Tenant Hell in Harlem

Melvin Allen and Wanda Bonilla won't be happy even if they're allowed back in their Harlem apartments. After what they say are months of harassment, peaking this summer when their roof was ripped out—while they still lived there—only one thing will satisfy these irate tenants: They want their landlord behind bars.

It's a classic new landlord/old tenant battle, but one so egregious that city agencies, prosecutors, and politicians are all involved. Most back the tenants, who argue that their new landlords cut off their services and gutted the building in a brazen effort to push them out; the landlords claim the tenants are savvy scam artists playing the system, preventing honest entrepreneurs from fixing the building.

Allen desperately wants retribution—and compensation for his valuables locked up (and likely ruined) in his two-bedroom apartment ever since city officials sealed the building on July 22. The 37-year-old remembers the years he's put in as a security guard and doorman to afford the big-screen TV and the leather sofa bed. Says Allen, "All my stuff I've worked so hard for is up there."


Despite the recession, there's a booming market for Harlem apartment buildings. Right near 2649 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, where the aggrieved tenants lived, there are signs of change. Just a few blocks away, on 145th Street, a new Pathmark supermarket is rising.

"Everyone thinks that Harlem is now a gold mine for housing development," says Minyon Jones, aide to local state assemblyman Keith Wright. "So a lot of these landlords are doing what they can to get the tenants out."

Peter Golia and Stacey Rosenblatt bought 2649 Frederick Douglass from Anthony and Ronald White for $460,000 in October 2002. Nine tenants soon accepted the landlords' cash offers to move out. The other three resisted. Almost immediately, the tenants say, they lost services. By summer, normal life was impossible. Bonilla was applying for jobs, but couldn't bathe at home. It was worse for Allen and his pregnant fiancée, who gave birth to their first child in late June.

In July, Rosenblatt and Golia began roof work. City housing inspectors ordered them to stop, and did their own emergency repairs. It began to rain, and water poured into the building. On July 22, a city inspector ordered an immediate evacuation, finding that "unsafe demolition practices" had "severely damaged" the staircase, and that the roof was "in danger of collapse."

Since then, the building has remained sealed to the tenants. More than three months later, they're convinced that their landlords deliberately made their apartments uninhabitable. "They made our lives hell," says Allen.

Not so, the owners insist. "My client is the victim of a scam," says Ray Dowd, attorney for Stacey Rosenblatt. (Golia could not be reached for comment.)

The owners say that the Whites lied to them about the building's condition before the sale. They also say that Bonilla and the third tenant, Sylvia Blake, are members of the White family and have never paid rent. Allen, they say, is a squatter who already took $3,500 to vacate his apartment. (Allen denies this; all three tenants say they've paid rent, at $600 to $700 a month.)

The landlords have documents they say prove the conspiracy against them, but so far, the tenants have been winning support and court battles. Attorneys with the housing litigation bureau of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development successfully convinced a Manhattan housing court judge in August to order the landlords to fix the building and reinstate the tenants.

Last Wednesday, a Queens civil court judge rejected the owners' effort to combine all the cases, so the litigation now returns to Manhattan. And best of all, the tenants found out that their dreams of jailed landlords just might bear fruit, when the city decided to prosecute Golia for unlawful eviction, a misdemeanor charge that could result in imprisonment.

"More than anything, we want them punished," says Bonilla. "They used some crazy scare tactics to get us out."

 
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