By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The window on the landing between the third and fourth floors of 1329 Clinton Avenue in the Bronx has no glass. The sill is low enough for a child to climb through the hole and fall onto a pile of garbage, old mattresses, and bicycle parts that lies below. Through the empty frame, another world can be glimpsed: A newly renovated building with a grassy backyard adjoins this lot in the back. Rows of new three-story family homes have recently been built on either side on this block. Everything about the neighborhood is changing, but at 1329 Clinton things stay the sameor keep getting worse.
The state of this building is typical of the properties owned by John Kosman, who has run up a total of 1,616 code violations. "We spend weeks at a time without heat or hot water," says tenant Kelly Lemmon. "Our front door is broken, and there are leaks all over." Tenants recently endured almost a week with no water at all while the landlord was supposedly fixing a leak. HPD fined Kosman $103,500 for lack of hot water in the building for 118 days straight, between October 6, 2005, and January 31, 2006.
Conditions in this building are appalling. Most bathrooms are missing either one or two walls or have holes in the ceiling, through which beams and cables can be seen. Most of the bathrooms leak. Whatever little repair is made is surely undone over time by water damage. "The whole new kitchen wall I put up is ready to come down" because of leaks, says tenant Tony Anderson. He also says he spent about $2,000 in materials and labor to repair his apartment, under the impression that Kosman was going to repay him or deduct it from the rent. But Anderson says he can't even get Kosman to return his calls.
Anderson has also seen rats coming out of holes in the walls of his apartmentnot mice, he clarifies, but "big guys." He has put his youngest child in the care of his sister in Queens because his apartment tested positive for lead-based paint. He's been without a working kitchen sink since May 2005, when he bought an aluminum sink. But it was never connected and now sits useless on a two-by-four frame.
A ground-floor apartment looks like a war zonewalls reduced to rubble, a huge pit in the floor, debris everywhere. Water spouts intermittently from a wall, falls into a bathtub, and spills on the floor and into the basement. The apartment had suffered a massive steam pipe break a year ago. The tenant living there was moved to an apartment next door just in time to avoid the catastrophic collapse of the apartment directly above. Now he lives in a much smaller studio. He needs a flashlight to gain access to a bathroom that doesn't work anyway.
Kosman, who resides in what the Daily News called the "suburban splendor of Dix Hills, L.I.," does not want to talk about the dismal state of this and other buildings he owns. His response to questions about his crumbling properties is a laconic "drug activity." He says he can't get into his own buildings because drug dealers won't let him. "If there is drug activity in the building," Anderson replied, "he could do something about it. He knows who he rents apartments to."
According to Lemmon, whose husband used to be the super, Kosman prefers tenants who have their rent paid through public assistance programs. "Mr. Kosman is very money hungry," she says. She quotes him as saying, "I want all programs 'cause I get the money directly from the city." Obtaining funds for upgrading this property shouldn't be a problem for Kosman, since loans and other help from the city are readily available, especially in an area of the Bronx that is being extensively renovated.
Kosman's buildings throughout the city have a very high average of 26 code violations per unit, one of the indexes the city uses to identify bad landlords. Many of these violations are serious. Lack of heat and hot water, broken window sashes, concealed and cascading water leaks, lead-based-paint hazards, accumulation of refuse in yards, and urine and fecal matter in hallways are just some of the conditions HPD found in his buildings.
Kosman has already been in trouble for his properties. Just last year, Judge Gerald Lebovits sentenced him to three days in jail and fined him $60,000 for not providing habitable conditions for his tenants at 117 West 142nd Street in Harlem. "When [landlords] make a commitment to do the work that's required by law and then they don't do it," Judge Lebovits tells the Voice, "there are consequences." Nine months after the judge's action, that building remains in deplorable condition. HPD lists 331 open violations, of which 75 are severe.
"There have been minimal repairs done in the building since Kosman was sent to jail," says Dionnedrea Wilson, who lives on the top floor. When it rains or snows, water streams down and eats away at the ceiling. Heat and hot water remain inconsistent for three or four days out of the week. Anybody can come in through the front door or the roof door.
Francine Andrews plugged a bathroom wall with plastic grocery bags at Kosmans Clinton Avenue building
photo: Rubén González
HPD has had to provide emergency repairs for Kosman's buildings, which include performing a building-wide lead analysis, installing new thermal windows, repairing leaks, removing radiators, and sanitizing "the public halls and stairs at all floors to remove the odor and residue of urine and fecal matter." These and other repairs have cost the city $170,437, excluding administrative fees and taxes, since 2000. Kosman still owes $102,931. The city is going to court in an effort to take away two of his properties1329 Clinton and 117 West 142ndin a foreclosure hearing scheduled for this fall. At another property, 1822 George Street in Ridgewood, Queens, Kosman has been fined $7,500 for lack of heat and hot water.
Kosman appeared in Judge Jerald R. Klein's courtroom in the Bronx on June 12 regarding his building at 1329 Clinton. The hearing's purpose was "to punish" Kosman for not providing livable conditions for tenants. Kosman showed up with a new management company, and the judge reserved decision about punitive action until he saw how the new company performed.
Judge Lebovits, who back in December 2004 also sentenced landlord Peter Golia to 10 days in jail and a $150,500 fine, says that "sometimes landlords think that they'll come to court and the judge will just sit there, smile, and be dumb," adding emphatically, "but that's not true." Lebovits does have some words of hope. "I will make sure that tenants will not suffer," he says, "with lack of heat and hot water and rats and mold and lead paint and collapsing buildings and everything else. That just plainly will not happen."