Photo: Peter Gill. Maricela Catalán with her daughter (front) and fellow tenant association members Magaly Herrera (back left) and Ericelda Hernández (back right), in Hernández’s apartment.

South Bronx neighbors and volunteers fight evictions

On a rainy afternoon in late June 2020, the residents of 387 138th Street in Mott Haven were down on their luck.  Outside on the wet streets, economic life had ground to a halt in the aftermath of the first deadly wave of COVID-19.  Inside, residents had just received some damning news: the new owner of their 10-unit building, one of the  Bronx’s most notorious landlords, wanted to double their rent to $2,500 and was going to evict them in three months if they refused to pay.

Ericelda Hernández, who has lived at the address for 17 years, was just coming in from the rain when she met two young men outside the building.  The men, Aldo  Reséndiz and Manny Pardilla, identified themselves as organizers from the South Bronx Tenants Movement, a housing activism group.  They made small talk in Spanish.

Hernández told the men that she and most of her neighbors had been laid off and had no idea how she could pay the new rent. Another tenant, Maricela Catalán, came out of the building and joined the conversation. She said the landlord had already forced her out of her apartment, into a smaller and less desirable unit he owned in the East Bronx.

The men told the women that they had certain rights as tenants, and could fight their evictions in court. They proposed a novel idea: why not band together with their neighbors to form a tenant’s association?

“Meeting Aldo, we saw a light at the end of the tunnel,” recalled Hernández recently, sitting below a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe  in her crowded living room, during the tenant association’s 20th meeting.  “Forming the tenants’ association, we started to learn what kind of rights we had. We used to see ourselves as little, like ants. Now we know that we shouldn’t be afraid.” 

In the two years since it formed, the association has enabled most residents to stay in their apartments, and they are now finalizing new two-year leases, which they negotiated collectively.  The new leases have much more modest rent increases, and their latest landlord has agreed to make certain repairs.

The South Bronx Tenants Movement, the organization supporting the residents, was formed by several volunteers, including Pardilla, in February 2017. So far, it has helped tenants form associations in about 10 buildings, five of which are still active.  Through the associations, tenants collectively advocate on issues ranging from rent to repairs and evictions.

In the South Bronx, the stresses of tenant life can be acute. Some landlords let their buildings run into disrepair. Heat and hot water complaints, which are logged in the city’s 311 database, can serve as a proxy for landlord neglect.  The database logged 142 heat and hot water complaints per 1,000 renter-occupied units from the South Bronx in 2021 – nearly seven times the city-wide average. 

The Bronx also leads the city’s five boroughs in eviction rates, which have been climbing since the state’s eviction moratorium — imposed during the pandemic — expired in January. There have been approximately 10,000 new eviction filings in The Bronx from January to April of 2022,  including 1,377 in Mott Haven, Port Morris, Melrose, Longwood, and Hunts Point, according to Eviction Lab. 

That rate is still lower than pre-pandemic levels, but there is a large backlog of cases filed during the eviction moratorium. Low-income tenants are guaranteed free representation in housing court, but legal aid agencies have been struggling to provide assistance to all needy tenants due to the backlog.

New immigrants face extra hurdles as renters.  Navigating the legalese of rental contracts can be difficult for anyone, but especially for non-native English speakers, who are often unaware of their rights under city and state laws.  On the other hand, many undocumented people fear that if they challenge their landlords over repairs or evictions, the landlord could report them to immigration authorities.

Rather than waiting for the landlord to file a court case against them, many immigrants self-evict, according to organizers  — a phenomenon that is not reflected in official city statistics about evictions.

Although landlords who illegally evict tenants can be punished with hefty fines, police often fail to arrest landlords who break the law. A recent investigation by THE CITY found that The NYPD rarely arrested landlords for illegal lockouts.

In April, Mayor Eric Adams’s administration indicted notorious South Bronx landlord Moshe Piller for numerous housing violations. However, many housing  organizers  are distrustful of the Adams Administration, which they see as friendly towards developers and landlords.

Yanny Guzmán, a volunteer with the South Bronx Tenants Movement, said her group focuses on the most vulnerable tenants. All of their volunteers come from the South Bronx and are Hispanic and/ or Black, just like most of the tenants with whom they work. Guzmán contrasted their work with that of larger charities, which too often “parachute in” and focus solely on providing legal aid in court, rather than raising awareness in the community.

