Los Sures’ Tenants Unite to Fight Evictions

José Antonio Ventura (right) and his son, Carlos. Tenants of 331 Keap St., Brooklyn, complain about landlord harassment. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

At 74 years of age, José Antonio Ventura says he always thought his retirement years would be quiet and worry-free, but since last November his life has been filled with distress. At the time, the landlord of his building, on Brooklyn’s Keap Street, started an eviction process against him, arguing that the Dominican immigrant, who moved to the rent-stabilized apartment in 1989, doesn’t live there anymore.

“That is a lie. They are telling stories that I don’t live here, but I live here with my son and his wife and my grandkids. They said that I bought apartments in Manhattan and Queens,” said Ventura, who pays a monthly rent of a little more than $600 for his two-bedroom apartment. In the same building, rents for the remodeled units provide the real estate company, Icon Realty Management LLC, between $3,000 and $3,500 per month.

The complex houses 35 families and almost half the apartments are currently leased to newly-arrived “white” residents. The previous, predominantly Hispanic tenants ended up leaving their homes which stopped being rent-stabilized.

“Let’s be clear. A lot of things are happening here in this building and it’s hard to keep up. It is obvious that this is a case of discrimination and they want to kick me out just like they kicked out half of the Hispanics who used to live here to rent the apartments to white people and charge them more,” the grandfather complained.

Luisa Vivaldo has lived for more than 30 years in the same building, in a two-bedroom apartment for which she pays $800 monthly. She says she has also suffered eviction attempts. The landlord not only neglects repairs as a pressure mechanism to make her leave, she has also been presented with economic offers like the ones some former neighbors have accepted.

“They have offered me money but I did not accept. I’ve heard that they are offering more than $70,000 but I’m not leaving. I will stay here as long as I’m in this country because here is where my children grew up and now it’s where my grandkids are growing up. I am not going anywhere,” said the Mexican-born Vivaldo, adding that she feels abused and discriminated against for being a low-income woman.

“After they offered me money and I refused to leave the apartment they started with the harassment, to wear me out. They don’t want to make repairs on damaged lights, cracks, rotten wires, or the bathroom, which has mold,” Vivaldo said.

Together with other neighbors, they have formed a tenants association to confront the abuses. “We have learned about our rights and I am telling people in similar situations to not be afraid, to fight and seek help because united we are more, and it will be more difficult for them to attack us,” she said.

331 Keap St. tenant Luisa Vivaldo (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Lucas Rénique, community organizer of the Los Sures association, which has been defending Brooklyn tenant rights since the 1970s, said that cases like Ventura and Vivaldo’s are common in the neighborhood.

“The landlord in this case is claiming that he doesn’t live here, and what we are doing is bringing proof to the court. Although we expect that everything will turn out fine, this landlord is famous for throwing people out using such tactics,” said the activist, adding that the owners are only seeking profits.

“They target rent-stabilized tenants, and the ones that live in this neighborhood are Hispanic. [Investors] buy complexes seeking to make more money by throwing people out, which is the same attitude as other bad landlords here. They want to kick out tenants to raise the rents and deregulate rent-stabilized apartments. The law allows for a 20 percent hike every time somebody leaves, or after putting a lot of money down for renovations, so they show those renovation receipts and then the hikes are approved,” said Rénique.

Asked about the daily lives of hundreds of tenants in the 30 housing complexes in which Los Sures organizers and lawyers are currently working, Rénique mentioned all kinds of abusive conduct. “Failing to fix damages, bringing people to court, threatening with bringing them to court. Sometimes landlords pretend they’ve lost the check to claim that the tenant didn’t pay and start an eviction. In other cases they do repairs but they do them badly,” added the activist.

Los Sures community educator Monica Millay said that, in spite of the landlord harassment, it has been crucial for tenants to learn about their rights and to form associations to make reports with the help of the organization’s assistants and lawyers.

Three weeks ago, the tenants of the complex where Ventura and Vivaldo live organized a demonstration against harassment by Icon Realty, demanding an end to dirty tricks to provoke evictions.

Organizers Lucas Rénique and Monica Millay (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

“Some landlords use construction work as another harassment method. They build a lot while people live in the complexes, causing noise and dust, and that’s another way of scaring [the residents] and wearing them out (…),” said the community organizer, who added that thanks to the tenants’ struggle the landlords have not been able to take out as many residents as they would have liked, and for many of those who have left it’s not because of court evictions but out of fatigue.

State sen. Marisol Alcantara said that one of the main problems allowing such abusive tactics (…) is that state rent laws are in their favor and encourage displacing low-income residents. This is why tenants groups and elected officials are asking the state to make urgent changes to the tenants law.

Alcantara touted two bills currently being considered in Albany. One of them seeks to end the vacancy bonus, which allows landlords to increase the rent by as much as 20 percent every time a tenant leaves, and another one seeks to change the current norms that allow landlords to take housing units out of the rent control system when the rent surpasses $2,700, after which they are free to charge as much as they want.

“The intimidation tactics used by landlords in Los Sures to displace the immigrant, working community are very similar to the tactics used against the working community in Upper Manhattan,” said the state senator. (…)

We tried to get a comment on the harassment claims from Icon Realty Management LLC, and, even though an employee vowed to give an answer soon, we received no response.

(…)

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