As foreclosures continue to put historic pressure on the nation's rental market, slumlords now have more opportunity than ever to prey on the most vulnerable of tenants.
© Diego Ibanez
Tenant Sara Lopez marches on Thursday
The electrical box in the basement of multifamily brownstone on 46th Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, looks like a middle-school science fair project gone horribly wrong. The door to the box is ajar and a cheap plastic fan, positioned only inches from the fuses, desperately tries to keep the wiring from catching fire when it sparks and overheats, plunging the building's 51 apartments into darkness and threatening to set the entire structure ablaze.
"Last night was so bad, the lights were going on and off every ten minutes," said 20-year-old Riccey Trelles, a recent college graduate who lives with her family on the first floor. "It was pitch-black; I couldn't see the person across from me."
Despite the darkness, Trelles was up until almost two a.m. making posters and banners for the following day's protest to expose her building's slumlord, Orazio Petito, and implore city officials to intervene in a case of housing violations that tenants are now describing as human rights abuses.
As foreclosures continue to displace millions and put historic pressure on the nation's rental market, slumlords now have more opportunity than ever to prey on the most vulnerable of tenants. The problem is especially bad in an owner's market like New York City, where average rent price increased more in the second quarter of 2012 than in any other city in the country, sending landlords into a frenzy to evict old tenants--especially those with stabilized rent--and jack up the prices for newcomers. But despite a vicious landlord and a city that prefers aiding the housing market's rise than enforcing tenants' rights, Trelles and her neighbors are fighting back: speaking out, occupying an assemblymen's office and launching a rent strike that tenants hope will spread across Brooklyn.
"We are people," said Sara Lopez, a retired public employee who was the first to begin withholding rent payments almost two years ago. "We deserve to live with dignity. We pay for our apartments, so we deserve our rights as tenants." After months of door knocking by Lopez and Trelles' mother, Sue, the rent strike now includes 80 families across three of Petito's buildings - and Lopez hopes to spread the movement to his other properties.
Petito, for his part, is a classic exploitative building owner. Ranking 51 on city's watch list of worst slumlords, he owns approximately twenty buildings across the boroughs and dozens of small real estate corporations that flit in and out of existence like fireflies and list PO Boxes for addresses. He's frequently fined and issued court dates, which he rarely shows up to, and he seems quick to take out million-dollar mortgages that he never repays. The only time his tenants see him is when rent is due, or - more recently - when he knocks on the doors of striking families and tries to intimidate them into paying.
"So many threats, so much abuse," said an elderly resident who asked not to be named. "He said he was going to evict me; he told me that he was going to call immigration on me." As a newer resident, she was paying $1,600 a month for an apartment that rarely has heat, hot water or electricity before she joined the strike despite the barrage of threats
. Many of the building's tenants lack residency papers, and Petito is more than willing to wave forged eviction notices in front of tenants who speak little English.
Like the historic rent strikes in Lower East Side before WWI or in Harlem during the 1960s, female tenants of color are leading the grassroots organizing at Petito's buildings. Many from Occupy Sunset Park have joined in to support, tying this slumlord's abuse to the broader context of housing injustice, one that includes the current foreclosure crisis but is, in truth, a constant reality in a country where private property is a right but a family's need for shelter is considered a privilege.
The building has had problems for years, but the conditions have worsened since the buildings fell into foreclosure.
"In the summer, it's so hot that I lie in bed and cover myself with ice cubes," said Riccey Trelles. "And in the winter, I slept with four quilts, a pair of sweats, a sweater, a scarf and two pairs of socks." Others tell stories of mice, rats, roaches, bed bugs, and no exterminator to be found despite daily 311 calls. The mounds of garbage piled in the locked basement fester and stink when the temperature soars. With a broken boiler, the showers are freezing when the temperature plummets.
The city is well aware of the problems. On the Department of Buildings Web site, the entry for 553 46th Street reveals a slew of violations described as: "OPEN - NO COMPLIANCE RECORDED. Severity: HAZARDOUS." At 545 46th Street, Petito has racked up more than $100,000 of debt in fines for violations - all unpaid. The entry for 557 46th Street shows a complaint issued a few days ago: "Caller states that the electrical power for the building is defective [and] that FDNY responded and stated that wiring upgrade was needed for 553, 557 & 545."
Residents say a fire marshal recently declared the building an imminent hazard and suggested that Lopez call the Red Cross and see if she could get all the tenants temporarily relocated, yet the Department of Buildings has yet to send an inspector.
"It could take anywhere between three to four weeks to get the inspection," said a source inside the Department of Buildings. "The city is slowly getting things done, but there are so many buildings and properties, I think some things fall through the cracks."
Can anything make the city move faster?
"When it comes to a slum landlord," she said, "what happens a lot is it gets exposed in the media, and then the city gets involved because the media is involved."
On Thursday, residents invited television crews into the buildings and testified to Petito's many abuses. Then, just in case the city still didn't get the message, dozens of tenants paraded through the blistering heat - signs, canes, sun umbrellas and all - to Assemblyman Felix Ortiz's office, where they occupied the building. One resident's sign read in Spanish, "In the winter we freeze and in the summer we roast." An hour later, the group emerged victorious, having scheduled a sit-down meeting with Ortiz for the coming Monday.
The parade of women then shuffled the 10 blocks back to their sweltering apartments, hoping to sleep despite the heat, hoping their work would keep the apocalypse at bay.