BY TINA BENITEZ-EVES | Men dressed in black, late-night phone calls, a knock at the door with no advance notice, photo requests and chocolate — some East Village tenants don’t know what to think about their new landlord.
Raphael (“Raffi”) Toledano, who purchased 16 properties in the East Village this September from the Tabak/Garfinkel family for $97 million, hasn’t made the best of impressions this year, according to some tenants, who have met their new landlord or his associates. These allegedly odd interactions left some feeling threatened or harassed.
In May, tenants at one Toledano property, 444 E. 13th St., sued the landlord for alleged ongoing harassment and threats and for not providing heat and hot water for more than a month, plus for the building’s having more than 200 open violations, including vermin and bedbug infestations, cracks in the infrastructure and more. (The number of violations has dropped since June.)
Toledano’s own family members are not immune to the bad behavior. In August, his uncle Aaron Jungreis took him to court, claiming he was cheated out of a 50 percent share of a nearly $100 million deal to take over the East Village properties. Toledano, 25, who became president of Brookhill Properties in January, closed on the deal early last month.
Now, tenants along E. Fifth St., in buildings Nos. 223, 229, 231, 233 and 235 have been documenting their own interactions with “Raffi.” To date, tenants in six of Toledano’s E. Fifth St. buildings have documented more than 140 interactions, altercations and outright threats by Toledano and his camp during the two-month period from this July 8 through Sept. 8. Some have reported being followed in the street by Raffi’s cousin Isaac Toledano, while others report encounters with a group of men dressed in black stepping out of SUV’s and insisting on entering and inspecting tenants’ apartments.
Other properties involved in the sale include 323-325 E. 12th St., 327 E. 12th St., 329 E. 12th St., 510 E. 12th St., 514 E. 12th St., 53 E. 10th St., 334 E. Ninth St., 27 St. Mark’s Place, 95 E. Seventh St., 66 E. Seventh St. and 228 E. Sixth St.
Toledano might be fixated on pushing rent-stabilized tenants out of his East Village buildings, or perhaps he just has a strange way of introducing himself.
“I think he’s just trying to make his first sweep of who he can get out of the buildings and see where he stands,” said Stuart Zamsky, a member of the E. Fifth St. Block Association. “We can’t figure out what he’s up to.”
April Diaz’s 88-year-old grandmother (who asked to remain unnamed), a tenant at 229 E. Fifth St. since 1946, was confronted by Toledano following a community meeting, according to Diaz. The landlord told the senior it must be difficult for her to walk up her building’s stairs, and that she might be annoyed once construction starts in the building, and he doesn’t want to bother her, according to Diaz.
This somewhat passive-aggressive behavior is what tenants have grown to expect from Toledano and his cohorts, who often show up at the buildings and ask to randomly inspect apartments and rarely reveal their names or affiliation. Diaz, her mother and sister all grew up in her grandmother’s apartment. She still lives with her grandmother in one of the four currently occupied apartments in the 10-unit building. That the building is more than half empty, Diaz said, is part of the problem. She believes Toledano would like to get them all out and bump his new buildings’ market value up. But it won’t be easy.
“I learned that if we don’t need to leave, we don’t have to leave,” Diaz stated. “We don’t really have to leave. What better place to live than in the middle of the East Village?”
Yet, Diaz is concerned about the well-being of her grandmother, who she said is still sharp as a whip, but might be alarmed if several men come to inspect her apartment. Currently, no permit has been issued to begin renovation work inside the building. (The last work permit on file is from last year, according to Diaz.) But Toledano’s personnel continue to randomly visit to inspect tenants’ apartments.
“I’m not uncomfortable with my grandmother being there alone when this happens,” Diaz said. “But I would much rather be there, because I do know that seven men walking into an apartment is kind of like bullying to an 88-year-old woman.”
Nina D’Allessandro, a tenant at the neighboring 231 E. Fifth St. since 1978, had her first interaction with Toledano in late August. She was dealing with an emergency, on the phone with the nurse for her 92-year-old mother, and received a call from Toledano, who wanted to come over to introduce himself. In a whispery voice, Toledano said, “Hi, it’s Raffi,” according to D’Allessandro, who instantly knew who was on the other line. When Toledano asked if he could come over and introduce himself, D’Allessandro declined since, he was not officially the owner yet.
D’Allessandro said she also heard another side of Toledano: There was a shift in his voice from frail and willowy to louder and more authoritative when she told him that tenants had not been informed that he was officially the new owner. He then returned to soft-spoken and said that when they finally meet he would like to take a photo with her, because he heard that she’s a famous actress.
D’Allessandro contacted Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), a housing and preservation organization working to protect tenants’ rights, and then reached out to affected tenants to form the Tabak Tenant Coalition, which now includes Toledano’s 16 East Village buildings. As Toledano purchases more buildings, d’Allessandro said that tenants are welcome to join the group to better understand their rights. (Toledano is currently under contract to purchase an additional 11 buildings in the East Village, West Village and Murray Hill for $55 million.)
“Our whole purpose is to gather and disseminate information about our rights and our responsibilities and the resources that are available to us,” said D’Allessandro, who added that the buildings, when they were under former landlord Morton Tabak, who is now nearly 100 years old, always ran smoothly. Tenants had heat and hot water. At times, Tabak would even lower the rent for tenants suffering some financial hardship.
“He was very paternalistic,” D’Allesandro said. “He treated us with respect and expected us to treat him the same way.”
However, once Morton’s daughter, Janet Garfinkel, and the rest of the Tabak family took over, everything changed, she said.
“They just didn’t care anymore, and we think it was unethical on their part to sell to somebody [Toledano] who has been in so much trouble in terms of how he manages his properties,” D’Allessandro said. “To sell to Toledano was really a slap in the face, and it really scared us.”
When the properties — including 301 residential apartments and 15 retail spaces — were sold by the Tabak/Garfinkel family to Toledano, D’Allessandro said that the way tenants were treated prior to the sale was “disrespectful, unkind and sloppy.”
Now that it’s official, tenants are concerned about their future living conditions, including heat and hot water once the weather starts to drop, according to D’Allessandro.
There have been no recorded complaints or reports of harassment by Toledano and his team by the tenants’ coalition since Sept. 8. As a welcome, Toledano sent tenants a letter on Sept. 22, confirming that the transfer of ownership had occurred on Sept. 10, along with a box of chocolates and the address where tenants should send October’s rent. On Sept. 28, tenants received another letter from Morton Tabak confirming the change of ownership to Toledano.
The years following Tabak’s retirement have been difficult for some tenants. And now, with her building a part of Toledano’s portfolio, D’Allessandro hopes life can return to normal, like it was when Tabak was landlord. Yet, she and other tenants don’t know what to expect.
“We’re hoping that we can move into this next phase without great struggle and without incident,” she said. “But it doesn’t look that way.”
For Diaz, 229 E. Fifth St. is the only home she’s ever known. And her grandmother won’t leave her apartment of nearly 70 years without a fight.
“It’s unfortunate,” Diaz said. “I wish they would understand that it’s not a situation that we’re prepared to back down from. If they want to get rid of us, it’s going to be tough. We’re not just going to roll over and play dead.”
A spokesperson for Toledano said the new landlord’s intentions are good and that he is just trying to “form a bond” with his new tenants.
“Mr. Toledano treats every tenant with respect and decency,” the spokesperson said. “His intentions in the East Village are very simple: to be a part of a vibrant and growing community. As a new landlord, engaging with tenants to form a bond and get to know them is an essential step to forming a relationship. There is not a single complaint of harassment against Mr. Toledano since he purchased these buildings.”