Brooklyn Tenants of Neglected Building Push for Community Control

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Brooklyn Tenants of Neglected Building Push for Community Control

The tenants of one of New York’s most notorious landlords are fighting for legal changes to keep their apartments affordable and safe.

NYC renters protest at the Annual Rent Guideline Board Meeting (Photo by Informed Images (CC BY-NC 2.0))

Gary Simon has lived in the same mostly rent-regulated apartment complex in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn for over 30 years. He says the landlords of the 43-unit building have been getting worse in that time, and the last few owners who bought the building skimped on maintenance.

“They just drain the equity without caring about human life,” Simon says.

He considers Margaret Streicker, the current landlord who acquired the building eight years ago, the worst. Streicker has long been one of New York City’s most infamous landlords. As of March 30, half of the units had been without cooking gas since February 22, 2022. Tenants say the building elevator breaks down and malfunctions constantly. A tenant was injured trying to get out of the elevator after it stopped 8 inches below the floor on the evening of March 30, the day before he spoke with Next City.

For the second time in the past few years, the building is in the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) Alternative Enforcement Program, which means city officials have prioritized it for frequent maintenance checks until the owner addresses all outstanding violations. The building currently has 206 open HPD violations, most of which were incurred in just the past two years.

Simon and his fellow tenants have successfully fought a major capital improvement, or MCI, a loophole that allows landlords to permanently raise rents to pay for building-wide maintenance. Due to the volume of repair needs, they also filed a complaint with the Department of Homes and Community Renewal that resulted in their rents being frozen.

The apartment building at 120 East 19th (Photo by Gary Simon)

Now they’re trying to solve the issue permanently by buying the building themselves. They want to convert it into a limited-equity cooperative or a community land trust, both models that could keep the units affordable long-term. They announced those intentions at a rally in front of their building on March 28, joined by NYS Senator Zellnor Myrie and NYS Assembly member Marcela Mitaynes. Together with advocates, tenants are also pushing for the state to pass the Tenant Opportunity To Purchase Act (TOPA) — introduced in the senate and assembly by Myrie and Mitaynes, respectively. The bill would give tenants the first pass at buying their own buildings when they go on the market. It could allow them community control that some Bronx tenants won earlier this year.

“I could really envision us owning this building even if we have to go through a learning period,” Simon says, “I can see the improvements that can be made here.”

Under the bill, when a residential building is up for sale, tenants would have to be notified directly. Collectively, tenants would have the right to make the first offer and have 120 days to secure financing after a purchase contract has been made. If the tenants deem the owner’s first offer of sale unreasonable, they would have the right to get the property independently appraised by a city-vetted appraiser to determine its fair market value, and would be able to purchase the building for the appraised price.

Organizations that are advocating for TOPA, including Housing Justice For All and the NYC Community Land Initiative, were hoping the bill would be included in the state budget, still being negotiated, along with $1 billion in funding for acquisitions, although this is increasingly unlikely.

The legislation appears tailor-made for the tenants’ situation at 120 East 19th. The tenants believe that the owner has been skimping on repair costs in order to deregulate the building and sell it for a profit, putting their health and safety at risk.

The building is owned and until recently, also managed by Newcastle Realty Services, which purchased the deed in 2014 for $7.1 million, records show. Newcastle’s owner, real estate heiress and failed GOP Congress candidate Margaret Streicker, has minced no words defining her business model: purchasing and flipping multi-family buildings. A bio from her former company’s website boasts that, “She specializes in turnarounds of multi-family New York City-based portfolios and assets.”

In 2015, Newcastle was forced to pay $1.5 million in fines after an investigation by the NY attorney general’s office concluded it illegally bought out rent-regulated tenants in an upper west side building. Streicker was listed as one of Village Voice’s worst landlords in 2006. The article cited close to 600 violations across buildings she owned and described a 72-year-old rent-regulated tenant who was no longer able to refrigerate his insulin because Streicker had shut off electricity in order to induce him to move. The man moved out and died a week later.

In 2019, after NYC passed a series of rent laws that eliminated loopholes Streicker and other landlords were using to deregulate buildings, she penned a letter to then-Governor Andrew Cuomo threatening to take her business out of state. Streicker dissolved her management companies, including Newcastle, and outsourced management for the East 19th Street apartment to a company called FirstService Residential. But the problems remain.

A recent report from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) drew attention to the prevalence of speculative practices in NYC between 2003 and 2020. The report details how wealthy investors buy apartments in low-income, mostly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods and make a profit by avoiding maintenance costs and taking on debt on the property, leveraged against its potential future value, to bring in capital. The report found that buildings with the greatest increases in value and the highest amount of debt had 2.7 times as many HPD violations as buildings with lower increases, a sign that each building’s equity was not being used for repairs but to acquire more buildings. The eviction rate at buildings with high amounts of debt was 1.5 times the rate of buildings with less debt, the study found.

The report advocates policies like TOPA, stronger tenant protections and large acquisition funds to bring buildings into nonprofit and community control.

In the short term, the tenants at 120 East 19th are hoping to leverage their collective power for more repairs as well as rent reductions and better building services. In the 1980s, the building had a doorman, in-unit laundry as well as access to a back courtyard. Not only are those amenities gone, residents say the threadbare staffing of the building also leads to trash being taken out very infrequently.

“Tenants are just frustrated, angry, upset; they feel like they have no control, and then you feel embarrassed to even walk past the trash,” Simon says. “You don’t have that sense of pride.”

However, they do count their victories. While the landlord’s goal was to quickly deregulate the units, only four units have been deregulated since she took over in 2014. The tenants attribute this to their advocacy.

“They planned on having a lot more in a shorter period of time,” said one tenant who asked not to have their name printed. The March 28 rally is also getting their management company’s ears. Simon says he finally heard from them about ongoing repair needs and the gas shutoff. “Only time I got a call from management is this week,” he says.

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.

Tags: brooklynhousing solutionstopa

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