Touting his affordable housing plan during his State of the City address in February, Mayor de Blasio said, “As we invest in more affordable housing, we will also work with communities to preserve the fabric of neighborhoods and invest in things that great neighborhoods need — from parks and schools…to shops and restaurants.” The plan [pdf] lists as its first aim "fostering diverse, livable neighborhoods," and the first tactic outlined for preserving existing affordable housing, the plan's second goal, is "[protecting] tenants and [stemming] the tide of rent deregulation” by fighting landlord harassment.
Few buildings appear as ripe for intervention as 410 E. 17th St. in Ditmas Park. The 30-apartment rent-stabilized building is one of the brick prewar complexes that are as much a dominant feature of the neighborhood as its famed Victorian mansions. The building is two blocks from the Cortelyou Road Q station, and a short walk from the commercial strip's food coop, Key Food, two pharmacies, laundromat, library branch, playground,and an ever-growing number of restaurants. Cortelyou is the neighborhood's Main Street, and on a warm day it is a parade of dread caps and and yarmulkes, saris and sagging skinny jeans, Yankees jerseys and kurtas, Jordans and Crocs, all befitting the neighborhood that was by some measures the most racially and ethnically diverse in the city in 2005.
Realtors and wealthy people are hip to the neighborhood's charm, and its 30-minute distance from Herald Square. Over the last decade, the median sales price for homes in Ditmas Park—that includes mansions and wood-floored, prewar coops—increased by 75% to about $750,000. By one calculation, the average two-bedroom in the neighborhood is now renting for $2,408, up from less than $2,000 in 2012. Still, 410 E. 17th serves, as it has for decades, as an economic refuge for tenants. Susanne Saldarriaga has lived there for 32 years, and with her husband, raised three kids in their one-bedroom apartment—the kids have all moved out and are having grandkids, and the couple is eyeing the retired life. It is a refuge too for Lucia Muniz, who arrived six years ago and is raising five children of her own.
“It's just an old-fashioned, Brooklyn-style [neighborhood]. Everybody sits out on the stoop on a summer night, waits for the ice cream truck,” Saldarriaga said. “We look out for each other's kids. We're a very tight-knit community.”
The building works for its tenants uniquely well because—bucking the citywide momentum towards hemorrhaging of rent-regulated units—every one of its apartments is still rent-stabilized. Saldarriaga pays about $760 for her one-bedroom. Muniz pays $1,110 for an apartment the same size, still less than she would most any place else in the neighborhood.
However, the discount has come at a steep price, thanks, tenants say, to the utter callousness of landlord Shalom Rubashkin, who 27 residents sued on Tuesday alleging harassment. Their list of complaints is long, including pervasive lead paint that Muniz says has poisoned her five-year-old daughter, leaving her with learning disabilities, mold that Saldarriaga says sent her to the hospital with an asthma attack in March, vermin coming through holes in walls and floors, cascading chains of leaks that pour from the sixth floor to the first, broken locks and doors, faulty wiring that Muniz says has caused her electrical sockets to explode, and broken or free-falling windows.
Tenants also say they have gone without heat and hot water for extended periods during 9 of the last 10 months, including 25 days over the winter.
Longtime tenant Susanne Saldarriaga didn't notice the water flowing in her hall closet until she saw paint flecks on her husband's clothes in December. Upon emptying the closet, she discovered the major extent of the leak, and the mold that it had spawned. The leak has been stopped since but the mold remains. Her husband now stores his clothes in garbage bags, she said. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
The city has recognized that there is a problem in the building—back in January, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development put the address on its Alternative Enforcement Program list, reserved for the 250 most severely distressed buildings in the city. When in March a housing court judge issued a consent order fining Rubashkin $1,700, she threatened further fines if he did not correct 166 outstanding HPD violations, including 20 deemed immediately hazardous, within set periods. Yet, by making what tenants' Legal Services lawyers call “shoddy repairs in a selective manner,” Rubashkin was able to leave the Alternative Enforcement Program in June. By this week, the building was back up to 218 HPD violations.
“This is a cautionary tale of what happens when landlords are simply allowed to slap a coat of paint over violations,” attorney Beth Baltimore said at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
Muniz's complaint about peeling lead paint, first made back in 2012, has yet to be addressed. Rubashkin attributes the holdup to paperwork errors and said he isn't even convinced Muniz's daughter has actually been poisoned.
"I don't know that to be an actual fact," he said when reached by phone. Rubashkin has taken Muniz to housing court several times. Most recently, she came out of the battle with a rent abatement.
The building has been in Rubashkin's family since 1987, when his grandfather Aaron Rubashkin bought it for $39,000. Aaron Rubashkin, a Hasidic Jewish immigrant from Russia, rose to prominence as a purveyor of kosher meats, first at a butcher shop on 14th Avenue in Borough Park, then in Postville, Iowa, where the same year as the apartment building purchase he founded the slaughterhouse and wholesale distributor Agriprocessors.
That company would go on to global success before a spectacular series of scandals beginning in 2004 with the release of undercover videos by PETA activists showing cows' throats being ripped out while they were still alive, continuing through a series of salmonella scares and labor violations for union-busting, and climaxing with Aaron and son Sholom—the plant manager and our Sholom's uncle—being arrested on a raft of charges involving child labor and, later, financial misdeeds. The bust was accompanied by one of the largest immigration raids in U.S. history, resulting in the deportation of 300 mostly Guatemalan undocumented immigrants.
The feds ultimately dropped charges against Aaron and couldn't prove the child labor charges against Sholom, but the company pleaded guilty to 83 child-labor charges with the caveat that the two had no knowledge of that behavior. Sholom the elder was found guilty of fraud and perjury and sentenced to 27 years in federal prison.
