Tenant attorneys, advocates and policymakers say the delays that Nichols has encountered demonstrate the flaws of the city’s code enforcement program, and the limits of a housing court system that can move at a glacial pace when it comes to holding owners accountable for unsafe conditions.

Adi Talwar

Nicholle Nichols in her Washington Heights apartment, where she says she has been trying for months to get the landlord to fix a persistent mold problem.

Nicholle Nichols keeps the door to her kids’ bedroom closed and stuffs a towel into the gap above the floor so she won’t inhale the black mold blooming behind the bunk beds.

Nichols, 34, tried, and failed, to get her landlord, the notorious property owner Moshe Piller, to clean the mold in her Washington Heights apartment in January. That was after the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) issued violations for mold in October 2021—they marked the case resolved a month later—and two years after she first contacted the Piller-owned management company to address the problem, emails show.

When the dangerous substance returned, Nichols says her mother opted to leave the unit and enter a homeless shelter. She sent her children to live with their father in Queens because her daughter was experiencing breathing problems.

“They said they had treated it and they didn’t,” Nichols said of the mold. “There was a mushroom growing from a wall.”

After receiving a formal complaint from Nichols, HPD visited the apartment on Feb. 3 and issued more than two dozen violations, including seven Class C, or immediately hazardous, claims. Nichols also filed an emergency repair case with Manhattan Housing Court—what’s known as an HP proceeding—and appeared before a judge a few days after the HPD inspection. The judge ordered the landlord to clean the mold within a week.

But three months later, the vegetation still coats the wall. Work crews who arrived in March wanted to paint over it, Nichols said. That kind of patch job failed in the past and she worries the recurring problem suggests a deeper cause. An HPD spokesperson said the agency visited again in March and may make repairs that they will charge to the owner. Piller, his attorney and his management company have not responded to multiple emails and phone calls by City Limits.

Nichols, meanwhile, waits and worries about her own respiratory and emotional health. “I’m in breakdown mode,” she said.

Tenant attorneys, advocates and policymakers say the delays that Nichols has encountered demonstrate the flaws of the city’s code enforcement program, and the limits of a housing court system that can move at a glacial pace when it comes to holding owners accountable for unsafe conditions.

“It’s very easy to ignore problems for a year or two years and hope the tenant gets discouraged and just gives up,” said Justin La Mort, a supervising attorney at the organization Mobilization For Justice (MFJ). “What you see in HPs often is a lot of half measures—patches, painting, all done shoddily.”

Obviously disgusting conditions can result in subpar quick fixes—or lengthy delays. In March, City Limits visited a rat-infested building on Bushwick’s Menahan Street, where the front door failed to lock and the flooded basement reeked. The rats had long ago coated the floor of a vacant first-floor apartment with a layer of feces and continued to scurry into neighbors’ homes. While tenants described the conditions, the corpse of a drowned rat bobbed in a bathtub filled by a leaking pipe above, and a live rat entered through a crevice near a window.

Tenants, represented by MFJ, have tried for months to compel repairs. “I feel desperate,” said first-floor tenant Gabriela Velazquez in Spanish. “I live here and I don’t want to leave, but it’s causing respiratory problems. The smell from the basement, it’s giving my daughter headaches.”

By May 12, Wayfinder, a property management company that runs the building on behalf of an LLC tied to private equity firm Hirshmark Capital, had still not resolved the problems and, the tenants’ lawyer said, things had gotten considerably worse. Workers had removed a piece of ceiling in the vacant apartment directly below another household’s bathroom, causing the bathroom floor to buckle and pieces to crumble.

The latest hazard prompted the Department of Buildings to issue a stop work order. After the owner installed a double lock on the vacant apartment, HPD intervened in Brooklyn Housing Court on April 21 and requested that a judge grant the agency emergency access so that they could complete needed repairs. But “emergency” is a relative term. The judge scheduled a hearing on HPD’s petition for five weeks later, May 27.

HPD also took the rare step of requesting that the court appoint an administrator to take over building operations from Wayfinder and Hirshmark—a measure known as an Article 7A Proceeding—following a report on conditions by the Daily News. In its April 18 filing, HPD said the owners committed “tenant harassment, deprived tenants of the premises of essential services, and engaged in other acts dangerous to [their] health and safety.”

A judge scheduled that hearing for June 6, more than six weeks later after the filing. Wayfinder and Hirshmark did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

Mounting caseloads

In one sense, Nichols was fortunate to get a judge to hear her complaint violations in under a month. She filed the emergency repair case on Jan. 21 and managed to get a hearing before a judge in Manhattan Housing Court on Feb. 14.

At the time, there were just four full-time judges handling emergency repairs in New York City. By March 30, there were more than 2,200 HP cases on their calendars, according to the state’s Office of Court Administration (OCA). The Bronx has two full-time HP parts for 741 filings, while Manhattan has one tasked with 445 cases. Until April 25, Brooklyn had a single judge exclusively handling the court’s 682 repair cases, with others pitching in on a rotating basis. Queens has one judge in its HP Part three days a week for 334 cases. Staten Island, with 29 cases by March 30, has one judge hearing cases one day a week.

“If the purpose of Housing Court was to make sure poor people were safe, you’d think you’d be spending more time on that,” La Mort said.

Evictions, on the other hand, take precedence in Housing Court, where they account for the vast majority of cases and tie up nearly all of the city’s judges.

Earlier in the pandemic, when most evictions were suspended, many more judges were able to handle repair cases and tenant attorneys found themselves free to take on the complaints. The situation reverted to the pre-pandemic status quo once the courts began preparing for the resumption of evictions, and lawyers for low-income tenants became inundated with clients at risk of losing their apartments.

