In the room where Luis Correa’s six children sleep, black mold creeps along the walls, and frigid air blows in through broken windows. Throughout the house, the linoleum floors buckle under the weight of footsteps. Exposed electrical wires in the living room spark if the air gets too damp. The stove doesn’t work. Neither does the heat, hot water, or bathtub drain. Last winter, Correa, 33, slept in his coat for two weeks when his apartment got so cold that the ceilings cracked and icicles hung over his bed.
“It’s horrible. I had to come back to this,” Correa said, about being raised in the building and returning to it after being laid off in Florida last year. “Before my children had freedom, grass, now this…it’s not fair to them.”
Correa’s building at 1640 University Ave., and the adjoining one, 1636 University Ave., were put on the city’s Alternative Enforcement Program in November, which pressures landlords of the city’s 200 worst buildings to address housing code violations. They are among the six Bronx buildings Hunter Property Management real estate investor Sam Suzuki purchased in May for $13 million.
In a desperate attempt to draw attention to the buildings’ 3,000 violations, members of Urban Homestead Association Board, a not-for-profit organizing group, met with angry tenants on Nov. 19 to protest outside Dime Savings Bank on Turnbull Avenue in Soundview, where the buildings’ mortgage is held. The protesters carried signs that showed some of worst violations, including collapsing ceilings, busted windows, and front doors with no locks.
“We are all fighting for security. There’s no lock in here at all. Anyone can walk in,” said tenant Alfredo Gonzalez, who lives at 1585 E. 172nd Street, another Hunter Property Management building. “We’re humans and we pay rent and we have a right to services.”
Many of the protestors claim that the landlord is attempting to force them out in order to bring in new tenants and charge higher rates. Some tenants have received eviction notices after withholding rent in an attempt to force Suzuki to do repairs.
The six buildings have had a history of ownership problems – the previous landlord, Ocelot Capital Group, a private equity company notorious for mismanagement, abandoned them last year.
Kerri White, senior organizer at the UHAB, said that her organization is working with these tenants to force bank intervention to protect them from a negligent landlord. White says that these buildings are in danger of going into foreclosure.
“When you look at the conditions in the buildings, you can’t help but be moved by it because it’s criminal,” White said. “It’s absolutely criminal.”
Predatory management practices have been increasing in New York since the 1990’s, said Benjamin Dulchin, the executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, an affordable housing advocacy group.
“Even though the building may be in bad condition, there are landlords who are willing to speculate,” Dulchin said. “They buy the building, bring the rent up.”
The rents cannot support the buildings’ mortgage because the amount Sam Suzuki paid was too high, according to Urban Homestead.
Suzuki says he bought the properties at market value. The tenants who received eviction notices haven’t paid rent in years, he said, and the protests will not stop them from being evicted.
Suzuki acknowledged that he has not fixed all of the violations that incurred under previous management. “You can’t fix 3,000 violations in one day,” he said.
Dina Levy, UHAB’s policy director, said that Sukuki’s response to the tenants organizing and withholding rent is unusually aggressive, and they have encouraged renters to take him to court.
“We advise them to put rent into an escrow account,” Levy said. “Honestly, they shouldn’t have to pay because they’re not getting any services.”
“I think UHAB is a bunch of communists,” he said. “They have a huge lawsuit coming their way.”