Sully Estevez says her son had his first asthma attack in January, at a time when her Queens building was in the midst of 10 days without heat or hot water.
“I didn’t know what an asthma attack looked like,” recalls Estevez, a hospital social worker. “His chest was sinking in and his stomach would come out very fast. I took him to the hospital. He had a very bad cold, from it being so cold in here.”
Estevez has lived with her family in a rent-stabilized apartment at 1708 Summerfield Street in Ridgewood for four years. Doctors told her that her 18-month-old son, Julian, developed asthma in conjunction with the mold that she says has been a constant issue in her apartment since she moved in. Estevez says the mold in her home is so severe that she is afraid to bathe her toddler in the bathroom, thankful that he still fits in the kitchen sink.
Other tenants of 1708 Summerfield share Estevez's frustrations with their landlord, Silvershore Properties, who they say is letting their apartments languish in disrepair in order to push them out and bring in higher-paying residents. Tenants complain that their rent statements show charges higher than their legal rent, and that they haven’t had a super since November. In addition to going without heat and hot water on the coldest days of the year, tenants complain of mold, roaches, mice, and garbage accumulation.
In another building nearby, the DOB caught Silvershore tampering with gas lines on multiple occasions without a permit. And in that same building, Silvershore is suing a commercial tenant for having a below market-rate lease.
These are increasingly common renter complaints in gentrifying areas of New York, where tenants and their advocates say so-called predatory landlords are maintaining poor conditions to force out rent-regulated tenants, allowing the owners to hike rents and ultimately deregulate apartments. Silvershore, which is headed by Jason Silverstein and David Shorenstein is notable for being one of the largest landlords of small buildings in New York City, and for ranking number one on the public advocate's list of worst landlords for 2017.
Silvershore's five Ridgewood buildings have a staggering 157 open HPD violations for their 62 units, which is more than double the city’s average number of violations per unit, according to data from the nonprofit JustFix.nyc. In the last ten years, according to JustFix, Silvershore has destabilized 159 rent stabilized apartments out of its 1,152 units scattered over Brooklyn, Queens, and Bronx.
(Georgia Kromrei / Gothamist)
A representative from Silvershore commented that they “do not have a record of the mold complaint, nor of any rent ledger issues, and will be happy to discuss them with the respective tenants if contacted.”
“Every day I talk to people that are at the brink of homelessness or have already been evicted and are staying in a shelter trying to get back into their apartments,” said Raquel Namuche, leader of the Ridgewood Tenants Union, which was founded in 2014 and is helping organize 1708 Summerfield's mostly low-income tenants. “And many of these tenants are coming from Ridgewood.”
(Georgia Kromrei / Gothamist)
A once-sleepy Queens neighborhood just north of fast-gentrifying Bushwick, Ridgewood is home to three separate historic landmark districts and five recently opened Americana-themed bars. The streets are lined with low exposed-brick buildings whose front doors often have lace curtains.
In contrast to Ridgewood's more typical apartment buildings of six apartments or less, 1708 Summerfield is a large building, with 39 rent-stabilized apartments just a few blocks away from the Halsey stop on the L train.
According to data from the Department of Finance, 15 percent of Ridgewood’s rent stabilized housing has been destabilized in the last 10 years: some 1,464 apartments, concentrated on the border with Bushwick. And in 2018, Ridgewood had twice the rate of evictions as the rest of Queens, according to data from New York City Marshals.
(Georgia Kromrei / Gothamist)
Some of Silvershore's recent actions, say tenants, raise suspicions that it's trying to push tenants out by keeping buildings in disrepair. Anne Croudace, who moved to a recently renovated apartment in 1708 Summerfield with her family at the end of December, says that during her first month in the building, there was no heat and hot water in the building five times in three weeks. She says Silvershore’s solution for the problem was “strange.”
“It was weird that they were ordering this really small fraction of the amount that the tank can hold," says Croudace. "It was continually running out—we’d have two or three days of oil. And obviously it’s more expensive to buy oil for just two or three days. It didn’t make sense.”
According to the heating bill for 1708 Summerfield, which was provided to Gothamist by a tenant, the supplier delivered small quantities of oil three times in four days in late January—but at each of the deliveries, the tank was marked “not full.” Though the heating bill reflects that the tank has a capacity of 4000 gallons, each order was for 1000 gallons or less. Rather than fill the tank all the way up, Silvershore was ensuring that their tenants would likely go without heat again.
Silvershore and the building's management company, J Wasser, did not respond to Gothamist questions about heat and hot water.
Many tenants in Silvershore buildings receive rent vouchers via Section 8, a federally funded program that funds reduced-rent housing for approximately 90,000 low- income families in New York City by paying landlords the difference between the rent and what the family is able to pay.
Section 8 tenants are especially vulnerable to harassment, Namuche explains, since the apartments must pass regular inspections by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, or else NYCHA may ask the tenant to move. The landlord is then able to get rid of a tenant who will never pay market rate rent, but tenants are frequently unable to find an apartment in the same neighborhood and end up having to move far away from their communities.
This is what Elba Ortiz, 78, a tenant in another Silvershore building, 6120 Madison, fears is about to happen to her. All eight of the building’s apartments have been destabilized in the last 10 years. Last year, Ortiz says, representatives from Silvershore repeatedly asked her to leave. Meanwhile, her apartment is clearly in a state of neglect: water and gas pipes are exposed, there is peeling paint in the kitchen, and the cupboards are disintegrating. There’s only a suggestion of square edges on the crumbling floor in the kitchen and living room.
The front door to Ortiz's home does not properly close: Even when it's fully shut, the outside corridor is still visible through a gaping crack between the frame and the door.
