Harlem Apartment Residents on Rent Strike Over Building Conditions

rent in a harlem apartment building

A group of renters in Harlem are going on a rent strike to protest living conditions in their building, according to a new civil action filed in the New York County Court.

Residents of the rent-stabilized building at 1833 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd allege in the lawsuit that their landlord, Manhattanville Holdings LLC, and property manager, Israel David failed to adequately repair the building following a deadly fire that occurred in November 2021.

The fire claimed the lives of three tenants, caused damage to several common areas of the complex, and displaced renters from 10 of the building’s 49 units.

Manhattan Legal Services’ Tenant Rights Coalition (TRC) represents the tenants.

“The tenants are tired of waiting for their landlord to do the right thing and make repairs, so they are announcing a rent strike and filing a lawsuit against their landlord seeking a court order for repairs, relocation, and storage costs for displaced tenants, as well as harassment damages, among other claims,” said Rakhil Tilyayeva, a TRC attorney.

According to the complaint, the landlord and property manager met with several New York housing agencies and the impacted tenants in February and promised to remediate the damages. However, the tenants claim that management has yet to begin construction. This has forced several tenants to be displaced at their own expense.

Some of the damages that remain from the fire include mold, soot in the walls and ceilings of some units, broken windows, and a leaking roof.

“There are over a hundred [Housing Preservation & Development] violations in the building, some of which have not been corrected since they were issued immediately following the fire, and others that have been open for years,” Tilyayeva said.

“Many of these violations relate to fire safety requirements, which we believe contributed to the deadly fire that occurred in November 2021. Tenants are legally entitled to withhold and set aside rent payments until repairs and essential services are provided. These tenants and their families deserve justice, and we will not stop fighting until we get it.”

Oaklin Davis, one of the displaced residents and an organizer for Tenants & Neighbors, a renter’s union in New York, said the property manager told them to speak with the American Red Cross about a temporary shelter. Davis added that this arrangement worked for a couple of weeks before they had to find a new place to live at their own expense.

“I stayed one night in a hotel afforded to me by the Red Cross and then two weeks in a shelter with other displaced people until I found a more permanent place to live,” Davis said. “No one from management ever reached out to me again, except on the first of each month when I find a rent demand letter stuck in the door frame of my unit that remains uninhabitable. The last note I received from management was a contract to renew my lease with a 1.5% increase in the monthly rate.”

Rent increases in New York have been a persistent pain for many renters in the city. According to data from real estate brokerage Douglas Elliman, the median rent in New York City topped $4,000 per month in May, a nearly two percent increase year-over-year.

In neighborhoods like Brooklyn and Queens, rents have been rising even faster. Brooklyn’s median rent increased to $3,250 in May, a 25.2 percent increase from May 2021. The median rent in Queens rose to $2,950, a 19.6 percent increase over the last 12 months.

Meanwhile, New York’s rental vacancy rate—which measures the percentage of available rental units in a given area—dropped to 4.43 percent in 2021.  

In response, New York’s City Council passed a series of rent-stabilization protections. Rent-stabilization policies give renters additional protections from unwarranted rent increases and eviction. They can also provide avenues for renters to seek civil damages from landlords who do not abide by the policies.

Additionally, more than 42,000 rent-stabilized units have been vacant for more than a year.

Jay Martin, the executive director of New York’s Community Housing Improvement Program, told the Brooklyn Eagle that the city’s Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 is one reason why the units continue to sit empty.

“[These units] need significant renovations, sometimes in excess of $100,000, and there is no mechanism for an owner to recoup these costs,” Martin said.

Impacted renters say their need for habitable living spaces outweighs their landlord’s financial concerns.

“Despite numerous 311 complaints, many of us on the fifth floor have been engaged in an uphill battle to get management to address a longstanding mold issue in our individual apartments because the roof leaks whenever it rains,” Sheena Morrison said. “Just before the fire, it had become so unbearable that we had to move all our clothing from the closet in the bedroom and begin sleeping in the living room. When I needed a new refrigerator, management sent me a roach-infested replacement. I dragged it out to the hallway myself and asked the super to remove it. It took days before he came back with another one.”

The tenants are currently awaiting a court date.

How You Can Help

The pandemic proved that we need to rethink housing in the U.S. It also showed that providing additional support and protections for renters is a clear-cut way to reduce future increases in homelessness.

That’s why we need you to contact your officials and representatives. Tell them you support keeping many of the pandemic-related aid programs in place for future use. They have proven effective at keeping people housed, which is the first step to ending homelessness.

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

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