Protesting landlords is not unusual in the Bronx. Usually, the main cause can be seen on the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) website listing violations at every apartment building in the city.
But last Saturday’s protest by 50 tenants and 25 supporters, who took two buses to the Riverdale home of landlord Jonathan Wiener, head of Chestnut Holdings, focused on what tenants said are less visible housing problems. Those allegedly include billing tenants for washing machine and air conditioner fees beyond the time that’s legally permitted, inappropriate billing for major capital improvements and threatening to jeopardize residents’ immigration status if they attend tenant meetings.
The residents want a meeting with Wiener. They’ve asked before, but he hasn’t responded to three of their demands since October, the tenants say. So, they went to his house on Iselin Avenue in the wealthy Fieldston community of Riverdale.
Five tenant representatives left the petition, including a list of 12 grievances, at the doorstep when no one answered. The petition said tenants would pursue legal action should Wiener fail to agree to a meeting.
As tenants — organized by CASA (Community Action for Safe Apartments), the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and New York Communities for Change — and many of their children chanted for livable housing, the police ushered them off the street. Members of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and Picture the Homeless also participated in the trip from the Mt. Eden neighborhood, where CASA is based.
Wiener, who owns over 70 buildings in the Bronx, has often been accused of negligence and inaccessibility since he acquired the buildings in 2010. The Chestnut Holdings Tenant Coalition for Decent Housing has filed a lawsuit, met with Albany legislators and held a People’s Rent Guidelines Board meeting.
Wiener’s buildings, before he acquired them, were estimated to need $19 to $24 million to fix violations >/a>. Advocates say many tenants are still waiting for repairs, rent abatements and heat and hot water.
Bronx Bureau requested an interview with Wiener through his public relations consultant, Cynthia Tsai, but she was unable to schedule one. Chestnut Holdings did issue a statement last week. “These general allegations are unfounded and do not support Chestnut Holdings of New York, LLC’s commitment to improving the quality of life for all our tenants,” the statement read. “Contrary to what has been stated, Chestnut Holdings has, in fact, attended tenant meetings, eager to address and resolve their requests, only to be turned away.”
Representatives of Chestnut Holdings have attended tenant association meetings. But because Wiener himself wouldn’t attend, tenants sent his staffers away.
“At the end of the day, these decisions don’t happen in a vacuum,” said Susanna Blankley, director of housing organizing at CASA. “They don’t happen without the boss’s approval, so we want to meet with the man who has power to make decisions that affect [tenants’] lives. A lot of it is about respect.”
Tenant Vicky Barton, who has left messages on Wiener’s voicemail but has never received a response, says that many repairs made by Wiener’s company are insufficient. “If he comes for something, you better believe that in a day or so he’s back again,” she said of her superintendent, adding that he either declines to make repairs or only makes superficial ones.
Wiener’s staff has staged three counter-protests against Chestnut Holdings residents, accusing protesting tenants and organizers of lying. His public relations firm recently launched a new website with two building improvement success stories. Blankley said the Tenant Coalition has not been in contact with the two buildings—2280 Grand Avenue (with 12 reported housing-code violations in 50 units, a low figure) and 2676 Grand Concourse (16 violations in 80 units, even lower)—highlighted as success stories on the website.
Tenants Association leader Soledad Franco, who has lived at 1504 Sheridan Ave. since she was 10, shares an apartment with her three children and her grandson. Though there are 89 recorded violations in 108 units, a relatively low amount, she said rats and cockroaches are a chronic problem, that the superintendent has harassed her 80-year-old mother and that her son was accused of reckless activity in the apartment when he was at an afterschool program. Fatoumata Ceesay, who lives a few blocks away at 1348 Sheridan Ave. (26 violations in 46 units), says she lives with a leaking toilet, peeling wall paint and a broken refrigerator. She has lived in the same building with her extended family since moving from Gambia in 2000 but is now applying for new housing. The waiting list is long, so for now, she is joining her neighbors in the fight.
Sebastian Barton, 11, recently moved into 2050 Valentine Ave. with his great-grandmother Vicky and is already angry. Recorded violations may not be the problem (only 23 violations in 74 units are listed), but he said that Wiener tried to move Vicky, 64, into a retirement home, which would leave Sebastian homeless.
Some Chestnut Holdings tenants were forced into homelessness when a 2011 fire at 1504 and 1520 Sheridan Avenue left residents without accommodations or utilities for several months. The tenants sued Wiener. According to both sides, at least one of those suits was dismissed. Tenant advocates say a second suit is still in court.
In the Wiener family, conflict with tenants is not limited to Jonathan Wiener. His brother Joel’s company, Pinnacle, has attracted many similar protests and lawsuits as well.