Green neon signs that read “tenants on strike” adorn the windows of the six-unit apartment complex on 454 40th St. in Sunset Park.
In an unusual plot twist in the all-too-familiar struggle between tenants and landlords, the residents of this building are withholding rent until apartment owner Alexander Varveris resolves ongoing building and housing violations. The tenants and Varveris have been in court for over a year, battling over maintenance issues and allegedly hazardous living conditions.
The apartment has been identified as one of 22 multifamily buildings in the city most at risk of endangering the health and safety of residents due to deteriorating physical conditions.
While Varveris hasn’t addressed all the maintenance code violations, the residents have withheld as much as one-and-a-half years of rental payments, costing Varveris $35,000 to $50,000.
The case traces back to June of 2010 when the entire apartment experienced a two-month gas shortage, followed by a two-month electricity outage. Coupled with the severity of the apartment’s maintenance code violations as well as the tenants’ lengthy rent strike and collective front, this incident exemplifies how critical these situations can become and what a significant role outside agencies, such as tenants associations, the Legal Aid Society and city building and housing departments can play.
Marcela Mitaynes, a tenant counselor for Neighbors Helping Neighbors, which assists low-income Brooklyn residents facing problems with landlords, has been an active influence in the residents’ battle for their rights as tenants. After discovering violations, she banded the tenants together and encouraged them to press charges against Varveris.
She charged that what is going on in this incident, as in other similar cases, is a landlord’s attempt to get rid of low-rent-paying residents by ignoring their requests for repairs in order to make room for tenants willing and able to pay higher rent.
“This is the common pattern, the tenants fight until they get tired,” Mitaynes said. “Landlords are willing to wait it out. … These [buildings] are what they consider underdeveloped assets. Residents are paying $1,000 [on average in rent]. A landlord can get rid of them, make repairs, charge a higher price.”
Mitaynes said residents in the building are vulnerable to pressure. Some are undocumented immigrants who don’t speak English. Many are on welfare and all are low income. Landlords’ tactics, she said, include filing baseless lawsuits and making threats about contacting immigration services.
NHN and Legal Aid have emboldened the residents by helping them set demands, even urging them to amend their grievances once their laundry list of wishes are met. Aside from not paying rent, residents stopped paying gas and electricity bills for several months after a shared meter issue was discovered by National Grid and Con Edison. Repairs and renovations are now underway in their apartments.
I accompanied Mitaynes on two housing visits while she inspected and documented the repairs that were made in various apartment units, pointing out their flaws or additional issues that needed to be addressed.
Although some of the projects appeared rushed and were aesthetically displeasing, they were vast improvements. Cracked windows, missing bathroom tiles and busted door frames are no longer in sight.
Varveris, who has owned the rent-stabilized apartment complex for 30 to 35 years, said he has never bullied his residents or forced them to move out by ignoring their demands. He said he has compromised time and time again to no avail. According to Varveris, NHN and Legal Aid “interfered” in the situation and created tension out of thin air.
“This is a tactic,” he said. “Some attorneys, Legal Aid attorneys, try to harm the landlord. … I have accommodated those tenants for years and years, have spent a minimum of $7,000 to $8,000 [on repairs]. I don’t mind doing the walk, but I will not allow the Legal Aid attorney to make me look like I’m a slum lord.”
Varveris said this court case blossomed out of a non-payment proceeding against one of the residents. The case was dismissed and the situation was later reversed as the tenants proceeded to take Varveris to court.
“The Legal Aid attorney, he brought HPD into the situation,” Varveris said. “HPD makes inspections, places violations. … I want an order from the judge compelling HPD to do an inspection in order to remove my violations.”
Roberta Bernstein, president of the Small Property Owners of New York, said outside agencies commonly and unnecessarily involve themselves in such cases.
“In my experience, any building that’s older has violations,” Bernstein said. “Local preservation groups will organize a building, will go in and get a tenant or a couple tenants to go along with them and list the number of violations. They direct the tenants not to pay rent and keep adding violations to the list.”
Bernstein said rent strikes are all too common. If residents were acting in good faith, she said they would pool their rent money in escrow. Residents said there is no escrow in their rent strike.
