East Harlem tenants in battle with landlord

December 14, 2007

Carmen Sanchez was fed up. Month after month, her landlord was demanding that she pay thousands of dollars in fees that she says she didn’t owe. There was the charge for the washing machine she doesn’t have and $50 in late fees on payments she says she made on time.

Then there were the repairs the landlord wasn’t making. “I have mushrooms growing out of my walls. Instead of a shower head, there is a hole in my wall where the water comes out.”

One day last spring she heard about a meeting being organized by tenants of her building on East 116th Street. She went to the meeting and has been fighting ever since.

That meeting, one of dozens organized throughout the neighborhood by a group called Movement for Justice in El Barrio, has spurred a wave of political activism that is working to help residents of East Harlem fight what they say are greedy landlords who take advantage of poorly-enforced housing laws. Movement for Justice in El Barrio has organized protests against Sanchez’ landlord, the Dawnay, Day Group, and also plans to sue the company for deceptive business practices.

East Harlem has become the darling of the real estate market in recent years, attracting middle class professionals looking to find relatively attractive deals without leaving Manhattan. Residential developers have moved in and dozens of condominiums are in the works with names like Park Hill East and Observatory Place. But some activists and longtime residents worry landlords eager to charge higher prices may be taking advantage of rent-stabilized tenants.

“If they get us out they could double or triple the rent,” said Sanchez. Sanchez pays $600 a month for a rent-stabilized studio. She said a similar apartment in the same building now rents for twice that amount.

“All these developers want to take over Manhattan—whatever piece is left,” said Juan Haro, the president of Movement for Justice in El Barrio. “We consider ourselves a community in resistance… in red alert. Our intention is to resist and not allow it to happen.”

In 2006, Movement for Justice led protests against Steven Kessner, who until last March owned 47 buildings in East Harlem. The group accused him of failing to make repairs to apartments and led rallies against him. Kessner was named one of the city’s 10 worst landlords by the Village Voice in 2006. At the time, Kessner said he wasn’t making repairs because the apartments were overcrowded. Last March, Kessner sold his portfolio of buildings to Dawnay, Day Group, a privately-held investment firm based in London.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio believes Dawnay, Day is continuing the practices of the previous landlord. Haro believes the letters from Dawnay, Day demanding late fees and back payments are an effort to intimidate tenants and ultimately push them out. He also points out the company’s buyback program, which offered some tenants $10,000 to vacate an apartment. “That is a concrete example of the fact they are trying to get rid of the tenants to jack up the rent,” said Haro.

Juan Vasquez lives on the second floor of a rent-stabilized apartment on East 117th Street owned by Dawnay, Day. The hallway is lined with posters alerting tenants of pest control and housing department regulations. Inside his two-bedroom apartment, a curtain separates a cluttered kitchen from a living room that doubles as a third bedroom. Vasquez, a cook at an Italian restaurant in the financial district, pays his part of the $940 rent on time every month and has several stacks of documents that he says back up his claims.

Vasquez heard about Movement for Justice from a flyer posted inside his building. He came across the flyer a few months back and has been attending meetings.

Until a month ago, Vasquez was being charged more than $7,000 in back rent, legal fees and other charges. In September, a lawyer working with Movement for Justice wrote to the landlord asking for an explanation for the charges. Vasquez’s charges have since been reduced to $1,900. But Vasquez still thinks it’s too much and wants the company to clear his balance.

A Dawnay, Day representative says the company has done nothing wrong. Michael, a company representative who declined to give his last name, said the back charges were carried over from the previous landlord. He said the company was no longer obligated to bill for them and has readjusted tenant balances. Any additional balances are the result of pending litigation between tenants and the previous owner, he said. He also said the buyback program is standard practice in New York real estate and that the company had received calls from interested tenants.

“This is a business and we do try to maximize profit within our legal limits,” said Michael.

New York’s rent stabilization laws allow for regular fixed increases in rents for long-term tenants. Once a tenant leaves, the landlord can charge the open market rate for apartments and ultimately increase the capital value of the building.

For Haro, the problem is bigger than landlords like Dawnay, Day. He alleges that the Department of Housing Preservation and Development is not doing enough to enforce existing rent laws. “The housing legislation that has been passed doesn’t really do much because HPD has no real teeth,” said Haro.

Last month, the group held a protest outside the Department’s assistance center on 7th Avenue.

Neill Coleman, a spokesperson for HPD, said the agency protects tenants in a variety of ways. “Every landlord in New York City has a legal obligation to maintain their buildings in good repair and up to code,” he said in an email statement. If landlords do not fulfill that obligation, tenants can take them to housing court. If that fails, HPD will make emergency repairs and bill the building owner. “New York City’s emergency repair program is by far the largest in the nation,” Coleman wrote.

Since its founding in 2004, Movement for Justice in El Barrio has operated on a belief that renters need to fight their own battles. The group works with tenants and holds workshops on public speaking and communications strategies. Haro points out that the group rarely uses lawyers and tries to get tenants to represent themselves in housing court. “In order for East Harlem to survive there needs to be numerous leaders that come from these buildings—the people that are directly affected by the problems,” said Haro.

Dawnay, Day reduced Carmen Sanchez’ account balance from $4,000 to $1,100 this fall. But she isn’t satisfied. Sanchez will continue to push for the repairs to her apartment and to have her remaining balance cleared. “We need to fight for our rights,” she said.

Last edited on Wed, 2011-08-10 16:08