On Tuesday morning tenants of 567 St. John’s Pl. in Crown Heights held a rally and press conference outside their building to demand the City make needed repairs to it. In June of 2022 the tenants, members of The Crown Heights Tenants Union (CHTU), won a case with the City that ceded control of the building from the landlord for neglect.
“They just come asking for money, but no repairs for us. We are just living with rats, roaches, bedbugs — and nothing gets done!” said Yasmin, a tenant of 11 years, at the rally.
The tenants are now demanding Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) use the $700,000 it has set aside to renovate the building from public funds — a loan against the old landlord’s ownership stake — to begin work on the building and actually start initiating improvements to their living quality.
Article 7A of the New York State Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law allows housing court judges to manage residential buildings that have been “effectively abandoned,” where conditions have been deemed “dangerous to life, health, or safety” of tenants. These cases generally have two outcomes: Either the landlord pays off their debts and regains control of the building, or the building is sold to another private entity in an auction after the landlord is foreclosed upon.
567 St. John’s Pl. is an eight-unit, four story rent-stabilized building in the center of rapidly-gentrifying Crown Heights. Its tenants told The Indypendent that since it took control of the building in June 2022, HPD made repairs to the fire escapes, painted the lower exterior of the building, and has the garbage taken out but has made no internal repairs and no rodent or insect extermination. Tenants say that HPD officials, including the head of the 7A program Melissa Lima, have come to visit the building some three times, making promises of further repairs that remain unfulfilled, say the tenants.
“Now they are saying that they are waiting for permits,” said Evelyn, 20, who has lived in the building her whole life. Her mother and father moved there right around the time she was born and have been working with other tenants to maintain the building, which began to fall into disrepair after its most recent landlord Gerard Tema bought the building in 2008. After Tema learned about the 7A case in 2022, he sent people to offer the tenants money to vacate the building. “They said they would give me $10,000,” says Yasmin, who refused the offer. “Nobody did it,” she said, laughing.
Thanks to a pressure campaign that has included rallies and support from some local elected officials such as Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest and State Senator Zellnor Myrie, HPD lowered rents to the legal amount after gaining control of 567 st. John’s Place. Tema had been overcharging — one recently-arrived tenant was paying $800 more than the legal amount for the rent-stabilized unit. And, just yesterday, the day after the rally/press conference at the building, HPD’s administration gave Evelyn the lease for her apartment, which, according to CHTU, should have arrived October.
Like many other tenants in rent-stabilized buildings with neglectful landlords in New York City, those at 567 St. John’s Pl. face issues with the building’s structure, leaking, mold, rats, bedbugs, mice, faulty electricity and inoperable or partially operable appliances, and they lack a superintendent.
The tenants of the Crown Heights building are aiming to take control of its management rather than have it be sold to another potential slumlord in an auction, but they will be navigating uncharted waters as tenant control of public housing funds would be unprecedented in New York City.
“For [over a] year, the City has been in control, management of this building, right? We want it under tenant control so the tenants can solve these problems with the know-how they have while the City maintains the building,” said Joel Feingold, longtime organizer with CHTU.
There have been instances in New York City where tenants replaced their landlord and formed a coop, becoming owners of the building and all buying shares. And there were instances where squatters took over abandoned buildings; after occupying the buildings for years, the City ended up ceding control to the squatters, but they remained responsible for the building’s upkeep costs. If the tenants were to take control of the building’s management while the City continues to pay for the costs, that would be a first for New York City.
CHTU says it is still working out the mechanics of how to achieve tenant control of public funds in order to maintain their buildings.
When asked where the money should come from for the City to maintain the buildings, Feingold said, “The landlords have so many tax breaks. The City and the State give landlords billions of dollars to push people out of the neighborhoods, to build luxury housing that no one can afford. … Instead, that money needs to be invested as a public good under tenant control so we can stay here and build a future for working-class New York in our own neighborhoods.”
Before HPD took control a year and a half ago, the tenants had already been cleaning and maintaining the public spaces in the building (by means of suing the landlord for repairs when necessary).
“I’m fighting with them hard — trying to get [HPD] to do the renovation,” says Sofia, a tenant who has lived in the building for 30 years under three private landlords and who participated in the initial legal battles against Tema over a decade ago. “Right now the building is going into foreclosure. We don’t hear from [HPD]. We don’t know where we stand with them.”
In 2013, five years after Tema bought the building, the tenants at 567 St. John’s Pl. began self-organizing in order to repair the public stairwell. In 2019, they became affiliated with CHTU and began a rent strike. Residents of seven of the eight units in the building are involved in organizing.
In an interview after Tuesday’s rally, the four tenants — Evelyn, her mother (who would like to remain unnamed), Yasmin and Sofia — that were present at the action confirmed their resolve to fight for control of the management of their building.
There are a handful of other buildings in Brooklyn that have recently won 7A cases and more that want to do so, so these are clearly potential organizing partners for the tenants of 567 St. John’s Pl. “There has been an uptick in new 7A cases after 7A basically fell into disuse for decades,” says Feingold. “Some buildings and tenant unions are trying to think of a new model of public housing under direct tenant control coming out of 7A cases.”