Tenants Take On The ‘City’s Worst Landlord’ With Rent Strike

| Resist!

Above photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Standing outside the four-story brick apartment building in Crown Heights she calls home, Jemiah Johnson took her turn with the black megaphone. “This building is literally killing us!” the 26-year-old mother shouted to the small crowd of neighbors waving homemade signs scrawled with phrases like DEFEND RENT STRIKERS and TENANT POWER. “My child is waking up three or four times in the middle of the night struggling to breathe.” At the November rally, she and her fellow mask-clad tenants described a long-standing pattern of neglect and shoddy repairs: crumbling ceilings, leaky pipes, walls caked with mold, repeated desultory work that never truly fixes anything. “It’s deplorable,” Johnson said. “And he feels he deserves something for that? I don’t think so.”

The “he” is Jason Korn, called the city’s worst individual landlord in 2019 by Public Advocate Jumanne Williams, and Johnson and 15 other tenants in the building at 1616 President Street who have gone on a rent strike. The pandemic served as their tipping point — several recently lost work and are unable to pay anyway — beginning in May. For a while, it seemed like the strike was going to work: Korn agreed to Zoom negotiations in late October, but then he abruptly pulled out a couple days before they were to begin. Now, he has upped the ante by taking the first step to evicting most of the people in the building, with notices warning rent-striking residents that they will be dragged to housing court unless they pay what they owe.

“I immediately thought, Okay, take me to court,” said Angela Robinson, who has lived in the building with her family for 17 years. “Let the judge see what’s going on. We’re fed up with this nonsense.” Her own President Street horror story started in 2017, when a leak led to a gaping hole in her kitchen ceiling, with the guts of the building spilling out. The problem was only fixed after a lengthy run in housing court, and now she says the mold that once riddled her cabinets and walls is returning. Residents say the same cycle has played out in many units. The landlord has sent a steady stream of handymen through their homes over the years, but they have patched rather than really fixed the problems. Now that those visits come with the risk of COVID-19, rent strikers have begun denying access for repairs until they’re assured that problems will be fixed once and for all.

The issues at 1616 President Street start at the front door — tenants say the locks are defective and the intercom system is broken — and carry throughout many of the apartments. The building, which is run by Lilmor Management, has more than 123 open violations (17 of which were reported over the last two weeks) from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development for conditions that run the gamut from roach and mouse infestations to peeling lead paint to mold issues like Robinson’s.

“For him, we’re animals. That’s how [the landlord] treats us,” said Rose Helesca, who has lived in the building for roughly two decades. Early each morning, after lengthy shifts caring for COVID-19 patients at an Upper West Side nursing home, Helesca rushes to take a scalding shower to rid herself of any traces of virus she might track home to her three young children. If her neighbors are showering, she has little choice but to wait — usually 20 minutes — for hot water. While she’s waiting, she might stare at the mold creeping up the walls or at the cracked ceiling. “I’m outside sacrificing, helping, why can’t the landlord make sure me and my kids are living comfortably?” she said. “This building needs a miracle.”

Josh Rosenblum, one of Korn’s attorneys, said October’s sit-down would have been “more cathartic than productive,” since it would have been a conversation between the landlord and the tenants’ association — with lawyers on both sides present as silent observers. Korn’s attorneys are now demanding a list of needed repairs and dates when workers can access residents’ apartments and say they’re willing to negotiate repayment plans with individual renters. “The landlord’s not looking to evict anybody, but if you don’t communicate, you don’t pay rent, you don’t give access, you’re essentially forcing our hand,” said Rosenblum. Laura Dismore, a lawyer with Brooklyn Legal Services who represents the tenants’ association, says residents have been clear about the desire to sit down and simply have a conversation with their landlord. “Having a chance to be heard is a really powerful thing,” said Dismore. “To turn around and say that the tenants aren’t forthcoming with information, that they aren’t getting what they need, is misleading.”

The tenants’ association aims to meet with Korn later this week in hopes of preventing evictions; the residents are waiting for confirmation that those talks will move forward. Those on rent strike recognize the risks they’re up against if they go to housing court, but for them, the possibility of losing their homes is worth the risk to improve them. “I’m not going to give up the fight,” said Vincia Barber, who helped form the tenants’ association in February, “I could be the only one standing up, and I’ll still stand up to him.”