Tenants say urgent repairs fall short

A private equity firm that bought a foreclosed Melrose apartment building has made shoddy repairs under pressure, leaving families in substandard housing, tenants charge.

Tenants at 755 Jackson Avenue say the landlord hasn't gone nearly far enough in conducting badly-needed building repairs.
Tenants at 755 Jackson Avenue say the landlord hasn’t gone nearly far enough in conducting badly-needed building repairs.

Landlord says it’s complying with city’s demands

A private equity firm that bought a foreclosed Jackson Ave. apartment building has made shoddy repairs under pressure, leaving families in substandard housing, tenants charge.

Stabilis Capital Management started fixing up 755 Jackson Avenue after a Dec. 3 press conference when tenants urged the company to restore heat, exterminate pests and repair deteriorating ceilings and staircases, according to housing advocates. But residents say the fixes were sloppy and are already falling apart.

“They told me they were going to make my apartment livable,” said tenant Tomika Robertson, 27.

“They didn’t do it the right way.” In addition, Stabilis has threatened several tenants with eviction for non-payment of rent, but residents maintain that they have withheld rent in response to the owners’ unwillingness to conduct desperately needed repairs, said Elise Goldin, a tenant organizer for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board that is advocating for them. “Tenants haven’t been paying because the conditions are so, so bad, and there hasn’t been anyone accountable for the building until recently,” said Goldin. The building is on the city’s Worst Landlords Watchlist and has 205 housing violations. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development also put the building in its alternative enforcement program, in which landlords of distressed properties face fines unless they bring their buildings up to code. Absentee ownership is common among private investment firms that buy foreclosed properties, said Hilary Botein, a housing policy professor at Baruch College. “In many cases they expect to harass out the tenants, more passively than actively,” Botein said. Stabilis was originally a mortgage lender to the rent-stabilized 11-unit building and became the owner in June 2013 after the property went into foreclosure. Once the building changed hands, representatives from Stabilis ignored tenants’ needs for months, said Goldin. “During that time there was really nobody to call,” she said. “The building was essentially abandoned.” Tenants say they complained of rat infestations, broken floor tiles in their kitchens and faulty locks on the doors, but they were unable to reach their new landlords. With help from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, residents began organizing in October to urge the city to seize ownership of the property. Stabilis has spent more than $250,000 to renovate the building since it gained ownership in June, according to a spokeswoman for the company. “Every inherited repair that has been identified by HPD has been corrected since then, and the two remaining repairs to the roof and the exterior are half-way completed,” said the representative, who asked that her name not be used for this story. “We are waiting for HPD to come and inspect the property to ensure that HPD’s record is reflective of all the repairs that have been made.” Robertson, who has lived in the building with her family for three years, is still skeptical. Back in December, she showed visitors – including Public Advocate-elect Letitia James – a large hole in her ceiling that Robertson had covered with tape. Maintenance workers repaired the ceiling in January, she said, but they told her the hole could not be properly sealed until the building’s roof is replaced – which is unlikely during the winter months. “So I have to just sit here and wait for the roof to fall on me or my kids,” she said. Weather permitting, renovations to the roof and the façade of the building will be done by next month at a cost of $40,000, the Stabilis spokeswoman said. Diego Reyes, 27, has lived in the building with his parents for 25 years. He said Stabilis replaced the floor tiles in his kitchen in January, but that holes in his living room and bathroom ceiling were hastily patched up. “They didn’t do all the repairs they needed to,” he said. “We haven’t seen the owner since he bought the building,” Reyes said. “He hasn’t come to give us a lease.” The Longwood-based Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association is working to improve conditions for the long term in the building. The group applied to become an administrator for the building, as part of a program that allows respected third-party companies to manage run-down properties. The housing and preservation department will have to approve the application, a long process made longer because of personnel changes in the new mayoral administration, said Banana Kelly tenant organizer Eric Goldfischer. Banana Kelly’s participation will ensure that tenants are furnished with valid leases and receive attention from their landlords, which are not priorities for private equity firms like Stabilis, said Harry DeRienzo, director of Banana Kelly. “Their job is to do nothing but try to maximize the value of the portfolio,” DeRienzo explained. “The human consideration and the suffering, that’s not even part of the mix.” Residents said they are hopeful that under new administration the building will be better taken care of. “Everybody just has their fingers crossed that the judge approves it,” Robertson said. “This is where my kids call home. I’ve tried applying for low-income apartments, we get denied. So what am I supposed to do?”

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