Highbridge tenants demand landlord stop rent deregulation

Bronx tenants in Highbridge say they are sick of living with vermin, chronic leaks, mold and appliances that don’t work in apartment buildings that the landlord is now planning to deregulate in order to raise the rent.

However, residents are not going down without a fight.

On July 29, rent-stabilized tenants from 1187 Anderson Ave., 1191 Anderson Ave., 1195 Anderson Ave., 1220 Shakespeare Ave., 1210 Woodycrest Ave. and 1230 Woodycrest Ave., held a press conference demanding their landlord, Emerald Equities, drop the application to the state housing agency Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) to deregulate 272 rent-stabilized units. Tenants also want Emerald to fix persistent quality of life issues in the six buildings.

The residents are being organized by Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) and represented by Bronx Legal Services’ Tenant Rights Coalition. State Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner, a Democrat, is also advocating on behalf of the tenants.

“As New Yorkers continue to experience an ongoing pandemic, Emerald Equities is seeking approval to further squeeze already tight family budgets in a move that could force many Bronx families to lose their homes,” Joyner said. “I am proud to stand with my constituents in opposition to Emerald’s ill-timed and ill-conceived request. I stand in solidarity with each and every one of you and as state rep., we are going to make sure to shut this down.”

The lawmaker told the Bronx Times that she plans to put pressure on DHCR to make sure they do not rubber stamp the approval allowing these apartments to become rent destabilized.

In March, tenants from the six buildings received notices from DHCR informing them that the landlord Isaac Kassirer, of Emerald Equity Group, was trying to take the apartments out of rent stabilization, allowing him and not the city Rent Guidelines Board — which is mandated to establish rent adjustments for the 1 million units in the city subject to the Rent Stabilization Law — to determine annual rent increases; the tenants would also lose their right to a lease if Kassirer gets his way.

The landlord is using an expiration of a J-51 tax break to justify his efforts. However, Emerald’s application provides very little evidence to support its claim that the buildings should no longer be rent stabilized. J-51 is a property tax exemption and abatement for renovating a residential apartment building.

Kassirer and his company purchased the buildings in 2017, but the tax abatement was grandfathered in place. In this case, the former owner applied for and received 30-year J-51 tax abatements for all six buildings and when the owner sold the buildings to Emerald, the tax abatements carried over.

The former owner did construction on the buildings in 1991. Around that time, they took out a few different loans to finance the construction, including a Participation Loan Program (PLP) loan from the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). This PLP loan makes the buildings permanently rent stabilized – a fact that Emerald did not disclose in its applications to deregulate.

According to Ezinwanyi Ukegbu, supervising attorney at Bronx Legal Services’ Tenant Rights Coalition, it would be illegal to deregulate the buildings because the tenants did not get the proper notification advising them of the upcoming expiration of the J-51 tax abatement program; the owner had to prove the buildings were substantially rehabilitated to deregulate the buildings and did not provide receipts showing their work; and the PLP financing makes the buildings permanently rent stabilized regardless of whether the J-51 program has expired or not.

Ukegbu expressed her frustrations to the Bronx Times and added that landlords often use these “tricks” to take advantage of poor people of color.

“I think this is a way landlords try to get people out of their homes,” she said. “It is unacceptable to use these tactics.”

Among the tenants who have had to deal with poor living conditions are Julius Bennett, 1230 Woodycrest Ave. and Jen Llanos of 1187 Anderson Ave. Bennett, who has lived in his apartment for 30 years, demanded Emerald fix the issues in the buildings.

He said one of the main problems in his building is the elevators often do not work. And as a senior citizen, who has trouble walking, this makes life more than difficult. Bennet told the Bronx Times that if the rent is destabilized many people will be out on the street as they won’t be able to afford to live there.

“They are ready to capitalize on an agreement they made 30 years ago when they borrowed $300,000 to upgrade the buildings,” he said about Emerald, the management company. “They have done nothing except collect rent.”

Llanos, who has only lived in her apartment for two years, said things have gotten worse the past few months. There are holes in the hallway and her apartment is infested with mice, rats, roaches and bed bugs.

In fact, she had to give her cat to her mother and throw out her couch because of the rodent problem. Additionally, her living room is filled with trash bags containing bed sheets, clothes and towels.

“Everything has to be in bags because if we leave anything out there will be lots of spider mites,” she told the Bronx Times.

The problems don’t end there. Her 5-year-old son’s bed has bed bugs and a rat chewed through a big hole in the wall, which she had to cover with a metal plate.

“I call the super to come fix things and he’s always giving me excuses,” she said.

During the peak of the pandemic, Llanos and her boyfriend were unemployed and behind on rent. So, the landlord showed up banging loudly on the door for three weeks asking for rent money. Llanos told him she refused to pay unless he repaired the oven, which hasn’t worked since March of 2020.

“I said I’m not going to pay the rent until you fix the things that are wrong with this apartment,” she said.

After vacuuming and cleaning her apartment nonstop every week, Llanos is glad that she has recently found a new home in Riverdale and is planning on moving soon.

“No matter how much I try to keep things tidy, [bugs] still find ways to come in,” she said.

Reach Jason Cohen at [email protected] or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @bronxtimes and Facebook @bronxtimes.