Some days you just feel like everything has come crashing down on your head. Olisa Holder felt that way on Monday, when a good chunk of her ceiling fell down on top of her, sending her briefly to the hospital. It sounded like freak accident to me, but I couldn’t find anyone in Holder’s building at 2017 Caton Ave in Flatbush, Brooklyn, who was willing to express surprise about it. The building and its sister building, 2023 Caton Ave, have a joint 600 violations (“and counting,” residents like to add) and a whole lot of very angry tenants. After years of fruitless attempts to convince the landlords to take the building and its maintenance seriously, they’ve recently launched a higher profile campaign for real change in their building. I went to the property yesterday to speak with some of the tenants, and then tagged along with them to the Upper East Side, where they protested outside Peter Ashe Real Estate, at 63rd and Lexington Ave. (Asher Alcobi, the President of Peter Ashe Real Estate, co-owns the building, along with Ami Blashkovsky, an agent at Peter Ashe Real Estate, and three others. The property itself has nothing to do with Peter Ashe Real Estate.)
Much more below the fold (including bonus celebrity photos!).
I live in Flatbush, but not at 2017 Caton Ave. Still, I should say right at the outset that I’m hardly an impartial spectator on all this. A good friend of mine, Aga Trojniak, from the Flatbush Development Corporation (FDC), a local non-profit, is taking a leading role in tenant organizing in the building (along with Michael Grinthal, at South Brooklyn Legal Services). And I’m in the middle of writing software (on a volunteer basis) to help the FDC handle client management. Nevertheless, I’ve made a good faith effort to track down the facts as accurately as I could. Although I was able to speak with someone from the management company handling the property, Asher Alcobi wasn’t available when I called this morning for comment (he wasn’t available for the Daily News yesterday for comment either). I’ll update this post in the future if any corrections are in order.
It doesn’t take a lot of prompting to get residents of 2017 Caton Ave to describe the problems with the building. I spoke with a few of them when I arrived at the building before everyone departed for the protest. Samantha Paige, who works for a health insurance company, has lived in apartment 8 for about four years. She cited a “multitude of problems” ranging from long interruptions in gas, heat, and hot water, to surprisingly large holes in her son’s bedroom floor. “Meet Richard,” she said tersely as she led me into her son’s bedroom to show me the holes, “He’s my downstairs neighbor.” I peered down into Richard’s apartment and thought, “Hello Richard.” Unfortunately, this picture really doesn’t give a sense of how much you can see through the floor.
Paige led me next into the bathroom and showed me the ceiling, which appeared to be coming down in the area over the toilet. “Every damn night it rains on my head in this room.” The management actually re-did the bathroom fairly recently, but they neglected to address the leaking water from the apartment above, and the ceiling started to fall apart and mold over in fairly short order.
Paige’s apartment is in poor condition, but not all the problems with it are visible. Paige’s four year old son Kalvin was recently discovered to have elevated levels of lead in his blood, a problem that can lead to all kinds of developmental and learning disorders. Paige told me that she never received standard lead warnings that landlords are required by law to send to tenants, and that the lead in her apartment was only cleaned up when she called 311 to have the city address the problem.*
Virtually every tenant I spoke with echoed Paige’s complaints about leaks, along with her more general complaints about the building. Last month, a fire broke out on the first floor, the result of faulty electrical wiring and a gas leak. The gas was off for between eight and twenty days, depending on the apartment (though most seem to have been off for eight days). When I arrived in the building, the radiator in the lobby was driving huge quantities of steam into the air in a way I’ve never seen before, perhaps because it’s virtually assured to cause serious problems with mold.
Scott Kellum, a student at Parsons studying graphic design, has lived in the building for two years. Repeating a complaint I heard from a number of tenants, Kellum told me that the management’s only response to leaking water and sewage in his apartment was to paint over affected areas. Sometimes the heat goes off. Sometimes it goes on, but the pipes bang so loudly that it’s impossible to sleep (at one point he and his roommates were forced to sleep elsewhere for a month). Kellum tells me he’s called the management company repeatedly, but that they usually stick him on hold indefinitely. Sometimes, before they stick him on hold they tell him that he’s the only one complaining.
As it turns out, Kellum is most certainly not the only one complaining. Lacy Warner, who works in retail, has lived with her roommates in a three bedroom apartment in the building for one year now. They’ve suffered three infestations of bed bugs in the last five months, made all the more difficult to contain by all the holes in the floor and ceiling. Management has arranged largely ineffective spot extermination in their apartment on some occasions, but on others has responded skeptically to complaints about bed bugs, asking Warner at one point to actually catch a bed bug to confirm infestation. (This is difficult.)
