a defective refrigerator left food to spoil, and Rodriguez was forced to eat out several times. Then there were the leaky ceilings that damaged her furniture and wooden floors.

This was the situation Rodriguez and fellow tenants say was prevalent in many of the apartments inside 38-46 Fort Washington Avenue. The buildings’ live-in super didn’t address issues because he “was not authorized to do so,” said Rodriguez. Together with her neighbor, Elba Gonzalez, Rodriguez decided it was time to unite all residents to form what would be the 38-46 Fort Washington Tenant Association.

The word was spread. Furious residents agreed the condition in both buildings were being ignored. The elevator hadn’t worked for some years and people were injured due to a faulty stairway. Stories about assaults, even the murder of one resident were attributed to lack of security in the main entrances.

Tenants called 311 – the phone number for government information and non-emergency services – to report their complaints; they listed violations and sent the completed forms provided by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to their landlord, Stahl Brothers Realty Co. “We sent out the complaints and the package came back rejected, we tried a second time and again it was rejected,” said Rodriguez. Fed up, residents initiated a rent strike.

Since then, members of the Tenant Association have been waging a long and bitter battle in Housing Court. They say they’ve gone through five different attorneys and spent more than $31,000 in legal fees. The presiding judge in the case, Gerald Lebovitz, is scheduled to visit both buildings on August 13th.

The case illustrates a common complaint in Washington Heights and Inwood. HPD reported a total of 39,453 complaints for fiscal year 2007, said Seth Donlin, spokesman for HPD.

Gentrification is a reoccurring theme in housing issues. Some residents feel that landlords purposely neglect and harass their tenants by withholding maintenance services in order to drive them out of the community because of its change in retail value.

“We have easy access to mid and downtown, and the George Washington Bridge is right there, it’s a hot area,” said Rodriguez. Many residents migrated from other countries and have lived in the area for decades. They area is peppered with rent-controlled apartments and families live within blocks of each other.

Donlin explained that when tenants can call HPD or 311 inspectors can be dispatched to apartments. Once they’ve arrived they’ll also inspect the rest of the building for further violations. “If landlords don’t correct violations by the end of the period indicated, they get notification informing them that the period has expired,” said Donlin. Depending on the severity of the problem HPD will handle the emergency repairs and bill the landlords.

Still, as building problems mounted for several years, tenants of 38-46 Fort Washington say they didn’t have a landlord to turn to. “As long as I’ve been a tenant advocate – 20 years – there have been many rent strikes in the city, this is a special case because they’ve been exploited for 15 years,” said Jeff McAdams, the attorney currently representing the tenants.

The problems began in 1993 when tenants were notified that a financial dispute arose between Stanley and Michael Stahl, owners of the property. Until the feud was resolved, properties were put under the control of the court, which appointed Paul Klein, a retired housing court Judge, as receiver of the properties, said Rodriguez. A person named Ann Spalding was listed as managing agent. Tenants said they directed their complaints and sent all rent checks to a Brooklyn Heights office in Spalding’s name. But they say calls and complaints were never addressed by the buildings’ management. It wasn’t until 2001 that they say they realized there was no office for Ann Spalding and all the rent from 1993 to 2001 was unaccounted for.

In February 2002, tenants sued Klein. The problem was finding an attorney that would go against him in court. Residents say that since Klein is a well known figure and a retired judge, many of the attorneys hired by the Tenant Association were reluctant to properly represent them. They would either adjourn or skip hearings. “We were insulted and told we didn’t have a case against Klein,” said Rodriguez. “One attorney even said we’re all crazy.”

The dispute between the Stahl brothers ended in February 2005 and Klein was removed as receiver. Tenants received notice of a new management company. Langsam Properties sent notices stating that back-rent must be paid in full, and it threatened to evict if tenants did not comply. That year, tenants signed a stipulation saying that rent was going to be paid as long as repairs would be done but they say Langsam never responded. HPD was forced to enter apartments and remove large amounts of lead.

The tenant association retained McAdams in October 2006. Small repairs like patching up holes in the walls and cracked floors started. Carbon monoxide alarms were placed in some apartments. “My alarm went off immediately after installation,” said Rodriguez. “HPD inspected and determined that there had been carbon monoxide in the apartment for the past 5 years.” Other tenants like Eduardo Pastrana say they still have chipped ceilings, sinking floors, and leaks everywhere.

Fred Stahl, now owner of the buildings, said that since 2005 he’s been actively involved in restoration. “I have striven to remove all violations and restore the building to be reasonable housing for the tenants,” said Stahl in an email. He said that in the last two years he’s installed new boilers, roofs, fire escapes and elevators.

Tenants refuse to pay back-rent because of the neglect they say the building has suffered all those years. Repairs and maintenance performed were paid out of pocket, and residents are demanding refunds. Milta Algarrez, for instance, says she spent about $30,000 in repairs to her apartment. The tenants are also demanding that floors and hallways be cleaned periodically.

Stahl, who says he wasn’t aware of complaints about negligence before 2005, has asked to meet with the tenants in order to negotiate a solution. Until then, tenants are anticipating the judge’s visit on August 13th hoping to finally reach a settlement.

Both Stahl and McAdams refused to comment further on the case before the court until they’re resolved.

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