Crown Heights

Crown Heights tenants sue one of city’s ‘worst landlords’ for $2 million

January 10, 2020 Meaghan McGoldrick
Tenants rally in front of Brooklyn Housing Court. Photo by Ignacio Foster via UHAB.
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A group of Crown Heights tenants is fighting back against their landlord, who has been deemed one of the city’s “worst landlords” by the public advocate.

Twenty-two rent-stabilized tenants living at 1074 Eastern Parkway are suing the building’s owners for an estimated $2 million in illegal rent overcharges since 2002, Brooklyn Legal Services’ Tenants Rights Coalition announced Thursday.

The suit, filed in New York Supreme Court on Wednesday, alleges that property owner Rubin Dukler and Iris Holdings Group, the management company, have continuously overcharged tenants despite a state-issued hold on any rent increases until hazardous and unsanitary building conditions were fixed.

New York State Homes and Community Renewal, the state agency that regulates affordable housing, imposed the rent freeze in 2002, and it is still in effect. Meanwhile, tenants say, Dukler and the management group have continued to collect rent increases through lease renewals, overcharging some tenants more than $900 above their legal regulated rent on a monthly basis.

“We’re taking our landlord to court because of the mind games they have been playing on us to push us out of the building, and because we have a right to live in our homes without being tricked out of our money,” said Anita Foxe, who has lived in the Eastern Parkway building for more than 18 years.

When contacted for comment, Dukler said he sold the building in question, though as of Thursday, no sale was recorded on the city’s Finance Department website. He had no further comment on the suit. A representative of Iris Holdings Group also declined to comment.

Dukler was named the 17th worst landlord in the city in 2008 by former Public Advocate Letitia James. Her office found 531 Department of Housing Preservation and Development violations and 45 Department of Buildings violations for four of Dukler’s properties. While he’s since dropped to number 86 on an updated list of bad landlords for 2019, the Crown Heights proprietor still has an average of 344 open HPD violations for three properties.

According to the lawsuit, tenants are owed an estimated $2 million over the last six years — the legal limit on how far back tenants can seek damages for overcharges. Brooklyn Legal Services says tenants have been overcharged since the freeze first hit in 2002.

“I am a single mother and my landlords have been draining my pocket for years and swindling me out of funds I desperately need to support my daughter,” said tenant Tabita Sylvestor in a statement.

Sylvestor, a tenant of more than eight years, says she was overcharged rent and had an eviction case opened against her for nonpayment. “We don’t have reliable heat and hot water in the building, but Iris Holdings Group breaks the law and charges us hundreds of dollars more than they are allowed every month. They don’t care about us,” she said.

The suit further alleges that Dukler defrauded HCR by registering fake tenants and false rent amounts with the agency in attempt to collect more rent — a fraud of “vacancy bonuses” tenants say Iris Holdings Group was both aware of and benefiting from.

“Iris Holdings Group and Dukler broke the law in order to profit wildly from low-income black and brown NYC families — which is precisely why tenants fought for and won rent reforms last year that closed loopholes incentivizing landlords to profit from low-income tenants,” Thomas Chew, a staff attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services, said in a statement. “The burden of enforcing the rent-stabilization law shouldn’t fall solely on tenants, but too often it does.”

This isn’t the first time the group has tried to take action against Dukler and Iris Holdings Group.

Almost a year ago, 18 tenants of rent-stabilized units at 1074 Eastern Parkway and a trio of other Crown Heights buildings owned by Dukler sought a court order from Brooklyn Housing Court, which they hoped would force management to fix the violation-ridden buildings and stop what they alleged was tenant harassment.

Outside the courthouse, the tenants rallied against conditions like inadequate heat and hot water during the winter, mold, water leaks, mice and roaches, missing window guards, uncapped radiator valves and broken front doors and intercoms.

Viola Bivins, a longtime tenant of 1074 Eastern Parkway, told the Brooklyn Eagle at the time that her building was long overdue for repairs.

“We’ve been going after [Dukler] for a long, long time,” she said. “It needs repairs to the bathroom, the kitchen floor, the building itself; there is an infestation of roaches and mice, and he hasn’t done anything. But he comes for his rent every month.”

Bivins, who’s lived in the building for nearly four decades, is also a plaintiff in the new lawsuit.

“It’s time for Iris Holdings Group to end the lies and stop cheating tenants out of their money,” she said in a statement Thursday. “They treat us like we’re not human, like we don’t deserve a safe, clean home. Then they turn around and take our rent money and make us feel like we should be grateful to them. It’s not right.”

In last year’s request for a court order, tenants of all four buildings — which also include 1018 Eastern Parkway, 1392 Sterling Place and 1460 Sterling Place — have recently sought additional rent reduction orders from HCR for apartment and common area conditions, according to Brooklyn Legal Services. That matter remains ongoing.

HCR, when reached for comment, provided a link to information on how they collect overcharges.

“New York State has zero tolerance for landlords who harass, intimidate or unlawfully overcharge tenants,” HCR spokesperson Brian Butry told the Eagle. “HCR has and will continue to both enforce the rent laws and investigate those who violate the law to protect the rights of tenants to reside in a safe and decent home.”

The agency does not comment on pending litigation, he said.

Update (Jan 13 at 9 a.m.): This article has been updated to include a statement from HCR.

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