When your landlord is the nabe's Grinch

Original at http://www.nydailynews.com/news/col/story/374938p-318578c.html.

December 14, 2005

Christmas in El Barrio ... For Micaela Ortega and her 3-month-old daughter, condemned by their landlord to shiver with cold in their own home, it is not going to be a season of warm and loving feelings.

"Last year it was the same thing," the shy Mexican woman said, while her little daughter cried in the background. "This year, we have been covering the baby with blankets and we bought two electric heaters, but they are not enough."

Ortega, 28, has lived for three years at 215 E. 117th St., a building owned by Steve Kessner. She said yesterday that "they" were working to fix the building's problems.

"That's because we have protested so much," she said. "I hope they do it quickly. We can't take the cold any longer."

That, though, is doubtful. Only two people have been showing up to work on the boiler, and they do not come every day. This after Kessner's promise to the tenants that the hot water and heat situation would be taken care of before winter.

"One more broken promise," said Víctor Caletre, also a Kessner tenant, with a shrug.

Abusive landlords and freezing apartments with no heat or hot water are nothing new in El Barrio. East Harlem residents know from years of experience that they must expect the worst from building owners.

What is new is that they are not willing to suffer in silence any longer. Which is why dozens of families who refuse to spend another Christmas without heat or hot water braved frigid temperatures last night to protest against Kessner and Ivan Sun, two of the worst El Barrio landlords.

"They are competing to see who is the No. 1 Scrooge," said Caletre, 37, who pays - listen to this - $1,310 monthly rent in the apartment he shares with two brothers and a cousin.

The Mexican immigrant - one of the leaders of the Movement for Justice in El Barrio, a group that is organizing East Harlem residents to fight for humane and healthy living conditions - also complains about the city's lack of action.

"We call 311 and inform them of the situation, but they do absolutely nothing," Caletre said.

This year, the organization announced the Campaña Contra Hogares Helados (Campaign Against Freezing Homes) to combat the chronic shortage of heat and hot water that El Barrio residents endure every year.

Besides educating tenants about their rights, the campaign will establish a heat and hot water emergency action line. The hotline will connect residents of El Barrio to a network of members and tenants who are ready to take on abusive landlords and, if necessary, even go after the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

"The buck must stop somewhere," said Juan Haro, also a leader of the tenants' movement. He says that Sun "has no shame about the service he provides" and tried to remove him by force from the building Sun owns to prevent him from attending a tenant association meeting.

Even worse, Sun allegedly punched Eunice Martínez in the face when she tried to protect Haro. She is the building's tenants' leader.

Sun "was arrested and has to appear in court soon," Haro said. "He was trying to curtail the tenants' right to organize, and we won't go for it."

Residents are demanding nothing more than the basic services Kessner and Sun are getting paid to provide.

And they are determined to do whatever it takes for this Christmas to be a warm one in El Barrio. It is not too much to ask.

Last edited on Sat, 2011-06-25 03:44