As the alarming rate of evictions fuels the city’s unprecedented homelessness crisis, some Bronx tenants are fighting back.
In a rally outside Bronx Housing Court on May 9, tenant leaders from Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) and Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and members of the Right to Counsel Coalition joined tenants from around the borough to protest property management companies they say are the city’s worst evictors. In addition, they hoped to spread the word about the city’s Local Law 136, the Right to Counsel law, which passed in Aug. 2017, allowing tenants in certain neighborhoods free legal service to prevent them from being evicted.
Local Law 136, the first of its kind nationally, has so far been implemented in four Bronx neighborhoods: East Tremont, Fordham, Parkchester and Allerton. It is slated to expand to include tenants in all of the city’s neighborhoods by 2022.
Some 30 protesters held symbolic eviction notices in front of the courthouse on the Grand Concourse, symbolically banning their landlords and their lawyers from using housing court to threaten and evict tenants out of greed. While one group of tenants entered the courthouse to deliver the notices to their landlords, others shared their stories. Their tales included finding eviction notices on their doors after going out to run errands and landlords sending them back the cash they used to pay their rents.
In other instances, landlords added to rent-burdened tenants’ woes by carrying out unnecessary capital improvements in their apartments, such as putting in new floors or installing new sinks, then shoveling steep fees onto their rents.
For Concourse Village resident Carmen Vega-Rivera, the new law is a start. A CASA volunteer and longtime member of her building’s tenants association, Vega-Rivera has been fighting for better conditions since 2008. In what she calls “high-level harassment,” she says her landlords have been trying to force her out, even though she has won court cases against them. The eviction epidemic, she says is more than just a tenant problem. It is a systemic injustice, one she is tired of fighting against.
“I don’t need to go to sleep and wake up with displacement over my head every damn day,” she said.
One of the landlords the group had come to protest against, Steven Finkelstein, brought 889 lawsuits in the neighborhoods where Right to Counsel is in effect, and where 1,731 families live, according to the RTC Coalition. This means that he brought one case for every two families. Another landlord, The Morgan Group, has brought 891 lawsuits.
Natasha Tosca, 32, lives in a Morrisania building owned by one of number five on the worst landlords list, landlords Sam Applegrad. But although Applegrad owns 851 E. 163 Street . he doesn’t control it. In the summer of 2017, an electrical fire forced tenants to flee their apartments, some jumping from their apartments and others hurling their pets out of windows.
After the fire, the court appointed a housing administrator to step in and take over management of the building. As part of the city’s 7A management program, the company is tasked with collecting rents and using the money to provide essential services and make necessary repairs like fixing broken windows and cleaning up mold.
But Tosca said the 7A administrator has not been doing her job.
She said repairs have not been made, including serious maintenance code violations like melted electrical outlets, major water leaks and holes in the walls.
Applegard’s office has not responded to requests for comment from the Express.
“We literally have to wait for the ceiling to collapse,” before they fiound the holes in the walls that needed to be fixed, she said.
On May 23, Tosca and other tenants from her building will face off against Applegrad in a housing part action. Applegrad filed to have the 7A administrator removed in order to regain control of the building, which would allow him to collect the rents. Tosca fears that the landlord will force the tenants out when he takes over, but hopes that the Department of Housing and Preservation and Development starts addressing the damages before the changeover.
“What are they doing?” she said, angrily. “Do we have to wait for another fire?”