Tenants and management clash at Bronx buildings in foreclosure

The ground floor hallway of 711 Fairmount Pl. in the Bronx is just as cold as the street outside.

A pipe that’s ready to burst is causing the floor to buckle in the sprawling lobby of 511 Sheridan Ave.

Tenants and organizers in a Bronx building facing foreclosure. Photo: Claire Moses

Tenants and organizers in a Bronx building facing foreclosure. Photo: Claire Moses

Plywood with “out of order” is blocking the broken elevators at 2401 Davidson Ave. — even though tenants were hit with rent hikes that the building’s owners had said were necessary to pay for the elevators’ overhaul.

Such is life at three of 42 apartment buildings in a real estate portfolio on the cusp of foreclosure in the Bronx, Brooklyn and northern Manhattan. This foreclosure is one of the biggest in recent New York City history, affecting more than 1,500 households.

According to a lawsuit that tenants in the buildings are preparing to file in Bronx Supreme Court, difficult living conditions aren’t the only adversity they’re facing. They have been attempting to organize into tenant groups and, they say, meeting resistance from management.   

Bronx Legal Services is working with the tenants, who allege their buildings’ operator, Colonial Management, is obstructing their right to organize.

In signed affidavits, tenants at one building on Franklin Ave. report they were told by their building’s superintendent that they weren’t allowed to meet on the premises and would have to go outside, according to Ian Davie, deputy director for the housing unit at Bronx Legal Services. Another attests that police have arrived to break up more than one meeting in her building.

State law grants tenants the right to hold meetings in common areas in their buildings, as long as they are not obstructing access.

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At a tenants’ association meeting at another building, on East 194th St., Davie said “it got physical” when five men stood outside telling residents they weren’t allowed to hold a meeting.

In all, lawyers have obtained affidavits from tenants in six properties describing what they say are efforts to prevent tenant organizing meetings from taking place or break them up once they begin.

Tenants also report being asked to sign a petition attesting to their satisfaction with their buildings’ management.

“This has happened systematically,” said Sheila Garcia, an organizer at New Settlement’s Community Action for Safe Apartments who has been working with some of the tenants.

The apartment-building portfolio facing foreclosure is owned by Normandy Real Estate, Vantage Properties, Westbrook Partners and David Kramer. Kramer, who also owns Colonial Management, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The manager of one building, who asked to remain anonymous, said that meeting in the hallways and lobbies is against building policy because it poses a fire hazard.

“We don’t want the tenants to show up at these meetings,” said the manager. “We’re doing our work. There’s nothing going on.”

The manager confirmed circulation of a petition from Colonial, in which residents were asked to affirm their opposition to a tenant organization and to say “tenants were fine with management.”

The buildings’ owners have not made any payments on their $133 million mortgage since May 2012. Now, the owners have until April 2 to find a lender to refinance the mortgage or foreclosure proceedings will resume. For now, the four entities are still the rightful owners and Colonial Management is still in charge of building operations.

At 1511 Sheridan Ave., where a deathly odor of unknown origin overwhelms the lobby, longtime tenant Benjamin Warren said that he has had enough.  

A few days before a tenant meeting last month, Warren said, he received a phone call from his property’s manager informing him that tenant meetings are against building rules. Warren, who also tangled in housing court with the landlords over a late rent payment (he was up to date by the time of his court hearing), described the phone call as “intimidating.”

“Management has been very disruptive,” said Kerri White, a tenant organizer for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which has been working with tenants in some of the Bronx buildings.

“I just want a decent place to live,” said Deborah Cooper, a Bronx tenant, who lives in a building with perpetual heat and hot water problems and said management is not responsive when asked to fix what’s wrong.

During a recent tenant meeting in Warren’s fifth-floor apartment, about half a dozen tenants gathered to talk about how to bring the conditions in the buildings to light.

The Sheridan Ave. building has 250 open housing code violations, 27 of them deemed “immediately hazardous” by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Some date back as far as 2007, when current ownership took over.     

“In 2011, that’s when the building really started to fall apart,” said Warren, naming issues such as rodent infestations, a blocked-off hallway between the two different parts of the building and a nonworking intercom.

Tenants say maintenance has been shoddy in many of the buildings — “they come in and they do patchwork repairs,” said Francine Hamilton, who has lived at 1511 Sheridan Ave. for 18 years — and they report chronic problems persist.

At 711 Fairmount Pl. on a recent frigid evening, about 20 tenants met in a hallway for their first-ever meeting. All of those who attended said that they had gone without heat and hot water for many days this winter.

Cassandra Kidd moved into the building about a year ago and has suffered the same problems as her fellow tenants, including no heat and hot water, vermin problems and no locks on the front doors.

“We came straight out of the shelter,” she said of her family, “and it’s been the worst experience.”

Map by Annaliese Wiederspahn

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