The community and ethnic press often paint a bleak outlook when it comes to housing in New York City, with longtime residents and marginalized populations — including immigrants, people of color and the working class — fighting landlords to maintain reasonable rent prices or even just for decent living conditions.
The Lo-Down and the Manhattan Times published articles on tenants standing up to antagonistic landlords. The two cases, one of close-knit residents banding together and the other of a mother evicted after organizing fellow tenants, share details all too familiar to the pages of this media sector. These stories tell of a person or community coming together with the help of advocate groups to fight a landlord as they endure poor living conditions, increased rent and threats of change to the neighborhood.
The Lo-Down‘s Joey Rearick takes us to Chinatown where real estate investor Fei Wang bought 11 Allen in February 2011. Hellen Choong, who has lived in the neighborhood for over 20 years, recalls one of his first orders of business. “Immediately he told us, ‘I’m the new landlord. How much are you renting this room for? So we told him. And he said, ‘Oh, you’re renting for 400? No!’ He just banged the table: ‘No!’” Wang did not only demand increased rent, but also questioned whether tenants can live in the building.
Before the building changed hands, tenants paid affordable rents according to written and verbal agreements rather than formal leases. After purchasing the five-story building for $2.3 million, Wang clearly hoped his investment would begin paying greater dividends. According to tenants, he insisted that rents increase by as much as 100 percent immediately, telling them they could leave if they were unable to afford the new rate. But soon after, he began disputing the legality of tenants’ residence in the building at all: 11 Allen is technically zoned as a commercial building, not for residential use.
But the resulting case in housing court has rallied the families living in 11 Allen to oppose their eviction. Tenants say they are fighting to preserve a small but close-knit community, in a building in which neighbors feel a special kinship. “Everybody in the building, we’re all friends,” said Frank Liu through a translator provided by an advocacy organization.“He’s lived in the building for 8 years with his wife, who moved in 16 years ago. “Every Saturday night, some of us get together and have a meal. It’s really fun and welcoming.”
CAAAV stepped in to help. According to its website, the organization “works to build grassroots community power across diverse poor and working class Asian immigrant and refugee communities in New York City.” Their involvement led to the help of the Urban Justice Center, which represents tenants in court pro-bono. Shafaq Islam, who represents the tenants, disputes the claim that the building stands in a commercial zone.
He says the argument that the building must be used for commercial purposes blatantly ignores its history. Built before 1974, used for decades as residential property, and composed of more than six units, 11 Allen meets the established criteria for rent stabilized housing, he asserted.
Esther Wang, project director for CAAAV’s Chinatown Tenants Union, said the tenants’ struggling to remain in their homes are fighting against a familiar trend: Chinatown and the Lower East Side’s continuing gentrification.
CAAAV and tenants of 11 Allen want to settle the case out of court “so that they can negotiate for the building to become permanent affordable housing in a neighborhood where rents are rising fast.”
A similar case is found in Northern Manhattan. Maria Montealegre, flower seller and mother of four, found her family’s belongings on the sidewalk at 1975 Amsterdam Ave. on Aug. 13. According to reporter Robin Elisabeth Kilmer of the Manhattan Times, the eviction came as a result of Montealegre speaking out against her landord, Monshe Samhova, for the living conditions she and fellow residents put up with at their building on 158th St.
While Montealegre lacked heat in the winter, there was plenty of water leaking from the toilet, the kitchen sink and the ceiling. If the family wanted hot water, they boiled it in a pot. The walls were peeling and mottled with mold.
A cracked tile above the bathtub was used as a thoroughfare for rats as they came into apartment; they left their feces in the bathtub on their way out.
“The smell was terrible,” she recalled, with a shudder.
At the urging of the Mirabal Sisters [Cultural and Community Center], Montealegre tried to organize other tenants in the building. She knew she wasn’t the only one with so many problems.
Her efforts at rallying tenants against the landlord did not do her any favors. Instead, Samhova took her to court before throwing her family out.
Last August, Samhova attacked Montealegre and earned himself a restraining order that prohibited him from entering his own building.
Montealegre says she continued to pay her rent in cash, as she and the other tenants had been doing all along, though Samhova never gave receipts to corroborate payment.
Despite Samhova’s record, a housing court judge ruled in his favor when he took her to court for allegedly failing to pay rent.
Without receipts, she could not prove that she had, and no one from the building testified in her favor for fear of repercussion.
“The majority would prefer to keep their apartment so they don’t have to end up in the street like me,” said Montealegre. “Everyone complained, but they should have done it publicly.”
Not only did Montealegre lose her apartment, but she said her name had been blacklisted, making it difficult to find a new one.
Kilmer adds that in the list of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s worst landlords in Manhattan — there are lists for each borough, as well as for the city overall — all of the top 10 names come from buildings above 120th St., “exhibiting trends that indicate disproportionately high levels of neglect in lower-income neighborhoods.”
Meanwhile, for public housing residents, the “landlord” they’re fighting is an entire government department. A Daily News series that went after the New York City Housing Authority’s spending efforts drew the attention of politicians, lawmakers and advocates who called for an overhaul of the largest public housing system in the country. Curtis Stephen of City Limits writes that public housing advocates want reforms that give the approximately 400,000 low-income residents of subsidized housing more power to challenge the department.