Originally from Puerto Rico, Ortiz has lived in her Ridgewood home for 28 years. She suffers from diabetes and arthritis, and now lives with only her son and vociferous chihuahua. “I don’t know what to do,” she says.
Ortiz worries that her landlord is singling her out because of her Section 8 status, and laments the possibility of having to move: Here, she says, she has everything she needs close by, including her two granddaughters, who live in the neighborhood.
Gloria Nieves talks to her neighbor, Adela Matos, about the conditions in her apartment and the plans for the march on April 13 (Georgia Kromrei / Gothamist)
Oscar Peacock lives on the first floor of another Silvershore building, 279 St. Nicholas Avenue. Peacock, a camera technician and member of Democratic Socialists of America who is working on a novel, moved to a market-rate apartment in Ridgewood from Bushwick in 2017 with his girlfriend. He said he noticed something was wrong with the apartment soon after he moved in: Although it was recently renovated, there were no radiators.
Peacock got in touch with the management company, and says they sent a repair person to install a radiator, “but the repair was literally just for show.” The apartment had no heat for the first year, until January 2018, when Silvershore finally installed a functioning radiator. But then other problems started: That summer, says Peacock, the hot water would turn off for several days at a time at the end of each month, and the basement flooded regularly.
Peacock says that during this period, National Grid came several times to shut off the gas because the building’s pipes weren’t up to code. Each time, a repairman who Peacock believed to be from Silvershore turned it back on. Once, Peacock says he spotted the repairman installing a part to bypass the gas meters in one apartment and channel the gas through another.
After discovering the bypass in the basement, Peacock called 311, and the Department of Buildings came to investigate the same day. According to the DOB, inspectors found that gas work had been performed without a permit and gas had been supplied to the building without authorization. DOB immediately shut off the gas for the entire building.
The gas shutoff spurred the tenants to organize a building group chat and form a plan of action. They drafted a letter, and though Peacock tried to convince his neighbors to go on rent strike, he says other tenants were concerned that the landlord would retaliate by putting them on a “tenant blacklist,” or that their guarantors would be exposed to credit liability.
“All of the tenants in the building are young," says Peacock. "People said, ‘I don’t want to ruin my mom’s credit.’”
Instead, the tenants negotiated with Silvershore to pay half-price rent while using space heaters and electric coil burners in lieu of gas. But willingness to make concessions on living conditions can also delineate class boundaries. “I’d gladly rather pay half rent then have an oven," says Peacock. "But that’s a very specific privilege.”
Peacock says he doubts Silvershore will offer him a renewal when his lease is up on September 1st, which they don't have to do as his apartment is unregulated. The building still had no cooking gas at the end of March.
Olga Naranjo, who operates a small real estate brokerage, notary, accounting and tax firm on the first floor of the same building, is named in a lawsuit from Silvershore demanding she pay $525,000 in damages for having a below market-rate commercial lease until 2021. Naranjo says that after the landlord bought the building in 2016 there was a bleak period when it was “abandoned” while renovations on the rest of the apartments continued. The garbage piled up until stray dogs became a serious problem.
“No one was taking care of the building. I dealt with the garbage and shoveled the snow, because the management was not sending anyone.”
Dominica Goris and Gloria Nieves speak with two of their neighbors about the problems in the building (Georgia Kromrei / Gothamist)
The Ridgewood tenants see their response to Silvershore’s abusive practices as a step toward wresting control of affordable housing from an industry that has outsize influence over the political system.
In 2016, ProPublica found that rent stabilized properties are often pitched as being more attractive to prospective buyers because deregulating those apartments is so easy and profitable under the current laws. Landlords are able to raise rents by 20 percent whenever there is a vacancy and deregulate apartments when the rent is over $2700 using vacancy decontrol. Advocates say vacancy decontrol, signed into law in 1994 by the New York City Council, is the main engine for the destabilization of a third of the city’s stabilized housing in the last 25 years.
In 2018, the real estate industry donated $13.4 million to New York political candidates at the state and local levels, and spent another $10.7 million on lobbying politicians, according to data from nonprofit Follow the Money.org. But the tenant movement is also flexing its muscles in Queens and elsewhere, with the recent defeat of the Amazon deal after opposition from grassroots organizations including the Ridgewood Tenants’ Union.
The Ridgewood Tenants’ Union is part of Housing Justice For All, a broader coalition calling for a radical overhaul of New York’s rent laws when they expire in June. The coalition’s demands focus on universal rent control, which would include expanding rent regulation to the rest of the state, along with seven other pieces of legislation such as State Senator Julia Salazar’s "just cause" eviction bill—which would prevent landlords from evicting nearly any tenant for non-payment of an unreasonable rent increase, effectively extending rent regulation protections to all city tenants—plus legislation to end MCIs and “vacancy decontrol.”
At a tenant meeting on March 12th, Namuche cautioned the Silvershore tenants that lobbying lawmakers in Albany may not yield immediate improvements in their living conditions. Still, the tenants discussed what would happen if rent regulation were renewed and expanded.
The tenants of 1708 Summerfield are planning to take their complaints to the streets on April 13th, when they will march from the other Silvershore buildings in Ridgewood to their own in a show of support for their neighbors.
Gloria Nieves, a Section 8 tenant, said at the meeting that without unity, the landlords will continue to leverage the power they already have to pursue profits. And Nieves worried that another winter without heat will prove disastrous for tenants like Estevez and her son Julian.
“If we don’t all stand together like a chain, the landlord will do whatever he wants," said Nieves. "But if [politicians] are making deals with Amazon, they also have to listen to us."