At the Landlord’s Mercy

By Jheanel Walters

Tenants appeal to possible landlords to buy the building, hoping for some relief from their current situations. Photo by Jheanel Walters
Tenants appeal to possible landlords to buy the building, hoping for some relief from their current situations.
Photo by Jheanel Walters

When the tenants of three Washington Heights’ apartment buildings saw the “turn-off service” letter from Con Edison on Jan. 28, they ignored it. Then, on Feb. 12, the power was shut down for two weeks, leaving them cold and in the dark in the middle of winter.

“There was no light, no heater and the temperature dropped to 0 degrees; it was freezing,” said Joyse Ribera, the daughter of Miriam Ribera, a tenant.

The story is not uncommon in New York. Each year, neglectful landlords shirk their responsibilities and thousands of tenants are left without electricity, heat or hot water or reside in a building in a state of disrepair.

By law, landlords are required to ensure that heat is provided  from Oct. 1 to May 3. However, an average of 200,000 heat-related complaints is made to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development each year, which spends more than $5 million annually on emergency repairs.

Joining other elected city officials in March to put pressure on the landlord of the three Washington Heights’ buildings, state Senator Adriano Espaillat said: “Law-abiding tenants are shivering in the dark because their landlord won’t pay his bills. Edward Juarez’s negligence has placed his tenants’ lives in jeopardy and racked up over $100,000 in unpaid taxes, fines and health and safety violations. If he has any sense of decency, Juarez needs to give his tenants their lives back or sell these buildings to someone that will.”

Residents of 558, 560 and 562 W. 183rd Street say the buildings’ problems include staircases falling apart,  holes in the floor; tiles missing, the ceiling tearing under the pressure of water leaks and walls falling down. Some tenants have duct-taped the walls and ceilings, while one tried nailing the wall in place and putting a barrel against it.

Juarez, who also goes by Hugo Juarez, responded in an interview:  “It is not true. Unfortunately there are a lot of squatters in these buildings and do not pay rent. They are nice people, but they are ignorant of the law and the system protects them. The way that S.R.O. is set up, only one person should live there and if people with homes in their own country are taking advantage of the system and not paying what they’re supposed to, then it is impossible to maintain the buildings.”

S.R.O.’s are single room occupancies – apartment buildings in which each unit is one room and supposed to have no more than two tenants.

Apartments are left in states of disrepair. Photo by Jheanel Walters
Apartments are left in states of disrepair.
Photo by Jheanel Walters

Joyse Ribera, who before she married lived in building 562 with her mother, said the problem has existed since she was a child. Her mother, who has lived there for almost 28 years, said the previous owner, Enrique Bustamante, did repairs in a timely fashion. Then in 1997, after Juarez took ownership of the buildings, the problems started, she said. Since then, tenants have mostly kept things in working order themselves or settled for alternatives, including keeping receipts of all rent paid.

The bathroom on the first floor of 562 was out of service for two years, forcing tenants on that floor to walk up to the second floor bathroom. Since tenants live in single rooms and share one or two bathrooms on each floor, this became a problem for one woman in particular,  who was sick and had to resort to using plastic containers in her room until the city made repairs earlier this year.

“They call the super, yes, but the problem is the super has to follow the boss’ instruction. If he doesn’t pay the money, then it can’t be fixed,” said Joyse Ribera, pointing to the bucket hanging under the leaking ceiling pipe in the hallway.  “It’s falling apart. All the buildings are falling apart.”

Public records on the department’s website show a total of 160 open violations on the buildings’ 27 apartments, an average of six violations per unit. Fines of $38,445 have been assessed, and could become a tax lien if not resolved soon.

At least 24 of the violations were class C, suggesting immediate danger, including inadequate fire exits, rodents, lead-based paint and lack of heat, hot water, electricity or gas. An owner has 24 hours to correct a C violation and five days to certify the correction to remove the violation.

Department policies state that if the owner fails to comply with emergency C violations,  corrective action will be initiated through its Emergency Repair Program. According to a department news release, the agency has spent more than $15,728 fixing what they can, and even installing window protectors in units where children reside. The department then bills the landlord; repayment rarely comes quickly.

Like Ribera’s mother, most tenants have been living in the buildings for almost 30 years and complain that Juarez never fixes anything. They began taking him to court in 2001 and nothing has changed, they say, despite the numerous court orders he has received.

Juana Monegro said her refrigerator stopped working more than six years ago. Despite many complains and requests, nothing has been done, and she has spent the last six years using her neighbors’ extra refrigerator, she said. But now they need it returned.  She also has problems with her stove.

Juliet Morris of the department said it had also taken over the Con Edison bill for now. “On average, H.P.D. pays $1,000 per month. H.P.D. will continue to do so until a time comes when the tenants can establish an account of their own.”

The city also attempted to fix the ceiling and the floor in the basement apartment of 558 W. 183rd St., but according to Magnolia Diaz, the kitchen ceiling persistently leaks.

Water from shared bathrooms leaks from upper floors to apartments below. Photo by Jheanel Walters
Water from shared bathrooms leaks from upper floors to apartments below.
Photo by Jheanel Walters

“The bathroom upstairs is right above our kitchen, so our ceiling leaks,” said Diaz, “They have to fix the whole thing. They need to.”

