The residents of 120 East 19th St. in Flatbush, Brooklyn say that they get trapped in their malfunctioning elevator so often that the fire department knows them on a first name basis.
That’s just one of a myriad of repairs and substandard conditions that tenants have been asking their landlord to address. On Monday, the building’s residents joined with legislators and housing advocates outside their building to voice their concerns as part of a push to pass a new tenants rights law in Albany.
Half of the units in the building have been without gas since late February with no communication from the landlord about when they can expect service to be restored, the tenants say. Tenants also reported leaks, mold, periods without heat and trash buildup in the courtyard. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development lists 204 open code violations for the 43-unit complex, which was recently added for the second time to alternative enforcement plan, a designation for apartment buildings with a flagrant number of violations.
The residents contend that the best way to run the building the way they’d like is to do it themselves. The building’s tenants association has to put together a plan to purchase the building from its current landlord and pursue a form of collective ownership aimed at keeping it permanently affordable.
To support its effort, the tenants association used the rally to call for passage of the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), a bill up for consideration in Albany that would increase the tenants’ chances of collectively purchasing and managing the neglected building.
If enacted, the law would give tenants the right to make a first offer whenever an owner of an eligible building wants to sell.
“What TOPA could do is finally give us a little piece of New York to call our own. That could allow us to take a little ownership of this community that we already give so much to every day,” said resident Nathan Tempey at the rally.
Several legislators and spokespeople were in attendance including Councilmember Rita Joseph and Ivie Bien-Aime, a representative of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who pointed out that one of the individuals identified as a co-owner of the building, Robert Rissetto, is ranked seventh on the advocate’s list of the city’s worst landlord for 2021.
The deed to the building was most recently purchased by an LLC connected to Newcastle Realty Services, a now-defunct company whose former head of operations was sued by the state attorney general for illegally deregulating apartments in 2019.
“The current situation at 120 E. 19th St. in Brooklyn is disgraceful, dangerous, and far too common throughout our city,” Williams wrote in a statement joining the tenants’ call to enact TOPA.
During the rally, the tenants described their landlord’s business model as extractive, and suggested that the building’s neglect entails a deliberate strategy to get rent-stabilized tenants to leave and drive up the rent.
Gary Simon, a lead organizer of the tenants association, said that the tenants initially formed a union in response to the landlord’s efforts to deregulate the rent-stabilized units. By teaming up with other tenant organizations in Flatbush and appealing to the state Department of Homes and Community Renewal, they have been successful in resisting deregulation.
“We’ve been looking at a scheme that would take low-revenue-generating buildings like rent-controlled buildings, right? And then converting them to high-revenue-generating buildings. How do you do that? Getting the people who pay the low rent out,” Simon said.
“The more numbers, the more that get together and raise this issue, the louder a voice we’ll make,” he added.