Eviction by Water Torture

Thursday, January 18, 2018
Steven Wishnia
Village Voice

On the night of January 7, as temperatures around the city plummeted to 6 degrees, a pipe burst in the hallway at 1231 Broadway in Brooklyn, cutting off the cold water supply to Gabriel Martinez’s second-floor apartment.

Nine days later, Martinez stood on the sidewalk in front of the Bushwick building, wearing a heavy sweatshirt and a gray-striped black wool hat, and said it still hasn’t been fixed. The problem, he and other residents said, are the building’s absentee landlords, who they and tenant advocates charge are refusing to make repairs in hopes of driving out low-income tenants in the fast-gentrifying neighborhood.

A four-story, six-apartment building with a furniture store on the ground floor and tan paint flaking off the Corinthian columns that flank its upstairs windows, 1231 Broadway has had chronic problems with heat and hot water for years, tenants say. “Every winter it’s the same thing,” said Martinez, a stocky 30-year-old assistant electrician from Mexico City who’s lived in the building for five years and pays $1,600 a month for a two-room apartment. “Most of the time, it’s cold.” The building typically gets two or three hours of heat a day, he said.

“¡Tanto frio!” — it’s so cold — said Veronica Damian, 35, a thick black parka protecting her due-in-a-week baby. There’s no heat, her husband, Julio Merino, 34, said in Spanish through an interpreter, and the hot water is a weak trickle.

The couple, immigrants from Mexico’s Oaxaca state, have lived in the building since 2009 and pay $1,550 a month for a three-room apartment. When they’ve complained about the lack of heat, they said, their landlords have threatened to call immigration. Last winter, Damian said, one of them told her, “I’ll call immigration if you don’t leave,” and turned off the hot water in their apartment. When she objected, he raised his hand as if to slap her, but Merino threatened to hit him back if he touched her.

On January 13, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development issued three class C violations, which are deemed “immediately hazardous” and are supposed to be corrected within 24 hours, for the lack of cold water in Martinez’s apartment — one each for the kitchen sink, toilet, and bathtub. HPD gave the owners until January 29 to certify they’d fixed the problem.

The tenants’ lawyers, from Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, would rather have HPD fix the pipes and the heating system through its Emergency Repair Program, for which the landlord would be billed — doing so is “infinitely faster” than trying to get a Housing Court judge to order repairs, explains the organization’s deputy program director, Gregory Louis. They’ve also filed complaints with the city New York City Commission on Human Rights, on the grounds that the lack of basic services and harassment of tenants, all of whom are Spanish-speaking, represent discrimination against Latinos and immigrants.

Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A legal advocate Kevin Worthington describes the owners, brothers Hanny Chum Chang and Chen Ting Chang, as “trying to keep under the radar.” (Property records available at Property Shark list the owners as Chiang Kao Chang and Chen Ting Chang.) They have not registered the building with the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal, so it’s not covered by rent stabilization — although it should be, as a building of six or more units built before 1974 — and it was last registered with HPD in 2001, when it had a previous owner. HPD has issued four violations for failure to register in the last three years, most recently in November.

The Voice was unable to contact the owners: The phone number listed for Chiang Kao Chang at Property Shark was not in service.

The problem is not one of a marginal owner or an old-school slumlord trying to milk a few more winters out of an aging boiler, says Shekar Krishnan, director of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A’s Preserving Affordable Housing Program. “It’s absolutely a pattern of harassment,” he says. “This is a tactic of forcing tenants out and replacing them with others who can pay higher rents.”

“This is not new,” Boris Santos, a staffer for City Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, told a rally of about 30 people outside the building on Tuesday, his remarks interrupted by a J train thundering overhead. The neighborhood, on the border of Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, has been experiencing “heavy waves of gentrification,” he said.

This stretch of Broadway, southeast of where the J and M subway lines divide at Myrtle Avenue, was the scene of massive looting during the 1977 blackout, and property records indicate that 1231 Broadway was likely abandoned for several years in the 1970s and early 1980s. The area is now in a secondary phase of gentrification: New luxury buildings are infiltrating among the weathered-brick tenements, and the low-budget music venues that signified the previous hipster phase have been shuttered or upscaled.