The neighbors upstairs have the same problem. One family on the first floor complained that the bathroom on the second floor leaks on their dining table and has destroyed two of them.  Because the second floor has two bathrooms, residents try to avoid the one that leaks. But the third-floor bathroom also leaks onto the second floor, they say.

Gesturing to her mother, who has been living in the apartment for 45 years, Diaz said she did her own repairs when necessary. “She pays for stuff too because when the super says he’ll come back to fix anything, he never does,” she said.

In addition to the department’s own case against Juarez, the tenants have also filed individual cases against him in housing court.

With the help of the S.R.O. Law Project at Goddard Riverside Community Center, the tenants obtained a default judgment ordering repairs when Juarez failed to show in court on Feb. 28. The trial resumed on Mar. 21 and continued with the latest hearing on June 12,  when tenants gave testimony.

Miriam Ribera, the president of the newly formed Tenants Association, argued that everything that was happening was designed to drive tenants out so Juarez could sell the building for more. She said he also wrote conflicting numbers on the mailboxes and changed a few addresses at the post office. When she tried changing it herself, the post office told her the landlord had to do it, but he never did, so she made her own sign.

That wasn’t the only sign she made. Taking matters into their own hands, Miriam and other tenants, have placed signs in their windows saying “Good tenants live here,” “Rent stabilized SRO occupants live here” and “Responsible landlords wanted.”

Showing receipts, papers and proofs of requests for repairs, she said the first time she took Juarez to court was 2001. “I win every time. But the system is broken,” Miriam Ribera said in Spanish.

All three buildings have also been placed in the department’s Proactive Preservation Initiative, one of the city’s approaches to identifying and addressing multiple-dwelling buildings in deteriorating physical condition. The aim is to hold owners accountable for restoring the properties before their conditions endanger the health and safety of residents.

Morris said the department’s Proactive Enforcement Bureau inspections resulted in the removal of 71 violations and the issuance of 53 new violations.

Luis Henriquez Carrero, the SRO Law Project attorney representing the tenants, explained that after two of the cases were dismissed on a technicality, the three cases were condensed to one.

“Usually a HP action is filed and the landlord knows he doesn’t have a case, so he enters the consent; this one didn’t,” said Carrero.

To avoid paying Consolidated Edison electric bills, Juarez illegally installed individual meters for each apartment. Photo by Jheanel Walters
To avoid paying Consolidated Edison electric bills, Juarez illegally installed individual meters for each apartment.
Photo by Jheanel Walters

Elected city officials gathered on March 1, three weeks after tenants had to endure the cold and rely on candles for light, to persuade the landlord to sell his buildings. He owns seven buildings in the area, all with violations, but not as severe as the three involved in housing court. According to the Department of Finance’s website, five of these buildings have a contract of sale with Kalico Group,  which means these tenants might get a new landlord soon.

“The negligent and dirty tactics used by Mr. Juarez have no place in Washington Heights, nor anywhere else in New York City,” said City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez in March. “Yet too often we see them used to kick vulnerable residents out of their buildings. We are here today to put an end to this ill treatment and hold Mr. Juarez accountable for his negligence. These tenants deserve a landlord who follows the law and is respectful of their legal rights. Mr. Juarez’s long record of preying on immigrants must be stopped.”

Juarez is hardly the only offender. “It’s a constant theme with this landlord and many other landlords,” said Russell Murphy, Director of Media and Communications for of Councilman Rodriguez. “It is not an isolated problem.”

In 2012, nearly 12,000 housing court cases were filed in New York State; 6,751 by tenants, 4,660 filed by the Department of Housing and Preservation and 358 by landlords. The figure was higher in 2011, with 12,976 cases, and even higher in 2009 when 13, 657 cases were filed.

Data is collected from various sources, including housing code violations and information from local elected officials, community groups and advocates to identify distressed buildings that are actively declining and have the highest likelihood of becoming a health hazard. Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, a candidate for mayor, posts a “Worst Landlords Watch List.”

Eli Abbot of College Management is was formerly No. 1 on the list. The tenants in the buildings he owned at 1259, 1265 and 1269 College Avenue in the Bronx endured lack of heat or hot water, toxic mold, chronic leaks and infestations. The landlord paid more than $14,000 in civil penalties in 2012, and his buildings were placed in P.P.I. program.

In January, tenants celebrated the sale of the buildings to Banana Kelly and Wavecrest Management after officials and H.P.D. raised their voices against Abbot’s failure to maintain habitation standards. The new owners are known for rehabilitating dilapidated buildings around the city.

Juarez has been in legal trouble before. When Gov. Andrew Cuomo was state Attorney General, Juarez was accused of using his two nonprofit organizations for operating illegal immigrant services and defrauding immigrants by overcharging them for services that were never delivered.

Tenants placed a sign in the lobby of the building as a reminder of when they will return to court. Photo by Jheanel Walters
Tenants placed a sign in the lobby of the building as a reminder of when they will return to court.
Photo by Jheanel Walters

The case continued and on May 31, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that both organizations would be shutting down. The agreement also states that remaining assets of approximately $2 million to $3 million be used as restitution for the defrauded immigrants, and Juarez is prohibited from participating in any immigration legal services or organizations that solicit charitable contributions.