Since the state’s broad eviction protections ended in January, tenant lawyers have complained that the court system has emphasized removal proceedings at the expense of repair cases, contributing to delays and adjournments.

“One of the reasons it feels so unfair is because they are calendaring eviction cases so quickly and prioritizing speed over access to due process,” said Legal Aid’s Queens housing director Julia McNally.

In Queens, the lone judge assigned to HP proceedings is often forced to adjourn cases for up to six weeks because he is overburdened, McNally said.

“Obviously, that is really, really challenging for a tenant living with these terrible conditions—cascading leaks, mold, terrible rodent infestations, missing appliances or they don’t have a  working refrigerator and can’t store food,” McNally said. 

Nicholle Nichols in front of Housing Court in downtown Manhattan on a freezing Feb. 14 afternoon. Next photo: The mold in her childrens’ bedroom. (Adi Talwar for City Limits)

OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen acknowledged the delayed repair cases and said the court system has worked to speed up those calendars.

“We are aware of the issue and trying lots of things to make it better,” Chalfen said, adding that HP cases would be conducted in-person rather than scheduled virtually, allowing more people to appear before a judge.

Repair complaints can drag on for years and negligent property owners typically avoid meaningful punishment for the poor conditions. The court imposes fines of $50 to $100 per violation, plus another $125 per day that a Class C violation goes unresolved. The city collects only a fraction of those penalties.

The city sued Piller to compel repairs and stop alleged harassment at other buildings in his portfolio in March, after previously plying him with cash to use his apartments to temporarily house homeless families a few years prior.

Judges are not the ones entering people’s homes to examine conditions. They instead rely on city housing inspectors to conduct follow-ups and mark complaints closed—a big part of the problem, said Councilmember Pierina Sanchez, chair of the housing committee and a former City Hall advisor.

“Although HPD and [the Department of Buildings] are responding quickly to 311 complaints and sending out inspectors, there is a very troubling lag time and delay in terms of closure of these complaints,” Sanchez told City Limits in March.

HPD has been hit hard by staff shortages over the past two years, especially during peaks of the pandemic. An inspector who spoke with City Limits outside Nichols’ apartment on Feb. 3 said half of his team was out with COVID at the time.

Sanchez has proposed legislation to increase reinspection fees for repeat violations—like the multiple mold complaints in Nichols’ unit— and has discussed additional policies for cracking down on negligent landlords. “It’s one thing to get an inspector out right away and that’s a good thing, [but] the ultimate goal is safety in our homes,” she said.

Months of mold

Back in January, Nichols was at her wits end. She filmed the mold in her unit and posted a video to a Facebook group for people with rental assistance vouchers. Nichols, who had been working at a Bronx nursing home, has a CityFHEPS voucher she got while living in a homeless shelter. “I need help and I don’t know where else to go for help,” she said in the video. “I reached out to 311, it does nothing. I reached out to my landlord, he does nothing.”

When City Limits entered Nichols’ apartment on Feb. 3, the radiator was spewing hot water and steaming up the bedroom like a sauna. An HPD inspector was also visiting in response to Nichols’ 311 calls. “It’s really bad,” the inspector said in the stairwell before going to locate the superintendent.

A few minutes later, the super arrived in the apartment and ordered a colleague to cut the heat. He changed a valve on the radiator to prevent the spray and steam.

His boss spoke with City Limits via FaceTime and said Nichols had previously prevented them from entering the unit to make repairs. Nichols denied that, and said the only time she instructed workers not to enter her unit was in March 2020, when she asked to postpone mold remediation because she and her family were in a 14-day COVID quarantine. She shared the emails she sent to the Piller’s management company at that time.

Piller, his management company and the attorney representing his LLC in housing court have not responded to multiple emails and phone calls for this story.

Eleven days after the HPD inspection, on Feb. 14, Nichols visited Manhattan Housing Court for a scheduled conference about the needed repairs. The hallways were empty aside from an 80-year-old renter with a hearing scheduled after Nichols’. An attorney from HPD and Piller’s lawyer, Vadim Goldshteyn, appeared virtually as Nichols sat before Judge Michelle Schreiber.

Schreiber read a litany of violations issued for Nichols’ apartment that had gone unaddressed over the past two years, including a broken intercom and mice and roach infestations. She ordered the landlord to fix the Class C mold violation within seven days, and she instructed Nichols to follow up with the court.

“If they don’t do the work they’re supposed to do then you have the right to bring them back to court and the only way we know if the work is not done is if you bring them back to court,” Schreiber said.

Goldshteyn said his client agreed to remove the mold and, with Nichols’ consent, scheduled to begin the work by 11 a.m. on Feb. 17 and return on Feb. 22. “They need to start mold remediation,” Schreiber told him. “These are not good situations for your client. The civil penalties are mounting. But aside from that, the petitioner is living in these conditions.”

But the workers did not show up on the scheduled dates, Nichols said. She and the landlord’s lawyer appeared in court again March 1, with the judge this time ordering the owner to complete repairs by March 22 with access to the apartment on March 15, 16 and 21. Maintenance staff did arrive to fix her floor and cabinets and a Brooklyn-based mold cleaning service visited the apartment on two of those days, according to court documents, but they did not remove the vegetation in the children’s bedroom. Under city law, mold blooms over 10 square feet require inspection by a state-certified remediation service.

Nichols said the workers wanted to clean the wall and paint over the mold. The remediation company did not respond to voicemails and an email seeking comment. She said she did not trust that they had her interests in mind and hoped the judge or the city housing agency would order the owner to open the walls and address what she suspected was a deeper cause of a recurring issue.

“They just wanted to paint over it,” she said. “They tried that already.”