Mitchell-Lama mystery in Highbridge

Tenant Barbara Williamson, Bronx Borough President representative Melvin Romero and a city Department of Housing Preservation and Development agent discussed the condition of 1380 University Avenue, Photo by Daniel Beekman

Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Councilwoman Helen Diane Foster have stepped in to help restore order at 1380 University Avenue in Highbridge, where a maintenance related tenant-landlord dispute has exposed a tangle of questions.

On Wednesday, June 24, Foster and Diaz Jr. representatives joined tenants Victoria Lassister and Barbara Williamson for a tour of the building. Lassiter and Williamson head the 1380 University Tenant Association and bused to City Hall in May to protest conditions at the 18-story and 144-unit tower. Landlord Martin Carlin has sued Lassiter and Williamson for past-due rent. Carlin has accumulated 42 building code violations and 268 housing violations at 1380 University. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development has reported defective faucets, broken locks, peeling paint and broken sinks.

In May, Carlin owed Con Edison more than $120,000. The elevators at 1380 University break down frequently. Carlin and his management firm are to blame, Lassiter and Williamson said. The landlord, who owns “hundreds of buildings” in the city, disagreed.

“The people complaining are the people behind on rent,” Carlin said. “They want to create a problem so that they can complain in court.”

Carlin has sued at least 15 tenants; he wants them evicted. The building code and housing violations at 1380 University are “a matter of course” and not unreasonably abundant, Carlin said. He does owe Con Edison but has negotiated a payment plan.

“I owe Con Edison because the tenants owe me rent,” he said

Carlin has made improvements at 1380 University but tenants vandalize the tower, he said. According to Carlin, there’s always at least one working elevator. The landlord has alerted police to drug dealing in the tower.

“I maintain the building,” said Carlin. “The people who owe rent kick the elevators and then complain that the elevators don’t work.”

Ostensibly, the 1380 University dispute is a classic case of he said-she said. Lassiter and Williamson blame Carlin, who acquired the tower in 1992. Carlin blames the tenants. But there is a wrinkle: 1380 University is a Mitchell-Lama building, this Carlin admits. His 2007-2008 Mitchell-Lama tax exemption – $1.6 million, 2009-2008 – $2.1 million, 2009-2010 – $2.3 million. Trouble is, 1380 University isn’t listed with city Department of Housing Preservation and Development or state Division of Housing and Community Renewal as a Mitchell-Lama building. It’s listed as a Mitchell-Lama building only with the city Department of Finance.

Carlin was supposed to consult HPD prior to changes in rent and/or work on the tower, an HPD representative said. Instead, the landlord has converted community space to apartments – without consulting with HPD. Carlin leases the tower’s parking lot.

Diaz Jr. representative Melvin Romero promised to work with the 1380 Tenants Association to improve conditions at the tower. Foster sent a letter of concern to HPD Commissioner Rafael Cestero on June 24. HPD financial agents are still trying to determine why 1380 University isn’t listed as a Mitchell-Lama with HPD or DHCR, spokesman Seth Donlin said. They’ve never encountered a situation like this before.

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