Laura Kusisto, Clare O’Connor, Thorsten Schier, The Brooklyn Ink
Selam Berhe, Sonia Dasgupta, Dan Fastenberg, The Bronx Ink
A team of six reporters spent four months investigating the New York housing system through the prism of one landlord, his buildings and his tenants in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Read on for our findings.
After 18 months of rehabilitation for a broken hip, all that Eta Eckstein wanted was to go back home to her Brooklyn apartment. The 92-year-old Holocaust survivor had lived at 8750 Bay Parkway for 40 years, but when her son visited her apartment while she was still at the Shore View Rehabilitation Center, he found a red eviction notice on the door.
Her son, Zvi Eckstein, continued to pay her monthly rent, but the landlord, Moshe Piller, evicted the long-time resident, claiming she had vacated the apartment. The building superintendent had told the neighbors she was dead. But according to her son’s affidavit, his mother could instead not move back in because the apartment was in such disrepair.
With the help of her family, Eckstein fought the eviction all the way to Housing Court. Piller settled the case after Judge Candy Gonzales warned him: “You’re playing with fire.”
Along with the right to live in her apartment, Eta Eckstein won the right to reclaim belongings that had been stored in an unlocked basement or scattered on the building’s landing. But she also won the right to live with faulty wiring in the living room, a collapsed ceiling in the bathroom, and clogged plumbing, according to her son’s affidavit. Victory for Eta Eckstein meant being allowed back into a building that currently has 99 open Housing Preservation and Development Department (HPD) violations.
Why would anyone fight so hard to get back into 8750 Bay Parkway? Since Piller took over the building in 2005, tenants say that conditions have deteriorated. But five years of decline do not matter as much to a 92-year-old woman as a lifetime of familiarity. “It’s been her home for over 40 years,” said her grandson, Idan Eckstein.
Like Eta Eckstein, tenants all around the Bronx and Brooklyn live in buildings that have rodents, collapsing ceilings, no heat in the winter and windows that don’t open in the summer, and unlocked security doors that allow people in to urinate and do drugs in the stairs. The system makes it almost impossible to demand better.
They are afraid to make trouble because they lack the language skills to make sense of the complaint process or because their work schedule makes it impossible to go to housing court during the day. The city’s housing bureaucracy struggles with a system that makes aggressive enforcement difficult. And landlords learn how to fly under the radar, paying fines or making minor repairs rather than making expensive improvements.
Eckstein is hardly an isolated victim, and her landlord, Moshe Piller, is not unique. In fact, there are far worse landlords: Piller does not appear on the Village Voice’s list of “10 Worst Landlords,” nor do any of his holdings appear on the HPD’s list of the 200 worst buildings in New York City. Piller, who occupied a berth on the HPD’s 2003 “Major Problem Landlords List,” with 7,313 open violations at 29 buildings, now escapes the agency’s sanction, and his current violations are down to over 1,700.
In an effort to understand how landlords like Piller work the New York housing system, The Brooklyn Ink and The Bronx Ink spent several months following the same process that many tenants do. Like them, reporters from the two websites talked to the Housing Preservation and Development Department, the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Buildings and the district attorney’s office. They all provided different versions of the same answer: He hasn’t broken the law; there’s not much we can do about the condition of housing for many tenants.
Also like many tenants, we went to Piller’s office to talk to the landlord himself. We made several trips and finally spoke with his property manager, Mike Ross. Ross said they constantly making improvements to the properties, including beginning renovations in three apartments at 119 East 19th Street in the last month since we began investigating the building for this story.
“We’re trying our best,” said Ross. “There’s always more, more and more work.”
When a faucet is leaking or the oven is broken, the first step for tenants is to phone the landlord or superintendent and ask him to come fix it. But if residents wait and remind him and nothing is done, the next step is to complain to the Housing and Preservation and Development Department.
Under New York law, a landlord is not fined—even if a violation isn’t fixed—unless a tenant or the HPD takes the landlord to housing court. But often tenants cannot take time off work to go to court, according to Legal Aid chief litigator Judith Goldiner, who represents tenants in housing cases. Legal aid can only represent about one in eight tenants who come to complain, due to a lack of resources. For those who go to court unrepresented, the success rate is low.
Numbers don’t tell the whole story of what it means to live in a Piller building, but they do tell a compelling part of it. The Piller apartment buildings we identified in Brooklyn have 829 open HPD violations . Of those, 219 are Class C violations, which include lead paint and a lack of child safety bars. The buildings in the Bronx have 995 violations, with 297 Class C violations, the most serious violations.
(To see the violations by building, click here)
Piller’s tenants have taken him to court more than 95 times in Brooklyn and the Bronx since 1989. Many of these cases settled, with the landlord agreeing to perform repairs.
