Thirteen-Month Struggle for Bronx Tenants to Get Their Stoves Back On

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Vanessa Gibson at 1515 Selwyn Avenue

CASA

Councilmember Vanessa Gibson appears with tenants of 1515 Selwyn Avenue in the Bronx at a press conference earlier this month.

It has been 13 months since many of the residents of 1515 Selwyn Avenue in the Bronx have been able to use their stove to warm up a tea kettle or fry a few strips of bacon or boil water for pasta or whip up some scrambled eggs.

After the gas went off, their landlord, Abdul Khan, provided them with hotplates. But tenants say they warm up slowly and are simply not up to the task of preparing regular meals.

“You can’t cook on a hotplate,” says Kim Statuto, a resident of the building for 26 years. So she spends on take-out food. “It eats up an exorbitant amount of money that I don’t have.” During the holidays last year, Statuto says, “We were unable to invite families to our homes because we had no gas.”

The tenants have taken Khan to court and been promised repairs but lawyers for the residents say Khan has not completed them. Tenants say they may next pursue an Article 7A designation for the six-story, 47-unit building in Claremont. That would hand control of the building over to a court-appointed administrator, who would collect rent and make repairs.

Neither Khan nor one of his attorneys returned calls seeking comment. Statuto says the landlord has insisted to tenants that the problems are not of his making. “He tries to say that it’s HPD, DOB’s fault,” she says, referring to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and Department of Buildings

According to HPD, gas to the entire building was shut down after a September 2018 fire. Service to most apartments was soon restored, according to the agency, but after a test of the system, the gas lines to 18 apartments remained shut down.There were problems with a plumber’s application to do repair work, the agency said, but by Christmas Eve, 14 of the 18 apartments were approved for restoration; however, meters had not been installed. The remaining four apartments were approved in February. But a full test of the whole building was required, and the plumber’s application for a test didn’t say as much, triggering other delays.

“HPD and DOB have been working together to facilitate the necessary repairs and hold this owner accountable,” Juliet Pierre-Antoine, a spokesperson for HPD, told City Limits via email. “We will continue to monitor the situation and take all actions within our power to compel the owner to restore full gas service to this property while protecting tenant safety.”

DOB says the correct permit was finally issued on October 8 and the test conducted on October 18. The plumber told DOB that he asked the utility to restore service on October 21. It was unclear at press time if gas had been fully restored.

In any case, gas is not the building’s only problem. As of press time, the building has 314 housing code violations, including 132 of the most serious Class C violations. Besides the cooking-gas outage, issues include roaches, mold, broken plaster and defective electrical equipment. The building also has 67 open violations of the building code. In March 2019, DOB ordered two apartments damaged in the September 2018 fire vacated because there was no way to reach the fire escape from those boarded-up dwelling units. The building has also been cited for illegally allowing people to sleep in the basement and for a leaking boiler.

“The boiler is old. It needs to be replaced,” says Nadia Metayer, who has lived in the building for more than 30 years. There were times last winter, she says, “when it was warmer outside than it was in the building.”

Last January, 1515 Selwyn Avenue was enrolled in the city’s Alternative Enforcement Program, an initiative launched in 2007 to address “severely distressed multiple dwellings.” According to HPD literature, owners with buildings in AEP are given four months to correct the problems, after which the agency issues an “order to correct” and can impose fees. If the owner doesn’t comply with the order to correct, HPD can hire a contractor to make the repairs at the owner’s expense.

None of those more aggressive steps appear to have occurred in the case of 1515 Selwyn Avenue, however. HPD says all parties are “working dilligently” to get the gas back on.

Tenants, however, have been in court since last December. According to one of their attorneys, there was a settlement in July that required the gas to be restored by September 30, a deadline “they missed by a long shot.”

“The matter is back in court because the tenants are asking the housing court judge to find the landlord in contempt of court,” writes Bianca Cappellini , senior staff attorney at Bronx Legal Services.

Tenants tell City Limits that they will pursue the Article 7A if the building doesn’t turn a corner soon. Statuto feels a particular urgency because she receives Section 8 and federal inspectors have told her they are concerned about conditions in the building. Already, she says, Section 8 payments to Khan have been suspended. “They advised me to move because they want to cancel the contract with him altogether,” she says.

The Selwyn Avenue dispute is not the only court case involving Khan. On October 1, a bank sued in Bronx Supreme Court to foreclose a property at 1201 University Avenue that Khan also owns. While it has far fewer code violations than 1515 Selwyn, the University Avenue building is also in the Alternative Enforcement Program.

The building on Selwyn Avenue was once controlled by an entity linked to Frank Palazzolo, a real-estate operator based in White Plains who once had a hand in more than 100 Bronx buildings and ran afoul of regulators for poor and sometimes dangerous conditions faced by many tenants. HPD launched a major investigation of those properties in 2004—meaning that, in some sense, 1515 Selwyn has been on the city’s radar screen for 15 years.

After the company linked to Palazzolo, FMF Management I Corp., sold the Selwyn Avenue property off in 2010, “[Conditions] kind of stabilized in, I’d say, the first two years,” Statuto says. “He’s never been the best of landlords, but it stabilized. We had somebody we could call for repairs.” More recently, she says, “He just started letting things go.”

“The problems in the building were always there. We always had violations,” says Metayer. “But not as bad as it is now.”

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