Tenants take on El Barrio landlord

June 9, 2005

'We are tired of being ignored," said Paula Serrano, a 26-year-old Mexican mother of three, who lives in El Barrio.

She was voicing the feelings of the residents in hers and two other buildings also located in El Barrio, and owned by the same landlord, Steve Kessner, of R.E. Management.

Serrano, a house cleaner, said they were not going to endure the landlord's negligence and disrespect anymore.

That much became clear on May 12, when more than 100 people took part in a protest outside R.E. Management offices at 1790 Third Ave. It was organized by the Movement for Justice in El Barrio, a tenant organization born out of the residents' frustration with the landlord's lack of response to their legitimate complaints.

The protesters were not asking for much, just for the multitude of problems - from lack of hot water and leaking ceilings to mice and roach infestation - they have had to live with for months, even years, to be fixed.

"We pay rent, we have families," said Serrano, who has been a Kessner tenant for six years. "But there is a hole in my bathroom, the wash basin is all rusty, the floor in the living room is a disaster, the windows are broken - and they will not make any repairs."

Víctor Caletre, who has lived in another Kessner building in El Barrio for four years, is a leader of the tenants' movement.

"I have been without hot water for five weeks," he said. "But they do nothing. We are not going to be silent anymore."

And why should they? The tenants - the majority of them immigrants - are hardworking people who pay steep rents. Serrano, for example, pays $855.74 every month and Caletre $1,310.43 monthly.

The residents of the buildings located at 312 and 328 E. 106th St. (where Serrano lives) and 215 E. 117th St. (Caletre's residence) in East Harlem, know their rights. And they are taking Kessner to housing court. He will have to appear on June 21.

Kessner, though, affirms that the real problem is overcrowding. He has said that many times he rents a place to two people and then they rent it to 18 more. And that, he stated, is what causes deterioration.

He has also said that he is suing the tenants to stop overcrowding, although Juan Haro, of the Movement for Justice, believes it isn't true.

"It is just an attempt to intimidate us," he said. "Kessner owns dozens of buildings in El Barrio and they have more than 550 violations, including 40 of the most serious C violations."

Some tenants also report being harassed.

"Hey, doc, I hear you like to complain about me to the landlord ..." read an anonymous letter dropped in the box of tenant Becca Shansky. "You don't want to start something you can't finish, so don't p--- me off."

Since the court papers were served, residents claim, Kessner's employees have barged into their homes to take pictures.

It happened to Serrano. She was just finishing cooking a batch of tamales when a building staff member burst into her kitchen and took pictures of her stove.

"He said I was cochina [dirty]," Serrano said. "And that I didn't deserve to have the stove repaired."

Caletre, who has a history of fighting Kessner, said he is also being harassed. Three years ago he took Kessner to court because of poor conditions in his apartment - and won.

Now, suddenly, a week ago, Kessner filed a case against him in Civil Court alleging that Caletre should pay the legal fees incurred in the three-year-old case. Obviously, the landlord is playing hardball.

"No matter what they do," Serrano said. "We are going to win this fight because we are right."

Last edited on Sat, 2011-06-25 02:43