For Striking NYC Tenants With Notorious Landlords, the Problem Is Not Just COVID-19
Some are striking because they can’t afford to pay the rent. Others are striking in protest against what they say is inhumane treatment.
When Nadia Metayer buses home from her job as an essential worker at a manufacturing company and walks into her Bronx apartment, it would be nice if she could take a hot shower. Yet on the first of April, the heat and hot water disappeared. Even after repair work, they remained inconsistent, with the latest complaint of a building-wide outage on May 6, according to tenants’ 311 complaints. Sometimes Metayer would resort to cleaning herself the way her Haitian-Dominican family does “back home on the islands”: boil water, then bathe with a bucket.
Failures of essential services at 1515 Selwyn Ave. are nothing new to its residents. Many tenants recently suffered through over a year without gas—Metayer said her outage lasted 16 months. Records show 252 open city-issued violations at the building, 98 of which are class C, or immediately hazardous. These include water leaks that tenant advocates say have resulted in collapsed ceilings, rat and mice infestations, peeling paint with lead or that is presumed to contain lead in multiple areas, and other problems. The landlord, Abdul Khan, ranked fourth last year on the Public Advocate’s Worst Landlord Watchlist after averaging 1,135 open housing violations per month (totaled across nine of his worst buildings).
In April, residents were trying to survive with poor heat and no hot water during a quarantine while also trying to stem the spread of illness. During the first month of the shutdown, tenants also reported building-wide gas outages at another Khan-owned building, 2250 Grand Concourse.
Stay-at-home protocols can prolong tenants’ exposure to health hazards like mold, potentially exacerbating existing respiratory issues. “So many folks are seeing the conditions that they’re living in become more and more acute of a health risk to their entire families,” said Johanna Bassetti, director of product at JustFix.nyc, a nonprofit that builds free tools to support the NYC housing movement, including an online emergency repairs and harassment tool for tenants to bring landlords to court virtually for free.
Bassetti noted that housing courts are currently holding trials over video and only accepting emergency cases. If the situation is dire but doesn’t fit one of the predefined emergency conditions—such as a heat or gas outage, among others—it’s up to the tenant to explain why the problem merits consideration as an emergency.
Metayer said Khan’s management company has failed to communicate with tenants, leaving only the superintendent to handle the building. “I don’t think he deserves rent at all,” she said. “He’s our virus. He’s our COVID-19.” When asked if there’s been an increase in sanitation since the start of the pandemic, she found the question amusing. “No, no, no. … He’s not one of those landlords that will sanitize.”
Khan’s management office did not respond to requests for comment. The building’s superintendent told The Appeal that he lives in the building and works hard to address issues, but that as the building has aged, an increasing number of maintenance problems have arisen. He said he’s worked with repair contractors all month to install new plumbing and boiler parts, but that plumbing repairs take time.
Metayer and other tenants at 1515 Selwyn are among the many renters across the country not paying rent, and the building is gearing up for an official building rent strike on June 1. In New York City, about 50 buildings officially declared a strike on May 1, with about 30 to 70 percent of tenants in those buildings striking—about 1,000 people total—and another 14,000 joining in collective nonpayment, according to the Housing Justice for All coalition. Campaign Coordinator Cea Weaver said the majority of people didn’t pay simply because they could not afford rent due to income loss, while some struck in solidarity with their neighbors to demand government action on a range of demands. Yet for tenants like Metayer, there was a third reason to strike: as an act of protest against what they say is inhumane treatment.
When shelter-in-place isn’t safe
About 18 percent of the city’s rent-stabilized apartments and 8 percent of unregulated units report three or more maintenance deficiencies, including no heat, leaks, and rodents, according to the city’s 2017 Housing and Vacancy Survey. While landlords are not always to blame for housing deficiencies—and addressing maintenance issues during a pandemic is certainly a challenge—tenant advocates say that for some landlords, there’s a long history of disinvestment behind the present conditions.
According to research by University Neighborhood Housing Program, a Bronx-based nonprofit provider of affordable housing and community resources, Khan “is known to purchase extremely distressed buildings on the cheap, and profits on the buildings by keeping expenses down and increasing debt principal as much as possible.” Khan owns 15 Bronx buildings with a total of 288 apartments, according to UNHP. His business address and name are also linked to two buildings in Queens; it is unclear if he owns other properties.
