Five tenants at 299 Troutman St, a private eight-family building in Bushwick, are filing a civil lawsuit against their landlords, Xing Liang Shen and Irene Zhang, citing severe neglect in the conditions of living spaces.
In 2008, a fire completely destroyed two units atop the three-story building. Yet, 11 years later, the charred units remain seemingly untouched and altogether neglected. Though the landlord seeks to hide these units, once beyond the boarded doors, a musty odor grows, leading you around a naked bed frame, and down the narrow hall into a pink-walled family room––missing parts of the ceilings and walls, with a small photograph of a child on the floor, partly buried by ash.
Hector and Maria Cordero, brother and sister, have been living on the ground floor with rent-controlled units for 25 years, In the last decade they have been suffering from rotting walls, and severe leakage, that stem from the lack of repairs to the fire damage above them.
Following the fire in 2008, Maria was pressured to leave her building, with landlords citing unhealthy conditions as a way to coerce her out.
Assemblywoman Maritza Davila recalled, “I was a community organizer when this burnt down and I remember she came to my office because they [landlords] wanted her out, so she was staying somewhere else. I told her ‘no,’ if the Department of Housing Preservation deemed your space livable, you need to return, because that’s the exact way a landlord will try to remove you from the premises, and she’s been here since then. Nevertheless, I or anyone never expected it to take 11 years for something to be done about the conditions.”
Maria, abandoned to wait for the repairs that never came, pointed to the steady leak of water from her ceiling as a testament, explaining:
“We’ve tried to fix everything ourselves by painting over it, this way we can feel better about where we live. Sometimes I don’t know if I can sit at my table because I don’t know when the toilet water is coming down.”
The tenants of 299 Troutman began the process of seeking help by attending a monthly legal clinic at Assemblywoman Maritza Davila’s district office. Davila later referred the case to Mobilization for Justice, Inc, where Ariana Marmora, lead attorney on the case, filed suits on the tenants’ behalf. Mobilization for Justice, Inc. provides free legal assistance in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx in four main areas: housing, disability and aging rights, economic justice, and children’s rights.
“The tenants at 299 Troutman have been exceedingly patient,” said Marmora. “This absentee landlord has shown complete disregard for the lives of these Bushwick residents, the condition of its property, and the law, but the tenants are here, they are organized, and they do care. It’s time for a 7A administrator to show the owner how to do their job.”
The cornerstone of the tenants’ demands that are being fought for is the appointment of a 7A administrator, what Marmora claims is “one of the statutes on the books that we use in the most severe cases.” Administrators of type 7A are typically issued in cases where living conditions threaten the life, health or safety of tenants for a period exceeding five days. The New York City Department of Housing Preservation (DHP) is already in support of the tenants’ application, especially following their property assessment that determined 200 Troutman’s dire need of a new roof, heating system, water system, window replacements, and other renovations.
According to the HPD, the 7A Management Program grants:
“Administrators appointed by the Court (pursuant to New York State Law) to operate privately owned buildings that have been abandoned by their owners, resulting in conditions that are dangerous to the tenants’ life, health and safety. The administrators act under Court Order to collect rents and use the money to provide essential services to the tenants and make necessary repairs. Experienced housing organizations, rather than individuals, are selected to provide 7A management services.”
If the tenants win their lawsuit, an administrator will be appointed and HPD will provide the financial resources to make repairs on the safety concerns. The loans that are issued by HPD will then become the financial responsibility of the original building landlords, Xing Liang Shen and Irene Zhang.
“It all comes back to this: people have to live in these conditions because the landlords really are just greedy,” said Davila. “It has nothing to do with anything else, but greed.”
All images by Erik Kantar, for Bushwick Daily.
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