“These types of court cases are more prevalent in [rent-stabilized] buildings where, by virtue of being old buildings, the infrastructure needs more repair and is more costly to maintain,” she said.
No Gas, No Electricity, No Accountability
The rent strike grew out of unaddressed concerns over building and housing violations over a year ago that allegedly caused health problems for some residents.
According to the New York City Department of Buildings, Varveris and his Limited Liability Corporation Pennsy Corp. face 83 open building violations — almost half of which are dubbed hazardous to the life, health and safety of the building’s occupants — several dating back to 1993. Additionally, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development has issued $6,339 in building fines and 114 housing violations.
Because the apartment complex is deteriorating and could contribute to a decline in the quality of the surrounding neighborhood, HPD press officer Juliet Morris said the case was assigned to the department’s Proactive Preservation Initiative in April. The city-wide program was launched at the beginning of this year to identify and address declining physical conditions in multifamily buildings.
Under the new initiative, 335 buildings were surveyed between January and August; 49 of them exhibited levels of distress that warranted further action and 22 of those demonstrated conditions severe enough to be referred to HPD’s Housing Litigation Division to initiate cases in housing court. Valveris’ building is on that list.
“It was referred to HLD after being surveyed because of the extent of violations,” Miller said in an e-mail. “We are seeking civil penalties and an order to correct. HPD is also appearing in a tenant action case for this site.”
Valveris’ apartment’s 75 violations are less extensive, however, than those charged against other buildings on the list — some have over 270 violations. Also, Brooklyn has 12 of the 22 facilities on the list, more than Manhattan and the Bronx, combined.
The tenants charge that the building at large experienced a two-month gas shortage in early July 2010 and a two-month electricity outage in early October. According to the Attorney General’s tenants’ rights guide, a landlord’s failure to provide heat or hot water on a regular basis is a breach of the warrant of habitability. Tenants may withhold rent as a result, but the landlord can sue the tenant for non-payment. The tenant may countersue for breach of the warranty.
Before the utilities were eliminated, residents received extraordinarily high monthly gas and electricity bills, due to a shared meter issue. Instead of providing electricity to one tenant, a single meter was often hooked up to multiple residents’ homes, causing them to be charged for their neighbors’ power consumption. The meters were seized by Con Edison and National Grid after Varveris failed to amend the issue and pay the bills that had accumulated as a result of it.
Varveris owns 15 six-family houses in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, as well as properties outside New York. In a similar case at another one of his buildings, residents at 420 Clinton Avenue initiated a rent strike over 10 years ago after he allegedly ignored longstanding repairs and a meter tampering issue at the 49-unit complex, according to an April 6, 1999 Daily News article.
The problem has still not been resolved. One of the residents, Concepcion Morastitla, received a gas meter from National Gird over a month ago after not having heat or hot water for several months, forcing her to boil water on electric burners for baths.
Morastitla, an unemployed, single mother, said the ordeal has affected her four children, who are anxious that the utilities may be shut off at any time.
Three-year resident Armando Xinol suspects that his seven-year-old son Alexis developed acute asthma because of the apartment’s unhealthy living conditions that include mold on the bathroom ceiling, lack of heat due to broken radiators and gaps beneath doors and windows that Xinol had to cover with tape to block the entrance of cold air.
Another resident, Ariadna Mendez, whose asthmatic younger brother and elderly parents recently moved out due to the apartment’s unreliable heat and electricity, said the fight has been an uphill battle, but one waged as a united front.
“We want to live fairly; we’re not asking for anything else,” Mendez, a five-year resident, said. “We just really want this to end. … There come times when I wanted to give up, but I’m going to keep going.”
Mendez was the first tenant to stop paying rent in June 2010 to force Varveris to make apartment repairs. Another tenant followed her lead in September and the rest of the residents joined them when their electricity shut off in October.
Her boyfriend and housemate Marc Vizcarrondo said the tenants shouldn’t have to pay rent for two years as consolation for the trauma they’ve experienced.
As Varveris decides his course of action, the tenants are more determined than ever to continue fighting until their demands for more livable conditions are completely met.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be an eviction or a monetary law suit, which they don’t have the money to pay me anyway,” Varveris said.