The younger Sholom, now 35, took over management of 410 in 2008, as he and his father Moshe were in the midst of their own legal battle in Pennsylvania. In Allentown, prosecutors found, Moshe had sold his Montex textile bleaching and dying mill to Sholom, with Sholom operating under an alias and through shell companies. Moshe had not properly cleaned up drums of hazardous waste on the site, so when a series of suspicious fires ignited on the lot, firefighters were met with dangerous flareups.
Moshe pleaded guilty to improper chemical storage and Sholom to lying to federal investigators about his ownership involvement, a felony. Sholom was originally sentenced to four months in prison, but was sent back for two months in 2013 after his release because he failed to pay a $5,000 fine, failed to report to his parole officer, and completed just 48 of 250 hours of community service.
In a parole report, Allentown Recycling Drop Off Center education manager Christine Carter wrote, “Our staff had to constantly address issues with Mr. Rubashkin, primarily that he would be sitting in his vehicle and he would be on the phone or his laptop computer, when he was supposed to be working.”
As a landlord, at least, he is hands-on, knocking on people's doors to collect rent, and threatening lawsuits in person, according to residents.
Ivan Sanchez is raising three daughters with his wife in a one-bedroom. Having convinced landlord Sholom Rubashkin to remove the lead-hazard that was his front door frame, he is now working on getting a replacement door and frame. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Rubashkin's tenure coincided with the declining health of the building's super—for the last seven years, the landlord has relied on an outside handyman, according to Saldarriaga, making the super's death in February just one of a string of indignities. Added to it is the fact that the super has not been replaced, though a relative of his is serving as a porter.
The hired handyman can't perform such basic tasks as replacing the door-frame he had to rip out because it was a lead hazard, according to tenant Ivan Sanchez. For the last two months. Sanchez said, he has been stuck with a door that is difficult to lock and is surrounded by exposed brick, broken up at the floor by a gap he said mice come through.
A non-locking lobby door, meanwhile, has led to the repeated discovery of strange men in their underwear, tenants said, one sleeping on the roof, and another hiding in a second-floor garbage room around midnight. Rubashkin's solution, they said, was to post a notice on the front of the building saying that the front door doesn't lock, an advertisement they felt didn't do much for safety. (The door locked properly during a Tuesday visit.)
The turning point in the tenants' fight was the cold this winter, which they said took place mostly on weekends, when city inspectors weren't likely to come. Hot water and general water outages continue to this day, they say, and Rubashkin blames broken pipes, “but if he replaced a pipe every time the water went out, the whole boiler's made of new pipes,” Saldarriaga said. Indeed, Rubashkin said the extended winter outages were caused by the aging boiler breaking down and, "sometimes, unfortunately, [workers] had to wait until the repair shop opened." A $13,800 National Grid bill tenants spotted in July offers another possible explanation for the shutoffs.
Rubashkin touted a new, computerized network of temperature sensors that he said will make the heating more even throughout the building, and said the coming winter will be one of uninterrupted warmth.
"It's very understandable when it's very cold, whatever the reason is, whether you're right or wrong, tenants don't care. I understand that," he said. "You can have the best excuse in the world, but there is a human factor part of it."
Defending the condition of the building, he said that he has put tens of thousands of dollars into repairs and taken it out of the city's program through honest, concerted effort. Banging the drum of personal responsibility, he tried to shift the blame onto tenants, saying that garbage outside of bags in the trash rooms are partially to blame for mice infestations, and that he has observed children dropping sandwiches and ice cream on the floor of the lobby. The violations, he argued, are attributable to residents of four or five apartments (a read-through of the violations shows that not to be true) and linger due to paperwork complications and, crucially for a housing court case, tenants' refusal to provide access for repairs.
"It's not a story of a landlord versus tenants," he said. "I have a very good rapport with a lot of tenants there. Help me help yourself. When you have a problem with the window or the refrigerator, be home when the repair people come."
The lawsuit lists residents of 19 of the building's 30 apartments. Rubashkin said the level of participation, and the turnout to yesterday's rally, is a function of a few rabble-rousers leading people on.
"They go around literally knocking on tenants doors saying, 'Sign a paper, sign a paper,'" he said.
Asked if he was concerned about the growing political stigma against tenant harassment and the increasing willingness of the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office to prosecute it—three Brooklyn landlords have been arrested in the past year—Rubashkin said he has nothing to fear.
"Of course we take that seriously," he said. "I'm not harassing anybody. We're not asking anybody to leave. We're asking people to respect the property."
With the lawsuit, the tenants hope to force Rubashkin's hand and show, as Muniz puts it, “he can't play with us.” The suit also names HPD and demands it fine as much as $150 per day for violations, plus $1,000-$5,000 for each unit the court finds he has harassed a tenant. Whether the move can sway Rubashkin is unclear, but they're trying.
An HPD spokeswoman said that the agency has not yet been served with the lawsuit, but that it will look into the complaints. In a statement, spokeswoman Elizabaeth Rohlfing said that 410 E. 17th St. was taken off the AEP list properly and is the subject of continuing scrutiny.
"The Alternative Enforcement Program was created to hold landlords accountable for the conditions of their buildings, and HPD will continue to apply pressure on landlords who don't step up to the plate even after exiting the program," she said. "This building met the statutory criteria for discharge and is now as required by law being monitored for one year."
Bill Roberson, a tenant of more than 30 years, is frustrated with the progress so far.
“The system is broken,” he said, citing open Department of Buildings violations, of which there are 19, some dating to 2007. “What's the point of violations if they don't make him pay?”
Roberson lives on the fourth floor, but avoids taking the elevator because of how often his neighbors have gotten stuck on it.
Rubashkin declined to discuss the claims of the lawsuit in greater detail, saying he has not yet seen it, and would not talk about the size of his family's real estate holdings.