Some tenants of 1515 Selwyn blame not only the landlord, but also the city for not taking more aggressive action—making repairs using city contractors, for example, or taking the building out of the landlord’s hands by initiating an Article 7A proceeding.
Through a 7A, the city or tenants can request a court judge to appoint an outside administrator to manage a distressed building in place of the owner. While under 7A, control of the building could eventually be transferred back to the landlord, the 1515 Selwyn’s tenant association hopes that, through other city programs, the building will be permanently transferred to a new nonprofit owner.
Nonprofit housing advocates say that the city has made less use of the 7A program in the last few decades as market conditions have changed, with landlords less willing to abandon their buildings to new owners and more likely to fight legal proceedings that would divest them of their properties.
“My fight is with politicians to get more involved, and my fight is with the city, that they ensure that the correct work is done and the work is done well,” tenant David Belen said in Spanish through a translator.
FBE Limited, a company owned by the Fruchthandler family, is an even larger landlord that owned about 4,000 apartments in 2017 and has continued to buy more buildings and properties over these past two years. The Fruchthandlers are facing a rent strike from tenants at 105-131 East 86th Street in Brooklyn, where there are currently a total of 184 open violations.
According to the city’s open violation records, the buildings suffer from mold, roof leaks, mice, roaches, broken or defective windows, broken or defective floors and plaster, a broken radiator, a couple lead-based paint hazards, and more. “People’s grandchildren are breathing in mold!” tenant Tiffany King said. “Enough is enough.”
Tenants say the maintenance problems began under prior landlords. Sydoney Panton, who is part of a group of renters on strike at the Brooklyn buildings, said that, under the previous landlord, problems with the management of the boiler system once led the bathtub water temperature to change so quickly that her young child got badly burned.
She says she fell behind on rent after sustaining severe injuries in a car accident in 2015. One month before the building’s deed was transferred to the Fruchthandlers, she says she was coerced into signing an agreement that caused her rent to increase from $1,120 a month to $1,696 a month, and it has continued to go up in the years since. Though rent increases in her building are limited by state law, her rent jumped using what is likely the now-banned “preferential rent” loophole.
While that change may have happened under the prior landlord, tenants in other buildings have repeatedly accused the Fruchthandlers of using fraudulent strategies to increase rents and of perpetuating unlivable conditions. Ephraim Fruchthandler was also on the Public Advocate’s Worst Landlords List in 2015.
Tenant Patricia Bubb said in 2017, after the change in ownership, her grandson, who has asthma, ended up in the emergency room due to the presence of mold in the apartment. It was one of the incidents that motivated her to fight back—and she said management’s remedies for the mold have been superficial and slipshod, and failed to address constant leaks.
Over email, Geoff Thompson, a spokesperson for the Fruchthandler management company that runs the buildings, wrote that it has been “actively addressing” HPD violations and that many violations appear open only because they have not yet been reinspected by HPD. He said that the company has retained an expediting firm to help file paperwork and schedule inspections, worked with HPD to gain access to several apartments where tenants had not granted access for repairs, and is currently in legal proceedings to obtain access to two remaining apartments.
Thompson said that management had been scheduling an HPD inspection for March, but HPD put inspections temporarily on hold due to the pandemic. He said the company believed violations in all but the two apartments had been corrected and would soon be off its record. “Management makes every effort to maintain its properties and to respect the rights and needs of the tenants,” he wrote. “There has been no attempt to fraudulently deregulate buildings or individual apartments.”
Thompson also said that both Patone and Bubb had repeatedly denied access to their apartments, but that most of the work to upgrade Bubb’s unit had been completed, and that Bubb had not paid rent for four years. Bubb said she has withheld rent for a few reasons, including her fight for better conditions in court, both during the transfer of ownership and after.
Tenants say the claim that most repairs have been corrected is false, that shoddy repair work has only made problems worse, that they’ve sometimes been falsely accused of refusing access, and that they are often harassed and treated disrespectfully if they open their doors for repairs. They said they’d be happy to let in city contractors, but have come to distrust their superintendent. The tenants say they’ll remain on strike until their landlord meets a list of 20 demands, including the cancellation of rents during the crisis, the rollback of rents to levels “before manipulation and fraud,” and the correction of a range of maintenance problems.
