New York State passed laws in June that dramatically strengthened its rent regulations, but tenants in Inwood are still fighting a landlord they say is trying to push them out and jack up rents.
Residents of 252 Sherman Ave. filed a lawsuit on July 19 against Barberry Rose Management, demanding repairs and alleging that even after their rent was raised for “major capital improvements” (MCIs) to the building’s boiler and roof, they still have inadequate heat and hot water and the roof leaks.
“We were paying for something that was supposedly new,” tenant Emmanuel Antigua told The Indypendent at a rally in front of the building on July 16. He said the two MCI increases last year raised rents by about $100 a month on average.
Others say Barberry Rose, which has spent more than $140 million in the past five years to acquire more than 30 buildings in Inwood and Washington Heights, is following the classic predatory-landlord pattern of buying up buildings in gentrifying neighborhoods and then trying to drive out the rent-stabilized tenants.
The nine demands listed on a flyer that members of the Barberry Rose Tenant Union passed out at the July 16 rally included consistent heat and hot water, no more MCIs, correct rent bills and “that our neighbors not be taken to court for frivolous cases, including non-primary residence cases and nonpayment cases for back rent tenants do not owe.”
“We’ve seen a great increase in the number of civil complaints filed against tenants,” says Ronald Porcelli, a staff attorney at Manhattan Legal Services’ Tenant Rights Coalition who is representing the 252 Sherman Ave. tenants. He says such eviction cases show “a very clear pattern of harassment.”
The suit also alleges that the MCI increases are a “strategic mechanism” by which the landlord has been able to raise rents on rent-stabilized tenants, “securing greater profits while harassing tenants and encouraging them to be displaced.”
“Although we cannot specifically comment on pending litigation, Barberry Rose Management has a long history of maintaining affordable housing and improving conditions for all of our renters in Northern Manhattan,” Barberry Rose owner Lewis M. Barbanel responded in an emailed statement. “We look forward to addressing false and inaccurate statements about our record.”
Barberry Rose, based in the Five Towns area of Long Island, began buying up buildings in Inwood and Washington Heights in 2014. Its biggest single deal came in December 2016, when it acquired 13 buildings for $63.6 million, according to the Real Deal.
“Why is a landlord paying that much for buildings that are almost all rent-stabilized?” asks Johanna Monge, an organizer with the Metropolitan Council on Housing who has helped form tenant associations in seven buildings. “It’s a red flag.”
Many of the residents are elderly and Spanish-speaking, she adds. Rents are typically $1,000 to $1,500 a month for longtime tenants, about $2,000 for newer tenants, and as much as $4,000 for deregulated apartments.
The MCI increases and lack of heat and hot water were “what led to a lot of the organizing,” Monge says. “Folks were enraged that they were paying additional rent for something that didn’t work.”
At 252 Sherman Ave., says tenant association head Sarah McDaniel Dyer, Barberry Rose put room-temperature sensors that would trigger the building’s boiler in “the hottest room” of her top-floor apartment — where “it won’t tell the boiler to turn on, and everyone below is freezing.” Monge says that’s common in the other buildings she’s been in.
The 20-unit building had 42 open violations as of Aug. 1, according to records posted online by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development. They include a leaky roof, roach infestations in two apartments and no cooking gas since January in one first-floor apartment. That apartment is home to an elderly rent-controlled tenant whose $500 rent is the lowest in the building, says McDaniel Dyer.
“They told him they were going to replace his stove, and they never came to fix it,” she adds.
Tenants at 125 Sherman Ave. are also contesting Barberry Rose’s application for MCI increases, says Milianeth Smith, an elementary-school parent coordinator who’s lived there for 12 years. The increases, for work done on the outside of the building, new floors in the halls and a new security system, will raise her $1,200 rent by $58. While the building doesn’t have the problems with heat and dubious eviction attempts that others have complained about, she adds, “they’re charging us for new renovations that don’t really benefit us, they just make the building look prettier.”
Another issue is the eviction lawsuits. At 252 Sherman Ave., says McDaniel Dyer, Barberry Rose claimed one tenant actually lived in Queens, where he has a brother with a similar name. In 2017, according to the Manhattan Times neighborhood newspaper, Barberry Rose filed a suit accusing 66-year-old Juan A. Minaya of living in Fort Lee, New Jersey — home of 77-year-old Juan B. Minaya.
Defending these cases is not as simple as showing up in court with a Con Ed bill with your name and address, says Porcelli. They can take as much as a year. “A lot of evidence is required,” he explains, and landlords often “allege alternative facts.”
The rent-law changes enacted in June are supposed to eliminate the economic incentive for landlords to push tenants out. They restrict rent increases for renovations, repeal the 20 percent increase allowed on vacant apartments and prohibit deregulating them if the rent is high enough.
Are they having an effect? “It’s too early to tell,” says Porcelli.
Johanna Monge finds it encouraging that 10 days after the new laws were passed, Barberry Rose dropped its application for a construction permit in four of the five buildings it owns that are in the city’s Certification of No Harassment program, which requires landlords to prove they have not harassed tenants before they can get a permit for major construction work. That saved tenants from “a lot of really expensive work,” she says.
“People want to fight back for their tenant rights,” says Porcelli. “They’re only asking that their landlord follow the law.”