Still, the extent of the landlord’s holdings, and therefore the number of violations in his buildings, is impossible to determine, even for city officials. New York City keeps records of all the buildings in the city, but not of the individuals who own them. One of the problems that organizations like HPD face in regulating a landlord like Piller is that he registers his holdings under a corporation, not individual, name. He registers most of his holdings under separate corporations. Eckstein’s building, 8750 Bay Parkway, for example, is registered as “8750 Bay Parkway L.L.C.,” which we confirmed by checking the sign in the lobby.
The Brooklyn Ink identified 14 buildings that Piller owns in Brooklyn and seven in the Bronx. The buildings that are listed under his name were purchased in the early 90s. Most of them are small two- or three-story brick homes in the Borough Park area. They have no violations, and tenants we spoke to generally said he’s a good landlord.
But after the early 2000s, Piller stopped registering buildings under his own name. We searched the names of Piller’s family and his employees, but nothing came up. The only way to know for sure is to visit the buildings themselves, where the registration on the wall says the name of his company, “MP Management,” and his name, Moshe Piller.
After hours of searching city records, old news clippings, and reports by city agencies we found as much as we could about the buildings he might own. Then we went to the boroughs to confirm which buildings are still his, and to find out what it’s like for the people who live there.
From the outside, nothing seems amiss at 119 East 19th Street, in Prospect Park South, Brooklyn. The railing protecting the flowerbeds outside is freshly painted and the building’s light brown facade has been redone recently, according to the building’s manager, Mike Ross.
Inside the lobby, on white paper with black marker is noted the name of the landlord for the building: “Moshe Piller.”
In the stairwell, the smell of urine is overpowering and at the bottom of the stairs, there’s a rat hole, just one variety of the vermin—such as bedbugs, cockroaches and mice—that crawl throughout 119 East 19th.
The elevator had been out of order for a month when we visited—not for the first time, according to residents. When we came back two weeks later it was still not working.
The building on 19th Street has 152 open violations as of this week, according to the Housing Preservation and Development Department or HPD. Of those, 52 are Class C, the most serious violations. This is more than twice the number of violations in any other building in the neighborhood, and three times the majority of buildings in general.
Piller purchased the building for $218,000 in 1995. He currently has over $9,000 in Department of Buildings’ fines, mostly for the broken elevator. He charges most tenants between $900 to $1,200 in rent. He pays some of his fines, enough to stay out of trouble with the department.
The first thing that’s noticeable when entering Desmond Fontenelle’s small one-bedroom apartment 6J is a chair placed awkwardly in the middle of the room, which conceals a gaping hole big enough for a person’s foot. “I don’t wanna break my neck walking to the bathroom at night,” said Fontenelle, a gregarious man in his early 40s, with pale brown eyes and a St. Lucian accent.
In the bathroom, a broken faucet has been dripping water into a bucket for years. The floor is soaked and a towel has been placed over the wet patch where the bath leaks. When Fontenelle showers, it floods the apartment of the neighbor below him, so he tries to bathe as little as possible.
The bedroom windows are barred with a locked metal gate and the smoke detector does not have a battery. The stove has also been out of order for years. “I eat mostly at mother’s place these days,” said Fontenelle.
But for other problems, such as the disarray in the apartment and rotting food in the refrigerator, Fontenelle also bears responsibility.
Fontenelle has been living at 119 East 19th for 20 years, before Moshe Piller purchased it 15 years ago. He said he has confronted the landlord numerous times about the repairs. In the last week, men have brought paint buckets up to his apartment and the building manager, Ross, has arranged for someone to come fix the broken oven door.
Fontenelle has tried withholding his $900 rent to pressure Piller to fix the apartment, but this has led to numerous court cases and eviction notices in the mail. Piller has taken him to court 16 times in 15 years for late rent payments – although Ross said they only do this once the rent is at least three months overdue. Fontenelle always agrees to pay, but also uses the opportunity to complain to the judge about the lack of repairs in his apartment, according to court documents we read.
Finally, at the beginning of this year he contacted HPD, which gave Piller a month to do some of the repairs. More than a month later, nothing had changed, so Fontenelle took the landlord to housing court.
“He’s gonna keep taking you to court until you move out,” said Fontenelle. “Then he’ll fix up the place a little bit for the next people and jack up the rent.
“I mean the man deserves his money, but he’s got to give me some services.”
In a phone interview, Ross said that keeping on top of all the repairs in a building with 50 units is a challenge, but that they are constantly working to make conditions better for their tenants. Since we began working on this story, management has renovated two of the units. They’ve arranged for workers to come and paint Fontenelle’s unit and fix the broken stove door.
But the need for repairs is ongoing. Since these problems were fixed, the number of HPD violations in the building went from 148 to 152 this week.
The building has 50 units. Three complaints per unit is standard for buildings around the city, said Ross. But of the buildings in the neighborhood of similar size, most we found had around one-third of the violations in Piller’s buildings.
At 2654 Valentine Ave. in the Bronx, men loiter in front of the grilled gate that closes off the front courtyard. The front door of the building gapes open, as if by a strong wind.