The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, for its part, says it has worked diligently to address the concerns of tenants at both of the aforementioned Bronx and Brooklyn buildings and notes that the Khan building and one building in the Fruchthandler complex are enrolled in HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program, which requires intensive monitoring by the agency. The agency also says it has taken Khan to housing court to fix conditions in the past, issued violations for the April hot water and heating issues at 1515 Selwyn, monitored the repair work, and found the owner to be responsive.
“As the city battles the COVID-19 pandemic, our inspectors remain on the front lines so people can shelter in place safely,” Jeremy House, a spokesperson for HPD, said in an email. “HPD acts immediately to address health and safety violations, and when landlords fail to comply, we take aggressive action.”
With the rent strike, tenants are also protesting harassment they say they’ve experienced from their landlords—both before and during the pandemic.
Last year, Zara Realty, which owns thousands of rent-stabilized apartments in Queens and others in Long Island, was sued by Attorney General Letitia James for allegedly “charging excessive fees, coercing [tenants] into signing improper leases, illegally raising rents, and denying tenant rights.” A judge ruled recently against Zara’s move to dismiss the suit. Two years prior, it was also charged with discrimination by the NYC Human Rights Commission; the commission has filed a case and the investigation is pending. And, beginning prior to the shutdown, the Zara tenant association has been fighting for heat between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. at multiple buildings—one building logged 76 complaints related to heat between November and April.
After Zara tenant Mary and her family could not afford to pay April rent, they received a memo dated April 16 from their landlord with language that threatened eviction, despite the current statewide moratorium on evictions. She asked not to be identified by her real name for fear of retaliation.
“If you continue to default upon payment a further notice shall be served demanding payment of arrears or possession of the premises,” the letter said.
Another letter dated April 27 warned, “You are required to pay within fourteen days from the date of service of this Notice, or to give up possession of the premises to the landlord. If you fail to pay or give up the premises, the landlord will commence summary proceedings against you to recover possession of the premises.”
A neighbor received a statement with not only arrears listed but also a “Bounce Check Charge” because, Mary said, the neighbor recently put their auto-pay on hold. The landlords also sent tenants a memo urging them to sign up for direct deposit from their banks. Rima Begum, a community organizer at Chhaya Community Development Corporation, said Zara tenants have also been urged to pay with a credit card, which, she argues, can be a recipe for debt down the line. Danial, a tenant who asked The Appeal to use his nickname for fear of retaliation, said that Zara pressured him to pay half the rent, though that was all the money remaining in his bank account. Zara agreed to wait until the end of April to take that from his account, but when they did, he was left to depend on his social network for necessities.
Mary worried what would happen once the governor’s 90-day moratorium on evictions expired in June. “I’m really scared that, as soon as June [20th comes], the Zara landlords will take us to the courts.” (Following the interview, the governor ordered a new ban on evictions for 60 more days after June 20, but only for tenants who didn’t pay rent and who are eligible for unemployment or otherwise are facing financial hardship due to the pandemic—a narrowing that tenant advocates have decried as both confusing and potentially devastating.)
Asked to comment, Zara Realty said it understands the economic difficulties tenants are facing and the human toll of the virus in the city and is dedicated to the health and safety of tenants and staff. Tenants received a packet from Zara listing rental assistance programs and offering payment plans. Zara also distributed masks to households with a notice describing the building’s extra cleaning protocols. In a statement, Zara said it is “in full compliance with state policies regarding evictions.”
“As property managers, we need to pay utility bills to keep the lights on, pay staff to continue cleaning our buildings and make necessary safety repairs, as well as pay our mortgage and property tax obligations so that we can continue to provide safe, quality affordable housing for tenants,” Zara said. “There have been no violations issued to Zara with regard to heating. All buildings have sufficient heat.”
Begum says because city inspectors have come during daytime hours, they’ve not yet cited the buildings for lack of heat, which is only happening at night.
Holding landlords accountable
As policymakers in all levels of government argue over the need for rent relief and what it should look like, some are calling for additional steps to safeguard New Yorkers from bad landlords during the pandemic and in the future.
