Bench Pressed

Sliding-Door Lawsuits Keep Organizers Out, Lawsuits In

Two landlords in the Bronx have succeeded in kicking community organizers out of their buildings, even as tenants complain that drug dealers can come and go as they please.

The buildings have a history of housing violations—rats, unlocked front doors, mold, falling ceilings, exposed lead paint—and some have been in and out of housing court for years. Last April, community organizers began encouraging the residents to form tenants' groups. In August, they held a demonstration in front of 1030 Woodycrest Avenue, where conditions were bad enough to prompt Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion to call for the city to put the building under an independent administrator's control.

But in November and December, the two landlords persuaded judges to place temporary restraining orders against the three community organizations active in their buildings. In the short term, the orders will make it harder for the tenants' groups to form. Should the suits prove successful—a long shot, say housing experts—they could dramatically damage tenants' rights throughout the city and state.

As part of their case, the landlords sent representatives through their buildings to get tenants to sign papers certifying that their apartments had been repaired. Many tenants also signed a petition stating that they were happy with the landlord and did not want third-party interference. But the few tenants willing to talk to the Voice say the owners ought to pay more attention to improving the building and less to getting rid of the organizers.

"The front door is no good," says Hilda Burgos, a tenant in 2315 Walton Avenue, which is owned by Stephen Tobia. "Every time they fix it, someone kicks it in and then drug dealers come in. Whatever they do lasts just for two weeks." A tenant in 1030 Woodycrest Avenue, owned by Leonard Froio, said her building's door was regularly broken, allowing outsiders to wander in.

The lawyer representing both landlords, Lawrence Gottlieb, acknowledged that his clients hadn't fixed all the problems but said they were addressing them. "We are pouring money into the buildings in the normal course of operating budgets," Gottlieb said.

The lawsuits contend the housing groups illegally interfered in the landlords' dealings with Washington Mutual, which was about to extend more than $2 million in loans for the six buildings but then withdrew. The community groups' weapons, according to the suits, were flyers, a demonstration in front of the bank, and conversations with bank officials.

None of the defendants—Highbridge Community Life Center, Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, and one of the coalition's members, United Committees for University Heights—were willing to comment on the complaints, but they intend to fight and they have court dates scheduled over the next few weeks.

The temporary injunctions come as a shock to housing advocates, who see the arguments as violating state real estate law, to say nothing of the First Amendment. "It couldn't be clearer: No landlord has the right to interfere with the tenants' right to organize," says Judith Goldiner, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society. "Ultimately I find it difficult to believe that the viewpoint of these judges is going to prevail."

The buildings are among numerous properties linked to Frank Palazzolo, whom outgoing housing commissioner Jerilyn Perine has called one of the city's worst landlords. Palazzolo doesn't own any of the affected properties, according to the lawsuits, but he lent money to the landlords of record.

Gottlieb says he is considering requests for restraining orders to cover several other buildings in the Bronx. Apparently preparations have already started. Chancy Marsh, a tenant organizer for Palazzolo-backed buildings on Leland Avenue, said that neighbors told him the superintendent began to collect signatures on the same type of petitions last month. These restraining orders may prove to be an embarrassment to the judges who granted them (Joan B. Lefkowitz and Barbara G. Zambelli), but meanwhile they are doing their job: keeping community organizers out of buildings where the owners don't want them.

 
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