According to New York state assembly member Linda B. Rosenthal, the state is suffering. It’s the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression, and there are over 90,000 men, women and children at the mercy of the elements. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of units all over New York City are sitting empty, held off the market by property owners waiting for circumstances to favor the accumulation of the absolute maximum in profits. Among housing watchdogs, this practice is known as “warehousing.” A coalition of its critics, including Rosenthal and a handful of other politicians and affordable housing advocacy groups, are of the opinion that warehousing amidst a housing crisis is both immoral and makes a living hell out of the lives of residents dwelling in nearby apartments.
Bushwick residents need look no further than an aging, rent-stabilized four-story building at 149 Irving Avenue to find a classic example of “warehousing” in all its dilapidated glory. Three of the building’s six apartments are vacant, made possible via buyouts of their former occupants by the building’s owner, Ink Property Group. The remaining tenants’ apartments abut these empty units, whose crescendoing decrepitude they say has made their lives increasingly miserable.
Two of the building tenants, Ana Rosa and Benny Santiago, are currently in the process of filing suit against Ink Property for the corporation’s alleged reneging on a deal struck in Brooklyn housing court last year, in which Ink Property agreed to repair both the building’s vacant and occupied apartments. But the case was just the latest salvo in a legal battle that started not long after Ink Property brought the building in 2016.
Their fight had been and remains shepherded by Elise Goldin, a tenant activist who works for the nonprofit St. Nicks Alliance, as well as the non-profit legal services provider Take Root Justice. (Various activist groups have targeted warehousing as a practice and, together, they recently formed the End Apartment Warehousing Coalition.)
The building on Irving Avenue is just one of the many Ink-owned properties whose tenants are working with Goldin and St. Nicks. While specifics vary somewhat, they share a common theme: what Goldin and others see as purposeful neglect by landlords looking to transform rent-stabilized apartments into market-rate cash cows. (On Yelp, Ink Property Group has an abysmal rating.)
“In 2019, there were horrible leaks [in the vacant apartments] that nobody would address,” Goldin told Bushwick Daily. “So a huge amount of dangerous mold built up, which impacted the existing tenants’ air quality. Windows [onto the street] were left open, creating drafts and the possibility of break-ins.”
Tenants at 149 Irving Avenue, represented by lawyers at Take Root Justice, filed suit against Ink Property in 2019. They did so under article 7A of the state’s Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law, which constitutes a charge of neglect against a landlord. At the end of a successful 7A suit, landlords generally forfeit the right to collect rent; the city then takes over management of the building, using the tenants’ monthly remittances to ameliorate the damages caused by the neglectful property owner.
Ink Property, however, dug in, refusing to relinquish control of the building. Instead, they promised to complete the long list of repairs demanded by the tenants, who, as part of the deal, wouldn’t have to pay rent for two years.
That two year reprieve is set to expire this July. The promised repairs — according to Santiago, who lives on a 3rd floor apartment that his mother moved into in the early ’70s and who is close to retiring as an aviation safety inspector for the FAA — have yet to start. What few repairs were made weren’t done in a spirit of diligence or thoroughness, Santiago says.
“We went to court, and they agreed to Elise’s attorney’s terms, that they were gonna fix all the units,” he said. “To my knowledge these folks neglected the court order. They removed the mold but they left the walls torn apart and the plumbing exposed, and leakage all over.”
A tour of the still-handsomely wainscoted building, which sports a bodega and a barber shop on its ground floor, corroborated his story.
“I don’t expect to leave, but these living conditions!” Santiago said, “I’m a 60-year-old retired military man. I make a good living — I should be living good. But no, I have to live in a rat-infested apartment.”
Up two flights of stairs is the apartment of Ana Rosa, an octogenarian whose long, narrow space is crammed with homey decorative touches and pictures of her grandchildren. Her son, Robert, translated.
“I’ve been trying to get her out of this building forever, but she knows everyone in the neighborhood,” he said, “She’s made roots here. It’s difficult for her to move.”
He pointed to a spot on the kitchen wall above the stove: “This molding right here, whenever it rains it’s all bubbled up. It’s always been an issue. And as you can see here, the cabinets are buckling. And this floor is completely warped. All the windows need to be changed; they don’t stay up.”
Rosa interjected and Robert nodded, adding, “When it comes to the temperature in here it’s either cold or stifling hot. We’ve been told the thermostat on the boiler downstairs has been broken but no one has fixed it, so whenever they put the heat on it stays on for four straight days, and it gets so hot in here she has trouble breathing.”
If Santiago and Rosa did decide to cut their losses and leave, their departure would leave the building’s second and third floors open to another practice known as “Frankensteining,” which Goldin and her allies also oppose in the strongest of terms.
Frankensteining is the process of merging two adjacent apartments to make one larger unit; it is usually preceded by the warehousing of one or both the apartments. According to current property law, the resultant “super apartment” is considered a new apartment entirely, which means it may now shed the onus of rent-stabilization, letting the landlord list the space at whatever price they like.
The two strategies, implemented chiefly to skirt tenant-shielding laws like New York’s recent Housing Stability And Tenant Protection Act or HSTP, were in the crosshairs during the town hall meeting held last week by Assembly member Rosenthal. Rosenthal had backed HSTP and is likewise involved in a bill being drafted to weld shut the gaps in her last law.
The latest bill seeks to prevent landlords from warehousing apartments, while another municipal bill is being drafted that would require landlords to make empty units available for safety and health-related inspections. Neither, as yet, have acronyms, and both are still being fine-tuned.
“When you become a landlord in this city, you make a social compact with the city and its residents,” Rosenthal said. “But [landlords] have violated that compact by engaging in the practice of warehousing. We know that housing is healthcare, particularly during COVID, and it’s a human right. [The state anti-warehousing bill] will help solve our homelessness problem, help struggling New Yorkers stay in their homes so they can do the jobs that are vital for the city to keep running.”
Three tenants spoke at last week’s town hall: Rosa Garcia from Williamsburg; Edward Ratliff from midtown and Ana Rosa, from 149 Irving. Their testimony painted a Boschian picture of deliberate neglect: holes punched in walls letting in freezing drafts and cockroaches from adjacent apartments, dangerous gas leaks, whole building floors turned into hazardous construction sites while tenants occupied the remaining units.
“This crisis gives us the opportunity to do the right thing and to help New Yorkers access safe, affordable housing,” Rosenthal said.
Rosa was the last of the tenants to speak, but her testimony was no less affecting for its brevity: “Where I live there are three apartments that have been empty for five years. I don’t know who could come in. You call the owners but they don’t do anything. No one to call, no one to tell, and we don’t know what to do. I’m scared.”
Top photo credit: Matt Fink.
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