And so it goes, in one conversation after another with tenants in the building. So what’s going on here? Richard E. Williams, who has lived in the building since 1979, tells me that the building used to be well maintained, but was increasingly neglected as the years wore on. The current owners of 2017 Caton Ave. purchased the building about two years ago, and a number of tenants tell me that the building’s maintenance suffered a sharp decline after the change in ownership. The management has allowed the building to go without a superintendent for at least half a year now, which tenants say leaves them without anyone in the building to arrange large repairs and carry out minor ones. Tenants also complain that the work that actually does get done on the building is carried out by unlicensed and incompetent contractors.
I spoke with Avi Fried at the management company about some of these issues, after he had briefly, and mostly unsuccessfully, attempted to introduce tenants to a new hire he said would help coordinate repairs. (At this point the tenants were gearing up to leave to protest outside the office of Peter Ashe Real Estate, and professed themselves uninterested in further communication with the management after months of fruitless discussion.) I confess that I couldn’t make any sense of Fried’s explanation for the fact that the management company had no immediate plans to hire a super for the building. His explanation, as far as I could follow it, was that the repairs needed in the building were too much for a super. I pointed out that this is no reason to avoid actually hiring a super, who is expected to deal with all kinds of smaller repair issues in the ordinary run of things, but he kept repeating his original point. To be fair to Fried, my line of questioning was a bit more muddled than the last sentence makes it sound. But to be bluntly honest, I’m not convinced a clearer line of questioning would have produced a more logical response.
When I asked him, Fried said he was happy with the work that the contractors had done in the building over the last three or four months. One issue Fried complained about was the difficulty he said he had experienced in arranging times when he could get into the apartments to work on them. When I spoke with Aga Trojniak, my tenant-organizer friend, she told me that several months ago the tenants had sent the management company a detailed schedule setting out clearly when tenants would be available for repairs on their apartments.
Anyway, in spite of a last minute appeal by the management that was angrily shouted down in the lobby of the building, a group of about 20 protesters left the building and headed up to the Upper East Side. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I accepted subway fare from my friend Aga for both trips. Forgive me this lapse of pseudo-journalistic independence: I’m as poor as a church mouse.). Once there, they stood outside Peter Ashe Real Estate and shouted slogans while a smaller group went inside to negotiate with one of the two owners.
Here they are protesting:
This adorable child has elevated levels of lead in his blood:
I stood off to the side, watching the protesters chanting and passing out leaflets to bewildered Upper East Siders. The protesters were lucky in enough to be joined by a reporter, and a little later, a photographer, both from the Daily News. (Much to the delight of the tenants, managers from the management company had fled from reporters from the Daily News earlier in the week when they showed up at the building.)
Here’s the reporter, Erin Durkin, asking Lacy Warner a question:
Here’s the photographer doing his thing:
Too bad for you that he didn’t take the pictures in this post.
Here’s the photographer checking his shot of the child with the “Lead, lead hurts my head” sign. These people are professionals. They know news when they see it.
The protesters had a number of chants, many led by Warner, who seemed to have a knack for coming up with them. “No hot water, no heat,” they shouted. Then, “Lead, lead, hurts my head,” and “Peter Ashe, Peter Ashe, we’re not trash.”
Every once in a while the protesters fell back on the highly topical, “We’re slumdogs. They’re millionaires.” About the fifth time they chanted this, an improbably gorgeous woman glided out of the camera store next door to the realty office and started to film the protesters with her cell phone. It was an unusual level of interest from someone uninvolved in the protest, I thought. Her companion cleared up the mystery for me by pointing out that she had recently starred in the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.”
And whaddayaknow, he was right! It was Frieda Pinto. At this point your faithful correspondent’s camera betrayed him (by which I mean that I must have messed up the settings on the camera without noticing when I was moving it in and out of my pocket). So the photos here are even worse than the ones above. Still, it is undeniably Frieda Pinto, who stood very patiently for two shots while I fumbled and apologized and muttered about my camera.
Eventually, the negotiators emerged from the Realty Office. The owners of the building agreed to meet with the tenants this evening at 8pm. When they do, they’ll likely be meeting a group of tenants energized by the nice three quarter page spread on their protest in this morning’s Daily News (not online, unfortunately [Update: Now it is.).
I'll post later about what comes of all this, if anything.
* The Daily News piece that came out this morning says that the lead still hasn't been cleaned up.
-Later on 02-26-2009: Clarified relationship between Peter Ashe Real Estate and the property in both the title of the post and the first paragraph.