Bushwick residents sue landlord over negligent living conditions
Working-class tenants are taking their landlord to court over uninhabitable living conditions at a four-story building in Bushwick.
Five tenant families at 299 Troutman St. contend that they have been enduring decades of negligent repairs and shoddy building work, including leaky roofs and rotted walls, and now are suing their landlord to force immediate repairs.
Aided by Mobilization for Justice, Inc., the families have filed a complaint in which they ask Brooklyn’s Housing Court to appoint a new administrator to manage their building in an effort to bring their broken-down units up to code and make emergency repairs.
The application is part of a Housing Quality Enforcement Program under the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, in which extremely distressed or at-risk privately-owned residential buildings are temporarily taken over in a bid to improve health and quality of life issues of residents.
“The ultimate relief you can have is … the [Housing] Court appoints an administrator to take the rent roles, manage the building, and take loans out against the landlord to do the actual repairs that are necessary in this case,” said Araina Marmora, senior staff attorney for Mobilization for Justice, Inc.
If the tenants succeed in their filing, an administrator is appointed and HPD will provide loans to make emergency repairs on the building. The loans in turn will go back onto the property as a lien to be paid back by the building’s landlord.
“It’s one of the statutes on the books that we use in the most severe cases. The standard is ‘conditions threatening the life, health or safety of the tenants that have existed for more than five days,’” added Marmora.
HPD conducted a feasibility study back in April to determine the needs of the Troutman Street property. The results included the need for a new roof, heating system, water system and window replacements, among other major renovations.
Claims of uninhabitable conditions
Hector and Maria Cordero are tired of the slow and steady waterfall they have to deal with when entering their bathroom on a daily basis. The couple, who have been tenants at 299 Troutman for more than 20 years, say the leaking has been non-stop for the last several months.
Hector Cordero says the water is just another problem in a slew of issues with the building, which has faced serious consequences after a 2008 fire that took out four units on the top floors.
“Since then, they have tried to paint over the walls and make them look nice, but they are rotted. Really, ever since then, we have been suffering,” he said.
The residual damage on the top floor of the building still remains more than a decade later. The four units have been boarded up and vacant over the last 11 years, with no sign of change.
Assemblymember Maritza Davila, who started her political career as a tenant organizer and represents the area at the state level, promised to use the full power of the newly passed tenant laws to ensure longtime residents remain in their homes.
The state legislature passed historic rent reform legislation in June aimed at increasing tenant protections and closing loopholes landlords use to increase rent rates. One of the most controversial bills in the package included a major change to the major capital improvement program, which previously allowed landlords to raise rents up to 6 percent in order to cancel out the costs of major repairs. The limit is now set at 2 percent.
“We are here to protect the tenants,” said Davila. “We are going to implement these laws, but we are also not going to allow these landlords to sit back and not make these repairs.”
The building, though it has eight units, has only has five tenant families remaining, many of which are older, Latino and live on small incomes. The need for repairs is about more than quality of life for the residents, many of whom can not afford the rising rents in the area.
Hector and Maria Cordero currently pay just a little over $500 a month for their two-bedroom, one-bath apartment. Hector works at a local bodega while Maria makes a living as a domestic worker. Both noted that living where they are is there only option for affordable housing.
“The rising rents have killed people in this community. We can’t afford to go anywhere else,” said Maria Cordero.
The current owners of the building are Xing Liang Shen and Irene Zhang, who first gained control of the property in 2014, according to the lawyers representing the tenants. The duo are expected in housing court on Thursday, where they will face their tenants.