The tenants of two adjacent apartment buildings on Sterling Place in Crown Heights have launched a rent strike in protest of egregious living conditions and neglect from their landlord, five months after their next-door neighbors launched their own strike on similar grounds.
Residents of 1402 and 1408 Sterling Place, between Schenectady and Utica avenues, plan to withhold their rent checks to their landlord, Chestnut Holdings, in protest of what they say is the property manager’s extreme dereliction of responsibility for basic maintenance, leaving their residence looking like a “slum.”
“When they want their rent, when do they want it? They want it now,” said state Sen. Zellnor Myrie at a strike-launch rally in front of the decrepit dwellings on Saturday, April 23. “So when we want justice, when we want repairs, when we want basic decency, we demand that we get it now.”
Indeed, June Walters, a tenant at 1408 Sterling for over 40 years, says that when she asks the landlord a question about paying her rent, she gets a prompt answer. But any inquiry related to a repair seems to disappear into the ether. Most appallingly, she says that she lived without a working refrigerator for three years, with Chestnut consistently ignoring her pleas for a new fridge, even after she called 311 repeatedly.
The consequences of Chestnut’s disregard included Walters going into diabetic shock when she had nowhere cold to store her medications. “Oh God, forget about food,” she told Brooklyn Paper. “Food, it becomes numb. I eat the food, I put it in the fridge, never knowing that it is really damaging me.”
Walters eventually borrowed a cooler and a portable freezer, and, after three years of neglect, finally caved and bought her own refrigerator. She sent a copy of the receipt to the landlord and has heard bupkes from them, even now, she said. “I’m not getting back my money,” she said.
Intra-apartment maintenance isn’t the only area of grievance: the management company also doesn’t do building-wide repairs and sanitation, residents allege.
“We have rats, we have squirrels,” Walters said. “But what happened, we as people, we used to fix the building ourselves. We did our own mopping. Handypeople, they do their things themselves because they want it to be livable.”
Now, Walters is joining her fellow tenants in withholding her $1,100 monthly rent check to the landlord until the management company starts providing basic, consistent maintenance. They were inspired by their next-door neighbors at 1392 Sterling Place, who have been on a rent strike of their own since November under parallel pretenses — 1402 and 1408 tenants contacted Housing Organizers for People Empowerment (HOPE), the group facilitating 1392’s strike, and expressed interest in an action of their own.
The experience at 1392, however, suggests that the new strikers will weather months of severe hardship going forward, even in relation to the neglect they’ve experienced already. Five months into their rent strike, the property manager at 1392, Iris Holdings, has completely given up even the pretense of maintaining the building, residents say, and now believes their primary duty is to harass and threaten the tenants.
Still, tenants are soldiering on in pursuit of justice, refusing to accept the obscene conditions foisted upon them. Amber Oilett, a 12-year resident at 1392 — 11 of them with her daughter — cannot enjoy a nice, relaxing shower in her bathroom because it leaks to the unit beneath her. She could, however, take one in her kitchen if she wants: two massive holes in the ceiling leak precipitously when it rains, including right above her stove.
“When it rains, we can’t cook,” Oilett said. “We just eat cereal.”
Oilett says she has been trying to get the issues fixed for her entire tenancy, to no avail. She said in the past, she’d be on the phone with management every other month begging for someone to come in for repairs; if management agrees to send someone, they never say who it is, and so Oilett refused under suspicion that they’ll send someone without professional certification, as other tenants in the building have experienced. While she has painted her own walls and has some skills as a handyperson, she won’t try to fix the ceiling issues herself owing to the possibility of asbestos or lead in the nearly century-old building, but she also does not want an amateur to come in and do a “patch” job.
Management sending in unlicensed contractors to do cheap, shoddy patchwork is a recurring complaint from tenants at 1392, for issues ranging from holes in their bathrooms, windows falling out of their pane, mold, vermin, or lack of heat. Others say the management company would just never show up even after saying they would.
“They always say they’re coming,” said resident Jerome Pierre, who spent months attempting to get fixes for major leaks in his bedroom. “And they never come.”
Now, the management company doesn’t even answer their calls.
“This is a cesspool of everything,” Myrie said on a tour of the building on Saturday.
1392 Sterling was never a great place to live, but conditions have deteriorated significantly since the building’s prior owner, Ruben Dukler, passed away last year. Dukler had been trying to sell the building to Iris, but his death left ownership status in “purgatory.” The building has not been legally registered with the city or state for several years, records show, and the edifice’s owners have defied an order from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development to perform repairs.
Dukler, a perennial entrant on the Public Advocate’s list of worst landlords, and Iris had previously been sued by tenants at another property they owned, citing illegal rent increases and horrific conditions.
Tenants say they will end their rent strike if the landlord meets with them and presents a comprehensive repair plan, utilizing professional repair services. They are seeking full mold remediation, repair to water damage in walls and ceilings, window and door fixes, replacing faulty plumbing, and to legally register the building, among other things. Tenants will start paying rent again once issues are fixed.
A spokesperson for Chestnut said that the company had not been aware of the rent strike at its Sterling Place properties until Brooklyn Paper reached out for comment Monday morning. The rep disputed that Chestnut has been a derelict landlord, arguing instead that they have had a “very open line of communication with everybody ” in the buildings and conducted repair work in a timely manner, and said that the landlord had upgraded the buildings’ electrical wiring earlier this year as an example.
They also said that some tenants had “not been cooperative” with Chestnut after asking for repairs, hindering their ability to complete them, and denied tenants’ claims that they had to perform cleaning and repairs by themselves.
“When repairs are reported to us in the regular course of business, we always try to respond timely to these things,” the Chestnut spokesperson said. “Some of it obviously does require tenant cooperation, and as long as people are working with us, we’re happy to address any and all complaints timely.”
1402 and 1408 Sterling Place altogether have 268 open violations listed by HPD.
Iris could not be reached for comment.
Not everyone in the three buildings is joining the strike, with some still fearing reprisal. But most are taking part, tenants say; a walk-through in 1392 showed most units displaying a “Rent Strike” sign on their doors.
That’s because most tenants are at the end of their ropes. Francine Doyle, a 26-year resident at 1402 Sterling, said that she’s taking part after a massive leak in her apartment destroyed her computer. She sued after the landlord refused to provide more than $1 in remuneration, and though she lost that suit she still thinks she’s owed a computer.
“No more money until we get our apartments fixed,” Doyle said.