A city tax-abatement program that has been frequently criticized as overly generous to landlords may be the prime factor that will protect two dozen low income and elderly tenants who have been worried that their new landlord intends to sell their apartments out from under them.

The tenants of the Hollis Court Apartments, a spread of 27 attached two-story buildings along 202nd Street, 109th Avenue and 203rd Street in the Hollis neighborhood of Queens, had become fearful that their new owner, who bought the complex last year, would opt out of the federal Section 8 program, under which 24 families at the complex receive rental assistance. But this January, a panel of state appellate judges ruled that landlords whose buildings are benefiting from J-51 tax abatements cannot stop accepting Section 8 rental payments. Section 8 allows tenants to pay one-third of their income in rent, with the federal government paying the remainder. And, if the tenants received what HUD calls “enhanced vouchers” — which these tenants did — they have the right to remain as long as the properties stay rental.

The city’s J-51 program, which many housing activists have criticized for decades as overly generous to landlords, allows owners of multi-family properties who make major repairs to their buildings to get back more than the cost of those repairs over ten years through a combination of tax cuts and reduced assessments. Hollis Court has received J-51 abatements that generate a tax savings of more than $8,000 a year, according to city Finance Department records.

“That should solve the issue for Hollis Court,” said April Newbauer, attorney-in-charge of Queens Civil Practice at the Legal Aid Society, who is representing the Hollis Court tenants.

The court precedent may also offer important protection for the approximately 110,000 other Section 8 tenants in the five boroughs. According to a recent report by the Community Service Society, the city lost a record 5,518 subsidized apartments in 2005 and a total of 28,000 subsidized apartments over the past decade and a half. “This has been a big issue for the past couple of years, especially in Queens as the market has heated up,” Newbauer said.

Until last year, Hollis Court was a rent-stabilized development where tenants felt they could nest for most of their lives. The quiet complex had been in the hands of the same owner—Ludovik Benedek and his partners in Parkway Realty—for 18 years, and many of the tenants had lived there even longer. Last August, Hollis Court was bought for $5 million by Josef, Robert and Ilan Cohen under the corporate name 202 St. Inc.

The Cohens have gotten tenants in one-quarter of the apartments to leave. They have filed plans to revamp Hollis Court, which has always been a single zoning lot, into 27 lots with separate water lines and sewers. They have also sought approval to take over the courtyard in the center of the complex to provide off-street parking. And, working without permits, according to Department of Buildings records, they started to disable the complex’s three boilers and install individual hot water heaters. Their plan, tenants fear, is to convert the complex to private townhouse dwellings.

The Cohens, whose office is in Kew Gardens, Queens, did not return calls seeking comment and their lawyer, Dan Roskoff, said he could not reach them.

“You know as well as I do: they’re not going to spend that kind of money for us to live here,” said Marilyn Mays, who grew up in Hollis Court, raised her two daughters there, and is now chairperson of the tenants’ association. Mays has spent much of her time over the past year comforting her elderly neighbors, who are particularly worried about losing their homes, and fighting to get the area’s politicians to pay attention to the little-noticed apartment complex.

Mays and other tenants have gone to court to force the landlord to fix leaks and make repairs, and the city also has made several thousand dollars worth of emergency repairs at the complex. In addition, tenants complain that they have endured harassing phone calls and visits from the Cohens and their representatives suggesting that they find new places to live. The state Division of Housing and Community Renewal recently ordered the Cohens to stop pushing the tenants to move.

The Cohens have a $2.4 million mortgage from New York Community Bank, the city’s largest multi-family lender (where the other $2.6 million of the purchase price came from is not reported in the city’s land records). According to a recent analysis by Housing Here And Now, a nonprofit that specializes in banking issues, NYCB often lends to landlords who have been cited for “records of negligence and tenant harassment,” and the bank’s “multi-family lending is aggravating bad housing conditions rather than strengthening community development.” In response to the critical report, NYCB promised to improve conditions at some of the buildings where it holds mortgages and vowed to take code violations into account when deciding which properties to finance. Regarding Hollis Court, Ilene Angarola, the bank’s first senior vice president, told City Limits, “We take the concerns of tenants very seriously. We will be looking into this matter and speaking directly with the landlord.”

But tenants doubt that talk alone will be fruitful. Marilyn Mays reports that Josef Cohen has shown up at odd hours and has pounded on her door, shouted at her, and refused to leave when ordered to by the police. The Cohens emerged in the market in 2000, buying properties in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, holding them for a few months, then flipping them for a quick profit, according to city land records. On one of the deals, Ilan Cohen was found guilty of passing himself off as a licensed real estate agent and then negotiating the sale of 1124 Jefferson Avenue in Brooklyn to his own firm, Yezol, Inc.

Despite the court precedent and promises from city and state agencies that, as long as the complex remains rental, nothing can void their rent stabilization and Section 8 subsidies, Hollis Court’s tenants expect more battles. “Everyone’s assuming the landlord will do the correct thing,” said Marilyn Mays. “But with the history here, to expect them to do the correct thing now is just stupid.”

– Robert Neuwirth