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Organizing Gets the Goods: Flatbush Tenants Force Repairs After Decades of Neglect

Issue 278

After years of organizing rent strikes and lawsuits against their slumlord, residents of a Flatbush building with more than 500 open violations are starting to see repairs.

Amba Guerguerian Mar 20, 2023

1111 Ocean Avenue in Flatbush has been plagued by rats, roaches, mold, peeling lead paint, and collapsing ceilings for years. But after a two-year rent strike by some of the residents, the 103-unit building is starting to see some positive changes. 

“He put poison with the French fries, mixed it all up and put it in the basement. When he came back there were tons of dead rats!” Phyllis McQueen, who has lived in the building since 1980, said excitedly after an exterminator came. 

Other tenants are still skeptical of their landlord, Sam Wasserman. “They’re starting to make the less expensive interior repairs, but they haven’t begun to do the expensive exterior repairs,” said Janice Broadie, who moved into the building in 2009.

In mid-February, the tenants announced a lawsuit against Wasserman, demanding immediate repairs to their apartments and an end to years of neglect. As of March 10, the city Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) listed the building as having 587 open violations, including at least 157 Class C — “immediately hazardous” — conditions.

“If the pressure lets off of them, they’ll stop doing repairs,” says Rita Kettrles, a tenant since 1975. HPD filed a suit demanding that the landlord make repairs in 2021. 

On Oct. 13, a ceiling collapsed in a children’s bedroom in the middle of the night in a sixth-floor apartment, raining down concrete, plaster and debris. The children weren’t in the room, but it was the fourth ceiling collapse in the building in the past year. The Department of Buildings issued a vacate order for part of the building more than four years ago, but the landlord has not made the required repairs. 

“When they put the scaffolding up, the landlord told me that it would probably take about two weeks. And that was eight years ago.”

“When they put the scaffolding up, I called the landlord. And he told me that he was looking into it. And it would probably take about two weeks. And that was eight years ago,” said Kettrles. 

Tenants in the city have become “more empowered” in recent years, says Le’Shera Hardy, one of the Brooklyn Legal Services lawyers representing the Ocean Avenue residents. “Tenants are more informed about what they can do to combat this neglectful behavior.”

•   •   •

Rita Kettrles grew up in Bed-Stuy. She, her husband and their two young children moved to 1111 Ocean Ave. 48 years ago.

“We had a doorman, a superintendent, handymen, porters, laundry rooms — it was a luxury building. And it remained that way until it was sold from Keller Livingston to the Wassermans,” said Kettrles of the building’s services when her family moved there. Now, the six-story building only has one super, who works another job and is rarely available.

The building has a complicated history. When Sam Wasserman bought it in 1989, he began converting it to a co-op to circumvent rent stabilization, says Kettrles. At the time, city law allowed owners to convert a building to a co-op if 15% of the apartments were owned by individual shareholders. Wasserman renovated the empty apartments and sold about 15 to individual shareholders. 

Since then, he or one of his front companies have owned the remaining apartments. Each time a rent-stabilized tenant moves out, Wasserman starts charging market-rate rent for that apartment, claiming that the building is a co-op and therefore no longer subject to rent regulations. 

Kettrles and McQueen are among the handful of the rent-stabilized tenants who remain. The others have also been in their apartments since before the 1989 conversion. Between 1990 and 2016, they won a rent freeze, because building services had been reduced; all that remained was one super for 103 units. “They took our services away, so we went to court,” said Kettrles.

Her rent increased by $800 when the freeze ended in 2016, but Kettrles says she and the other tenants still weren’t receiving all of the services required by housing law. She sought out support from the Flatbush Tenant Coalition and, along with McQueen, decided to form a tenant association in the building. Broadie joined shortly thereafter. 

In 2021, amid a citywide movement of tenants to “cancel rent” during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 16 members of the tenant association went on rent strike. They have been withholding rent ever since, which is legal in New York if the landlord allows outstanding violations to persist. 

Wasserman signed an order of consent to settle HPD’s 2021 suit, agreeing to make the needed repairs.

Tenants from 23 units have joined the suit announced in February. They want Wasserman to be fined and for HPD to hire a contractor to make the much-needed repairs, charging the cost to the landlord. 

In 2021, amid a citywide movement of tenants to “cancel rent” during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 16 members of the tenant association went on rent strike.

They have also petitioned state Attorney General Letitia James’ office for the right to take over control of the building, which was denied due to the handful of individual shareholders. “We’re still trying to get the Attorney General involved because this building is not being managed — the money is being pocketed,” said Broadie. “I would love to see new management. I would love for everyone to come and just stand outside that building and figure out how can someone say that this is a co-op?”

The Office of the Attorney General did not respond to The Indypendent’s  request for comment.

•   •   •

“If you don’t speak up, you get no results. We started contacting 311, HPD, the Attorney General eight years ago,” said McQueen. “I guess by us constantly staying on stuff, it makes a difference.”

She stopped using her bathtub 15 years ago because all the varnish had peeled off, and started complaining to management that it needed to be repaired. Five years ago, she began to notice and file complaints about black mold — which has harmed her health — in one of the bedrooms in her apartment. In early March, those repairs were finally made. 

“We should e-mail the building because this is a total victory,” said Andrew Butler, another member of the tenants association.

“That’s what they should have been doing all along in the entire building!” said Kettrles angrily when McQueen explained how inspectors came into her apartment to check for mold, and then handymen tore down and replastered the infested walls. “It’s only because of our organizing,” Kettrles added.

The 1111 Ocean Ave. tenant association’s recent building-wide meeting on Feb. 9 was the most-ever attended, with nearly 50 tenants participating. Kettrles, McQueen, Broadie and Butler say that nearly all tenants in the building suffer from similar problems, but the market-rate residents who don’t get leases from the landlord fear that they could be evicted if they make trouble. Other tenants are immigrants, who fear that Wasserman will report them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they confront him.

Why would anyone choose to stay in a building in such bad condition? “Who wants to just give in to a bully?” Butler responds. “You want to stand up for yourself and you want to stand up for your neighbors, especially when you see that they’re taking advantage of the most vulnerable ones. You want to fight and win.”

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