“We’re actively building tenant power and tenant agency. We’re giving them the skills, knowledge, and expertise to organize themselves,” she said.

Reséndiz, who helped organize the tenants at 387 E 138th Street, says he often finds it important to inform tenants about their rights. Under city law, the warranty of habitability requires landlords to make timely repairs, and allows tenants to withhold rent if repairs are not made. (A number of tenant-led rent strikes gained city-wide attention last year.)

Some immigrants were also unaware of their rights under the eviction moratorium. Although the moratorium expired in January, tenants can still be temporarily protected from eviction if they file an application for the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. 

Reséndiz says it is also important for tenants to be able to read a lease and determine if their unit is covered under the city’s rent stabilization law.  Most buildings with six or more units built before 1974 are subject to rent stabilization, with annual rent increases subject to limits set by the mayor-appointed Rent Guidelines Board.  Anyone can check if their unit is rent-stabilized here.

Reséndiz also reminds tenants that under the state’s Property Law 230, all tenants have the right to form an association to advocate for their rights.

After the residents at 387 138th formed a tenant association in the summer of 2020, they began researching their new landlord, Sam Applegrad.  Applegrad had bought their building that March. He was notorious for evicting tenants in his buildings across the  city — in 2019, he sued 1,707 families for eviction, according  to the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition.

By the time Applegrad filed eviction cases against the residents of the 138th Street building in October 2020, a federal eviction moratorium was in place. However, it was initially unclear if the moratorium would provide protection because Applegrad  had filed the cases as “holdover evictions” — a special  category used when a tenant’s lease ends, or a tenant lacks  a lease.

The South Bronx Tenants Movement connected the tenant association with Take Root Justice, a nonprofit, which agreed to provide legal representation to fight the evictions. Outside of the courtroom, the tenant association led protests in front of  Applegrad’s home and synagogue in Brooklyn.

At first, it seemed that the tenants’ efforts were going nowhere. 

The eviction cases lingered in court, and Applegrad installed new security cameras,  which the tenants felt were meant to intimidate them.  The cameras were installed by a company named Homeland Surveillance, which plastered a large sticker of its logo — nearly identical to the Department of Homeland Security seal —  over the building’s front entrance.

Take Root Justice also helped association member Catalán sue Applegrad. She testified that Applegrad’s employees had harassed and forced her out of her home against her will in May 2020, before the tenant association was created and before she knew her rights under the eviction moratorium. Applegrad gave her a lease in another building he owns on Allerton Avenue in the East Bronx in May 2020, but it is far from Catalán’s daughters’ elementary school and she says the conditions are poor. Applegrad denied that he had forced Catalán to relocate under duress, and ultimately, the court sided with the landlord. 

Despite these setbacks, the tenants’ association made gradual headway.  Most tenants applied for and received funds from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program in late 2021. After that, they decided to withhold rent in order to pressure the landlord to make needed repairs to their apartments. Finally, in late December 2021, they received some potentially positive news: Applegrad had sold the building to a new owner, who might be more receptive to their demands.

Hernandez said that she thinks  Applegrad sold the building because of the association’s organizing and Catalán’s litigation.

“Maricela was in court against him for a year, and then we were withholding rent. So it was not a good deal for him,” said Hernandez.

The Mott Haven Herald reached out to Applegrad by email but received no response. When we called his company, YMY Acquisitions, we were told that no one could be made available to answer questions.

The tenant association has met with the landlord who bought the building from Applegrad to negotiate new leases, which increase their rents only modestly. Each tenant received the same percentage increase. They have agreed to  pay rent arrears, and they say that the landlord has agreed to make needed repairs. The tenants have signed the lease and are currently waiting for the landlord to return it with  his  signature.

Magaly Herrera, one of the  association members, said she would encourage other buildings in the neighborhood to form their own tenant associations.  She noted the importance of staying organized and holding meetings on a regular basis – even  though it can be difficult to find time to attend.

“You have to look  at this like a doctor’s appointment: you have to go because you have to go,” she said.

Hernández agreed.

“We take time to make it to the meetings, and to be consistent and persistent, and we’ve achieved something,” she said.  “As the saying goes, ‘there is strength in numbers.’”

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