New effort in Williamsburg to ‘unmask’ landlords

For years, the address has sent shivers through the spines of tenants throughout North Brooklyn: 199 Lee Avenue.

Home of Lee Avenue Shipping and Communication, it is the site of more than 350 brass mailboxes where many Brooklyn tenants mail their rent checks, month after month, without necessarily knowing who their landlord is.

This could change with new legislation introduced this week by Manhattan Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito (D-East Harlem).On August 18, Viverito joined several members of Make the Road New York and Brooklyn housing attorneys on Lee Avenue in South Williamsburg to announce her proposal to require landlords to register principal owners with the city.

“The only interaction between some tenants and their landlords right now is a mailbox.That cannot stand,” said Viverito.“Registration of landlords needs to happen.It’s a way of unmasking who the landlords are and holding them accountable.”

As proposed, the Multiple Dwelling Registration Bill will seek to require landlords organized as limited liability corporations (LLC) to register the names and addresses of all individuals who share ownership in a multiple dwelling, beyond the 25 percent share threshold currently required by the city.The bill would also seek to apply the city’s administrative code to multiple dwellings instead of just single room occupancy (SRO) buildings, vastly expanding the number of buildings within the city’s purview.

According to attorneys with South Brooklyn Legal Services, the managing agents and corporation officers of buildings are often difficult to reach.In many low-income Brooklyn neighborhoods, buildings in foreclosure have often changed owners quickly, leaving a trail of names that may not have the authority to make decisions on a property.The resulting confusion over ownership of a property often makes it difficult for tenants and housing advocates to resolve problems outside of the courts.

“I meet people every day and their first question is often, ‘Who is my landlord?’” said Michael Grinthal, staff attorney with South Brooklyn Legal Services.“It can take days of research to find out.”

Make the Road members made a rare trip to South Williamsburg to visit the site where many of them mailed their rent checks to.At a makeshift press conference on the corner of Lee Avenue and Heyward Street, MRNY member Otilia Rios spoke about the consequences of having multiple unknown landlords for multiple dwellings in his neighborhood.

“My neighbors and I have no idea who actually owns our building and has control over its daily operations,” said Rios.“Over the last three years, I have had serious problems in my apartment, including a roach and rodent infestation.When I call the number provided by my landlord to try and resolve these problems, no one answers and my calls are not returned.When I send letters to 199 Lee Avenue, I get no response.”

Though Make The Road New York’s membership base is primarily Latino and many LLCs registered at 199 Lee Avenue have strong Hasidic connections, Executive Director Javier Valdes emphasized that the Multiple Dwelling Bill was not indicative of a conflict between Latino tenants and Hasidic landlords but a measure to promote transparency and protect all low-income tenants.

“I think about all tenants living in safe and affordable housing and this can benefit Hasidic Jews in this area as well,” said Valdez.“We feel what is really important is that people live in safe conditions.Hopefully we will be able to know what is really behind these LLCs.”

A worker at Lee Avenue Shipping and Communication declined to comment.

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