The block is also included in a plan to rezone all of Bushwick that the city has been developing over the past five years, with aid from councilmembers Reynoso and Rafael Espinal and some input from community residents. The plan would likely allow denser development on commercial avenues like Broadway while limiting the height of buildings on residential side streets — which would make a small building like 1231 Broadway a prime candidate to be torn down for a larger one.

n November, New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman announced a settlement in which Graham and Greg Jones, owners of three buildings less than three blocks away, agreed to pay $132,000 for aggressively pushing buyouts on tenants. The two bought the buildings, at 1075 Greene Avenue, 920 Bushwick Avenue, and 946 Bushwick Avenue, in 2016, and within a year, 33 of the 105 tenants had either taken buyouts or moved out for other reasons. The Joneses now advertise renovated apartments for $2,769 to $4,200. The $132,000 fine — $4,000 per vacated apartment, or about two or three months’ worth of rent increases — will go to a city fund for affordable housing.

Julio Merino, a restaurant-kitchen worker with a close-trimmed goatee, said one of the owners once accused him of being a drug addict. “The landlord has a history of always harassing people in the building,” he added. “That’s the way he manages it.” And in a heavily immigrant neighborhood, threats to call immigration carry weight. People have fear, he said in Spanish: “They don’t open the door for anyone.”

“It’s no accident that this group of people is being treated this way,” says Louis.

The city’s weak housing code enforcement exacerbates the problem, the tenants’ lawyers say. “The landlord is getting away with it in a legal system that doesn’t address emergencies very well,” says Worthington.

The city does respond to complaints, says Louis, but it seems as if getting it to act requires “efforts to accentuate the need.”

HPD performed a building-wide inspection of 1231 Broadway on Wednesday, an agency spokesperson told the Voice. “If the building owner fails to correct immediately hazardous ‘C’ class violations, HPD’s Emergency Repair Program will take the appropriate action,” they said. “HPD is also open to pursing legal action against owners to enforce compliance with the housing quality standards.”

The building already had 62 open violations, according to HPD records posted online, with half issued since December 7. The 18 open C violations include the three for the lack of cold water in Martinez’s apartment, a no-hot-water complaint from the winter of 2016, several for an illegal lock on the building’s front door, and three for the boiler room being locked, the first from December 2016. Other violations include mold, mice, roaches, and broken plaster and tiles.

“HPD is continuing efforts for owner outreach,” the spokesperson added, noting the landlords’ failure to register the property. Failure to register brings a fine of $250 to $500, and can also prevent a landlord from evicting tenants for not paying rent.

Tenants at 1231 Broadway phoned in complaints that the heat was off on December 9, December 27–28, January 1–2, January 7, and January 16, when they also said there was no hot water. Martinez reported the broken pipe January 8, and complained about the lack of cold water again on January 11.

The city has received more than 61,000 separate complaints about lack of heat since October 1, according to HPD. The agency says its 217 inspectors have attempted more than 63,000 inspections for lack of heat or hot water, and more than 250,000 overall. Last winter, it received more than 109,000 separate complaints, tried to inspect about 121,000 buildings and apartments, and issued 3,449 heat and 5,659 hot water violations. It charged landlords $1.8 million for heat-related emergency repairs, and collected a similar amount in civil penalties from 3,544 heat-related lawsuits.Advocates want to see a tougher crackdown. “It’s not about waiting for the city of New York to do its job,” Imani Henry of Equality for Flatbush told the Tuesday rally. “We have to force de Blasio to arrest these landlords.”

“We’re talking no heat in the middle of winter,” says Krishnan, with only a “belated response” from HPD. “The landlord should be fined and held in contempt.”

“This is criminal behavior,” says Louis. “A priority has to be made.” It’s time, he suggests, to apply “broken windows” policing to “actual broken windows.”

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