The Bushwick Housing Independence Project, a tenant rights organization, held a rally outside landlord Joel Israel's Borough Park apartment on Wednesday. Tenants accuse Israel of trying to force them out by sabotaging their apartments
Around 75 people chanted for "respect" and "justice," held signs and talked to Israel's neighbors outside the apartment where Israel—ironically, a renter himself—lives at 1455 49th Street. The rally drew perplexed stares and questions from members of the area's Orthodox Jewish community.
Two tenants at 98 Linden St., Noelia Calero, 31, and her cousin Michelle Crespo, 32, said that Israel tore out their kitchens and bathrooms seven months ago, under the pretext that he was renovating the apartments. Calero and Crespo, who live across the hall from each other on the first floor, said he hasn't done any work since then. They've been forced to use their neighbor's bathroom and kitchen in the meantime. In pictures of the tenants' bathrooms and kitchens that Crespo and Calero pasted on signs they held, the rooms looked as if they were in an abandoned building that had been hastily gutted.
Crespo said that Israel wants her and Calero out so he can charge more rent for their apartments, which are rent stabilized.
"We want the city, we want the mayor, we want everyone to help us out because the conditions are horrible," Calero said. "It's been seven months of hell, honestly."
The tenants say they've appealed to the Department of Buildings and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. They've also gone to court, but to no avail. Their apartments remain in a state that is nearly unlivable, the tenants said.
Crespo's youngest son got pneumonia, which was exacerbated by the condition of her apartment, she said.
Calero lives with her elderly parents, and her mother has kidney problems and arthritis. Her mother's kidney problems force her to drink a lot of water, which she only has access to by walking up the stairs to a neighbor's apartment.
Crespo said she had thought about leaving but chose not to because she didn't want to be forced out. The lack of options for affordable housing in Bushwick also left her with few options.
"We've been here for 23 years. You can't just come and pull us out of there forcefully," Crespo said.
Calero also said she chose to stay in her apartment due to the lack of affordable housing in the area.
The rally was composed of tenants involved in BHIP, as well as those from the St. Joseph's and St. Barbara's Catholic churches in Bushwick. BHIP was founded by Pastor John Powis at St. Barbara's in 2002.
All of the protesters were Latino with the exception of four young white men who had recently moved into the neighborhood, and are residents in a collective house known as "Ma's House." They held a sign that read "Free Housing, Evict the Slumlords."
"We believe no one should have to pay rent just to exist in a space," Elan, 25, said. The residents of Ma's House said they were trying to practice "mutual aid" by attending the protest.
"I'm willing to bridge my ideological or tactical beliefs in the hope that in the future we can work together on other projects that I'm interested in," Justin, 25, said. Justin said he would not have called the police in advance of the protest, which a BHIP organizer did.
Many of the attendees have problems with their other landlords as well, according to BHIP organizer Yolanda Coca, 57.
"You have to be fighting, knocking on doors all the time," Coca said. "Otherwise, our people will be on the street because the landlords are abusing them in so many ways."
Israel owns at least nine buildings in Bushwick, according to HPD and real estate documents. Six of those have over 300 open violations, according to HPD. Over 100 of these are C Class violations – the most serious type of violation, such as rodent infestation, lead paint, or a lack of basic services like heat, hot water, or electricity. There are 59 C Class violations at 98 Linden St. alone, mostly in Calero and Crespo's apartments. Another building, 386 Woodbine, is owned by a company at the same address as Israel's other companies, also has 15 open C Class violations.
At 324 Central Ave., the residents have no heat in the middle of winter, and Israel has refused to allow inspectors into the building, according to Sister Kathy Maire, the executive director of BHIP.
"He is making life awful for them," she said.
Israel could not be reached for comment.
BHIP typically works through official means to fight negligent landlords, such as the courts, but this case was so extreme that BHIP organized a demonstration. Two school buses, one from St. Barbara's, and another from St. Josephs brought the protesters to Borough Park. Organizers did not reveal where the buses were going ahead of time to insure that Israel wouldn't be informed of the protest.
Rents in Bushwick have gone up more on average, by 8 per cent, than in any other Brooklyn neighborhood over the past year, according to an MNS Real Estate Brooklyn Market Report. Even in rent-stabilized apartments, landlords can increase the rent in an apartment by 20 per cent each time a tenant leaves. This creates an incentive to drive out old tenants and bring in those who can pay more.