Tenants of a Crown Heights apartment who got their building owner ousted from management are fighting to take control of their dwelling, and on Tuesday rallied against the former slumlord’s lack of repairs — and slow action from the city since his removal.
Residents of 567 St. Johns Place say they’ve lived with broken ceilings, cracked tiles, disrepairs kitchen essentials and infestations for years. In 2022, they brought then-landlord Gerald Tema to Brooklyn Housing Court, where a judge eventually moved to remove him as manager. After their win in court, tenants thought they would start to see repairs, but so far, their problems remain.
Sophia Stephenson has lived at St. John’s Place for over 30 years and said at a rally on Tuesday that conditions first started to decline roughly a decade ago when Tema took ownership. Over a year since his removal, she said she still isn’t seeing renovations of the deteriorating building.
“If we owned it, we could do what we have to do to live decently but since we’re paying them rent, they need to fix the building and do what we’re paying them to do,” she told Brooklyn Paper.
Stephenson is legally blind and is left to maneuver around holes in her floor. She said she even had to go without a working refrigerator for some time, endangering her health since she is insulin dependent.
“It’s just bad,” she said. “We are waiting for them to step up and start doing the renovations.”
Tenants were told the city took out a $700,000 loan from the landlord’s ownership stake in April of 2023, but they have yet to see the city step in to make any of those repairs.
By asking for a democratic public ownership of the building, tenants like Stephenson are hoping they can take matters into their own hands to renovate their backyards, install working stoves and refrigerators and get rid of pests, according to Joel Feingold, a member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union.
“They want a beautiful building in their own home and that’s a beautiful vision and we will fight forever until we have that,” Feingold said. “It’s in these conditions where the most beautiful things can happen. When people refuse to allow the misery of the landlord system to overwhelm them and [they] imagine a new world and force it into reality.”
A messy history
According to Who Owns What, a nonprofit dedicated to uncovering suppressed building ownership information, the Crown Heights apartment is one location within a portfolio of 196 buildings owned by a conglomeration of property managers and staff including Matthew Ahdoot, Nikolas Leonardos, Ramin Ahdoot, Azzam Obeid and Ken Konfong.
Brooklyn Paper’s attempt to contact the building’s listed owners was unsuccessful.
HPD reports 47 building complaints in the last two years, as well as 446 violations and 133 building charges including lead violations, improper plumbing and window repairs.
Following the removal of Tema, Leonardos was allegedly appointed by the court to be the apartment’s 7A administrator — an advocate delegated to run any privately owned buildings with dangerous health and safety conditions. As administrator, Leonardos is responsible for collecting rent and using that money to provide essential repairs.
According to an HPD spokesperson, some construction has already taken place including waterproofing an outside wall, painting fire escapes, installing new front steps and cleaning the backyard and basement of debris.
As of Nov. 2023, HPD submitted plans and survey to the Department of Buildings. Once approved, the 7A can apply for the necessary work permits to begin renovations inside the apartment.
“[The] 7A is one of HPD’s strongest enforcement actions put in place to improve conditions in buildings with excessive housing code violations, ensuring the health and safety of tenants,” Natasha Kersey, deputy press secretary for HPD said in a statement. “Extensive rehabilitation is planned and in progress for this building, and the current 7A has been in contact with tenants ensure they’re aware of each update as it occurs.”
HPD estimates building renovations will cost around $900,000, covering new plumbing, electrical, joist work, kitchens, bathrooms and flooring.
Fiddle Albert, a member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union, lives in a different apartment but encouraged residents of 567 St. John’s Place to continue speaking up so they don’t have to suffer in silence. Albert previously faced harassment by a similar slumlord, but after joining the tenants rights group, she said she no longer felt like she was fighting alone.
Looking ahead — and with Temu’s time at the helm in the rearview mirror — tenants said Tuesday that they are ready to go to court again if they have to.
“We have to show them that we are the tenants, we are the mighty tenants and if we don’t get what we want in the court, we’ll take it to the streets,” Albert said. “Our organization is a powerful organization that does not accept defeat. We are prepared to fight to the end and when we fight, we will win.”
(Update 1/24/2023 at 11:49 a.m.): This story has been updated to allow comment from HPD.