Bronx Councilmember Ritchie Torres and Council Speaker Corey Johnson have proposed legislation—part of a package of coronavirus-related bills under consideration in the City Council—to protect tenants from pandemic-related harassment, with penalties for infringement of $2,000 to $10,000. The legislation would apply to tenants who receive a rental concession or forbearance, are essential employees, or have been impacted by COVID-19 in a variety of ways. Torres hopes his legislation will protect tenants who are threatened with eviction or continually badgered for rent.
Policymakers are also incorporating language into government relief bills that would introduce some rules for all landlords for the duration of the pandemic.
“The way to make sure we’re not bailing out the bad actors is to put conditions on any bailout that then require them to act better,” said New York State Senator Michael Gianaris. “There’s a litany of proposals that would require lease renewals, that would require cause for eviction during this period, that would prohibit late fees—all the games that unscrupulous landlords play can be specifically prohibited in exchange for relief.”
One of Gianaris’s bills, for instance, would cancel rent for tenants who’ve been economically impacted within a certain time period and provide mortgage forgiveness to landlords who face financial hardship as a result. It would require that any leases that expire during that time are subject to an automatic renewal at the same rent charged, and it would ban late fees for rent owed during that time.
The governor announced on May 7 that he’d sign executive orders banning late fees and missed payment fees during the eviction moratorium and allowing struggling tenants to use their security deposits as rent. The city’s Rent Guidelines Board is also likely to hold rents at their current level in rent-stabilized housing for one year. Yet tenant advocates say these measures fall short.
The Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act proposed by Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar to the U.S. Congress would go even further: cancelling rent for all tenants regardless of income and instituting stronger terms for landlords seeking relief. Landlords would have to agree to a range of terms for a period of five years, including a rent freeze, documentation for any just-cause evictions, no source of income discrimination, provision of 10 percent equity to tenants, no retaliation against residents, and other requirements.
Some advocates would also like to see banks and lenders institute stronger restrictions when offering mortgage relief. The federal government has offered mortgage forbearance—a delay in payments—to multifamily property owners with loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac who agree not to evict tenants unable to pay rent for the period of forbearance. Advocates, however, argue banks should require additional conditions like the provision of rent relief to tenants and the maintenance of building conditions.
Many advocates and tenants see this as a moment for even greater transformations—an opportunity for community land trusts, nonprofit affordable housing organizations, and public entities to acquire buildings that are falling into financial distress. Omar’s bill includes the creation of a fund for such acquisitions, though others say a more politically feasible strategy would be for the government to use bonds to finance the acquisition of housing.
But proposals that institute strong requirements on landlords seeking relief—like Omar’s requiring five years without rent increases—are likely to face opposition from landlords. “In the vast majority of buildings, landlords are trying to do the best they can under very difficult circumstances,” said Mitch Posilkin, counsel for the Rent Stabilization Association. He said rent-stabilized building owners have already been grappling with increasing property taxes without sufficient rent increases. Posilkin said it would be “outrageous” to let the private market fail in order to create opportunities for nonprofits to acquire housing and criticized the idea that activists could create “a utopian housing stock.”
But New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams supports an acquisition strategy for landlords like Abdul Khan.
“It makes no sense that landlords could treat tenants like this for such a long time period,” he said, adding that, in these cases, the city often takes too long to institute ownership transfers.
“These are the worst of the worst. There are property owners who really need assistance and we want to help them, but there are also landlords who are bad actors.”
Update: Following publication, the City Council passed the bill strengthening protections against harassment for tenants impacted by COVID-19. The Appeal was also contacted by an additional Zara tenant who disputed Zara’s claims that the company is offering payment plans. The tenant, who wished not to be named for fear of retaliation, acknowledged that Zara’s community newsletter briefly mentions the option of payment plans and offers to waive Zara’s credit card fee for tenants paying with credit. But the tenant alleged that Zara’s true approach has been threats and intimidation. Since the tenant began withholding rent in April, he has received five letters from Zara threatening him with eviction if he continued defaulting on payment. The tenant also emailed Zara Realty in late April asking if Zara “will compromise at all during this crisis and will give any concession at all to their tenants” but received no reply. Another tenant, identified in this story as Mary, told The Appeal that Zara Realty has continued to badger striking tenants, who have already communicated with Zara through an attorney. Some tenants have received new letters with threats that vehicles will be towed away for failing to pay for parking spaces.