Many windows in its upper floor windows are broken and what glass remains is covered with blue-ink graffiti. Rodent feces are visible on the ground floor. On a recent Saturday, a woman sat on the steps leading up to the fourth floor with a syringe beside her, bobbing her head and mumbling, too lost to notice the disdainful look a tenant shot at her as he climbed down the stairs.
Inside the apartments, tenants complain of mold, caving ceilings, crumbling walls, mildew and sinking floors. The building has 164 open HPD violations, of which 44 are hazardous Class C violations. These include rodents, lead wall paint, cascading water from a seventh floor bathroom leak, and lack of heating, among others.
Piller owns 2654 Valentine Ave. and the adjacent 237 E 194th St., registered under Valentine Apartments L.L.C. He owns more buildings under different company names—2860 Grand Concourse and 2874 Grand Concourse, five blocks away, and 2501 Davidson Ave., on the other side of the Grand Concourse. But of all the buildings Piller owns in North Fordham, Valentine Apartments is the most visibly distressed.
William Plasenia and his wife have lived in apartment 4D for the past 13 years. A corner of the ceiling in one bedroom has burst open. The adjacent wall bulges with the weight of water pushing down. The kitchen floor slopes towards toward the center, like an upturned roof pitch. Plasenia says it is sinking. The bathroom ceiling sags and its peeled plaster flails mid air.
Plasenia, who hails from Cuba, speaks little English. He gestured to say that he fears the bathroom ceiling will collapse on his head soon. None of the violations in his apartment, however, show up in HPD files because he doesn’t know enough English to understand the system so said he does not file complaints.
At the buildings we visited, many tenants were non-English speakers who were unwilling to open their doors to strangers. In other cases, tenants were confused about the process for filing violations. Many said they simply call 311, which does not keep track of the number of complaints.
Even if tenants complain to HPD—Piller’s tenants have made thousands of complaints—there is nothing the Housing Preservation and Development Department can do to bar a landlord from owning or renting property out to tenants.
Under HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program, introduced in 2007, the HPD can enforce repairs on buildings it deems “distressed” or “hazardous.” Failure to comply could result in a lien being placed against the building. Of the 200 buildings on the most recent list, published on Feb. 15 of this year, none were Piller’s.
HPD can also refer buildings on this list to the district attorney for prosecution. The Kings County DA’s office could find no record of Moshe Piller in their referral files. The HPD declined to comment on whether they had referred Piller to the prosecutor.
In the meantime, the city continues to send some tenants to buildings we identified as Piller’s as part of its housing program for the homeless.
“You know, it’s very bittersweet sometimes as we send people into these buildings,” said Juanita Fernandez, a housing specialist at The Concourse House Shelter, who sent tenants to 2860 Grand Concourse, a Piller building, as recently as four months ago.
“We have no choice but to move people out after six months,” she said. “But yes, some of the places we send them to. I wouldn’t want to live there.”
In the absence of a clear enforcement mechanism, some tenants have organized to put pressure on Piller to fix the buildings.
In 2006, tenants drove two school buses to Piller’s home in Brooklyn and picketed there for a day, according to Xiamara Mejias, 40, who lives in apartment 3B at 2654 Valentine with her husband and three daughters. She’s the tenant organizer for the building and has been fighting the landlord for the past 10 years, relaying tenants’ grievances to authorities and the mortgage holder.
When they went to Piller’s house, his neighbors poked out of their homes to ask what was going on. “We told them your neighbor is a slumlord,” Mejias said. “And they started throwing eggs on us. Eggs!”
Since tenants took their paperwork and pictures to the building’s mortgage holder, the New York Community Bank, Piller has gotten better at repairing violations, according to Mejias. The open violations listed at the HPD today are half what they were in 2006.
Mejias said her bathroom still leaks and the hair salon beneath her apartment has complained. “This has been broken for a year,” she said pointing to her front door, which looks like someone had broken in. What is worse, the front door still doesn’t lock.
But Mejias also sometimes makes it impossible for repairs to get done. The piping in her bathroom is so old and rotten that it needs to be replaced. But when the super agreed to repair it, she told him, “I got three daughters who need to bathe every day. You can come in this morning … you can dig whatever, but when I come back home. I have to find a bathroom in there.’”
The hair salon eventually installed a ceiling to remedy the problem, but full repairs were never done.
Other tenants also get in the way of keeping the building in good repair. A week ago, all the hallway walls were painted a fresh round layer of brown yellow but someone has already sprayed graffiti on the fourth floor walls.
“It is like [the tenants] see this disrepair and they add on it,” said Mejias.
Moshe Piller was once one of the city’s most notorious landlords and has now become one of dozens that the city’s agencies just don’t have the time or resources to deal with. But though he may have receded from the public gaze in the last few years, for his tenants the problems in his buildings are real and unlikely to go away any time soon.
More shocking is that these problems are common in far too many buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Like Eta Eckstein, many of the city’s residents have decided that for reasons of financial necessity and fear they’d rather make due than make trouble. Thanks to the weaknesses in a system that was meant to protect them, a place doesn’t have to be comfortable, clean or even safe to call it home.