What a difference an hour makes.
An hour before neglected tenants of bug-ridden, derelict Chestnut Holdings-owned apartments in the Bronx and Brooklyn were set to deliver a host of demands to management at their third-floor 5676 Riverdale Ave. office Thursday.
When the Bronx Times arrived at the North Riverdale building, which houses 16 commercial spaces including two local newspapers and a Community Board 8 meeting room, at 10:05 a.m., building maintenance continually made requests to vacate the premises and grey-shirted Chestnut Holding employees did not respond when asked about the tenant allegations of overcharged rent and poor living conditions.
Grappling with 87 open violations related to insufficient heat and hot water, leaks and mold, Bronxites at 2700 Grand Concourse and Brooklynites from 1402–1408 Sterling Place and 1742–1746 Union St. — properties owned and operated by Chestnut Holdings which have 184 open violations of their own — are at a breaking point with their landlord.
For tenants, the lack of facetime with Chestnut Holdings landlords has been an evergreen issue. Tenant organizers said that repeated attempts to meet with Jonathan Weiner, Chestnut Holdings owner to address tenant issues had also been ignored prior to Thursday.
When tenant organizers from Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition attempted to gain entrance into the building at 11:05 a.m. on Thursday, Fred Smilovic —who identified himself as building maintenance — told the Bronx Times that the Chestnut Holdings offices were closed and denied anyone access into the structure.
“We’re here to drop off a letter from your tenants about their living conditions. I’ve been in this building many times before, why aren’t you letting us in?” Sandra Lobo, an organizer from the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition asked Smilovic, who seconds later closed the door in her face.
Organizers and tenants, however, pivoted their strategy, instead opting to rally outside the building.
And cries for Weiner to “make his apartments cleaner” reverberated throughout the quiet, high-end North Riverdale neighborhood, as frustrated tenants adorned the building with photos of their squalid living conditions and styrofoam models of the rats and bed bugs they say are commonplace.
“(Weiner) puts more paint and plaster on his clothes than he does on these (apartment walls),” said Linda Peterson, who lives in a Chestnut Holdings-owned 2170 University Ave. apartment in the University Heights section of the Bronx. “It’s criminal what’s happening to my neighbors. Many are afraid to speak up about having no water or heat. Many are tired of paying their rent on time and still having to go to court to get simple repairs.”
Thursday’s rally, despite never making it to the front doors of Suite 307 as intended, is another step in the escalating drama between neglected tenants and avoidant landlord management, organizers told the Times.
Roughly an hour into Thursday’s rally, Cesar Morales, a property manager for Chestnut Holdings, attempted to assuage protestors by stating that he would take their letter of grievances to building management “immediately.”
According to the most recent city housing analysis, Bronx tenants were the most likely to have reported maintenance deficiencies, with 32% of occupied units reporting one or two problems and 27% reporting three or more problems, the highest rates in the city.
Marta Campos, a tenant in 2700 Grand Concourse, told the Times if building management doesn’t make immediate efforts to improve living conditions in their apartments, legal action and rent strikes are on the table.
“The next step to escalate pressure on (Chestnut Holdings) is to take them to court,” said Campos. “They think just because our building is mostly Black and brown tenants … they can treat us this way to get us to leave if they don’t make repairs … We will fight together to make sure they make these repairs.”
Tenant satisfaction in New York City — based on responses from tens of thousands of city renters surveyed by NYC-based renter app openigloo — sits at about 50%, with those renters recommending their buildings to a friend or another renter.
In the Bronx, however, that approval rating drops to 30%, the lowest of the five boroughs.
Since the pandemic, seeking housing justice through New York City’s housing court has been an onerous battle, as courts are packed with backlogged cases and very little in landlord accountability.
Campos said that the goal is to continue putting pressure on Chestnut Holdings financially despite what happens in housing court.
“When we go through with plans to withhold rent, we’re going to put it into a separate bank account that way he can see (the tenants’) needs, and they can be more proactive,” she said. “But we deserve better, and we will make sure all of our neighbors are taken care of.”
Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes