Highbridge tenants hold townhall to demand solutions to imminent shutoff of building-wide utilities

Tenant Julius Bennett, of 1230 Woodycrest Ave., demands property owner Emerald Equities Group pay the utility bills for the buildings common areas.
Photo Jason Cohen

Tenants in Highbridge have been organizing for more than a year to fight an effort by the landlord to deregulate their rent, and to improve their overall living conditions. But now, the tenants are facing a new dilemma — the landlord hasn’t paid Con Ed since at least the fall of 2021.

The landlord, Manhattan-based Emerald Equities Group, has left tenants at risk of being left without heat, cooking gas, running elevators and electricity in the common areas of the building.

On April 5, rent-stabilized tenants residing in 1187 Anderson Ave., 1191 Anderson Ave., 1195 Anderson Ave., 1220 Shakespeare Ave., 1210 Woodycrest Ave., and 1230 Woodycrest Ave., in the lobby of 1187 Anderson Ave., held a town hall where they demanded the buildings’ landlord provide them with basic services and also pay the Con Edison bills.

The tenants were organized by New Settlement’s membership-driven tenant organizing project, Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), represented by Bronx Legal Services’ Tenant Rights Coalition.

Tenants of 1230 Woodycrest have elected to stop paying rent, and all Emerald Equities buildings are preparing to take legal action against their landlord. Although some tenants were withholding rent since December 2021, the official start of the coordinated rent strike was March.

Julius Bennett, who has lived in his 1230 Woodycrest Ave. apartment for 30 years, said he and his neighbors have rights and need to be treated fairly. He not only called on Emerald Equities to pay the bills, but is also demanding elected officials do their part.

“Emerald has basically stricken us from being members of these United States of America,” Bennett said at the town hall. “Our politicians must come forth and talk to the appropriate departments, HPD (city Department of Housing, Preservation and Development), and get someone to take over the responsibility of seeing that our electricity is not turned off in the common areas in our buildings and that our gas is not turned off. These are not new issues. We cannot take this and will not take this anymore.”

Speaking at the town hall via Zoom, City Councilmember Althea Stevens, a Concourse Village Progressive, said it is important for her to manage the expectations of the tenants. She can’t make Emerald Equities take her calls or pay the bills, but will do everything in her power to help, she said.

“I’m here to work with you, come up with the best solution and fight with you,” Stevens said.

Mark Taylor, an attorney for the Tenants’ Rights Coalition, told the Bronx Times that Con Edison began sending the tenants notices in November 2021 telling them that Emerald wasn’t paying the utility bills.

He said they have reached out to Emerald, but have not heard back from them. Taylor hopes Emerald pays the bills as they are legally required to.

“Our organization has lobbied Con Edison to delay any shut off,” he said. “The fact that these bills haven’t been paid is concerning.”

Taylor is not sure how much longer Con Edison will keep the lights on, but hopes the city Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) steps in to rectify the situation.

“I would certainly argue they are breaking the law,” he said. “They’re certainly breaking their obligation to the tenants.”

On March 1, HPD announced 250 buildings citywide — 72 of them in the Bronx — with a high number of serious violations were placed in the city’s Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP), an initiative that heightens enforcement against the city’s most distressed multi-family buildings. More than 50 buildings from Round 15 of the program are associated with property owners listed on the annual New York City Public Advocate’s Worst Landlord Watchlist. Among those listed are the six buildings owned by Emerald Equities in Kingsbridge.

Every year, severely distressed buildings in need of major repair are selected for the alternative enforcement program. To get discharged from the program without penalty, owners must correct most violations within the first four months, including all heat and hot water violations, 80% of hazardous mold violations, pest violations and 100% of all other violations. Buildings not discharged within the first four months of the initial notice are also subject to significant fees.

If the conditions are not corrected within four months, HPD may facilitate emergency repairs at the owner’s expense. Repair bills are transferred to the city Department of Finance and may result in a tax lien against the property. HPD could also petition the Housing Court to have a 7A Administrator take control of the building to collect rent and make the necessary repairs.

William Fowler, an HPD spokesman, said violations at 1197 Anderson Ave. have decreased from 199 to 70 and at 1230 Woodycrest Ave., have decreased from 229 to 164 — both buildings are in the city’s AEP.

Although the violations have decreased, the buildings have not yet achieved substantial compliance needed to be discharged from the program.

“New Yorker’s health and safety is paramount,” Fowler said. “These properties are the target of the city’s most intensive enforcement efforts designed for the most distressed buildings and a significant number serious violations have been addressed. We will continue to hold these landlords accountable and improve conditions as quickly as possible.”

On March 8, tenants at the five buildings, announced a major victory that allows them to keep their apartments rent regulated and preserve affordability. The recent decision was made not by a judge, but in the form of an Order and Determination from New York State’s Division of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR), the agency which oversees rent regulation. DHCR denied real estate investor Emerald Equity Group’s application to deregulate the apartments and ordered the owner to issue rent-stabilized leases to all tenants.

In August 2021, the same Highbridge tenants protested about their living conditions — vermin, chronic leaks, mold and appliances that don’t work.

Emerald Equities could not be reached for comment.

 Reach Jason Cohen at jcohen@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes

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