By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
This spring, a man named Godfrey Autiaobong came around. He said he was Morrison's manager and demanded thousands in back rent from Cordero. The tenant tried to take his case to Housing Court but, like more than 90 percent of the tenants who appear there, he wasn't represented by a lawyer. Cordero was evicted on April 12. He moved back in with his parents.
Maria Cardona, who had lived at 81 Bleecker Street for 23 years, says she quit the building in November, fearing for her four-month-old baby's health. She got a signed promise from the landlord that he'd pay her $5,000. There were no apartments in the neighborhood for less than $1,500 a month, however, and she has yet to receive the promised $5,000.
When Autiaobong knocked on Carmen Melendez's door demanding back rent, she asked to see some ID. The manager balked. Melendez, who knows something about police work, called the cops and had him removed from the building. She didn't know who he was, she told them. Probably an imposter.
Currently, the landlord is insisting that Melendez pay $15,000 in accrued rent payments or get out. Melendez isn't sure where he got the figure, since her monthly stabilized rent is set at $450. Reached by phone, Autiaobong insisted that the landlord was repairing the building and providing all necessary heat and hot water. Pressed to explain the no-heat days this winter, he hung up. That same day, HPD had to provide oil to the building.
The city has had it with the mysterious Morrison as well. In September, city attorneys won an order to correct all violations at the site, plus $3,000 in penalties. Morrison paid the fine but didn't make the repairs. HPD officials say they are currently preparing a new motion seeking additional penalties.
At 1430 Putnam Avenue, a six-unit apartment house on Bushwick's east side, a man representing the new landlord appeared at the door of Gladys Melendez's apartment (no relation to Carmen) in January 2006. He said his name was Jack Zimmer, and then was brief and to the point, according to Melendez: "He said, 'I don't want your moneyI just want you out.'" Melendez, 61, a confident woman who has lived in her apartment for the past 25 years, gave her own quick answer: "I'm not leaving," she said.
Since then, she says, Zimmer has declined to accept her monthly $499 rent payment. As far as she can tell, however, he is still collecting the federal Section 8 payments that have long been made to help her afford the rent. Four of the six tenants in the building quickly departed after the new owner made his demands. That left Melendez and her friend Nereida Sanes, 59. The friends made a pact: They wouldn't leave, no matter what.
Melendez and Sanes were surprised to be getting so much proprietary attention all of a sudden. For four months last winter, they had no heat. The hot water still runs only for a few minutes, then peters out. There are no lights in the common area. In March, after months of nonpayment, the gas company yanked its meter from the basement (HPD replaced it after tenants called to complain). Infestation by mice is so heavy in Melendez's apartment that droppings have to be swept up daily. Melendez, who is not scared of the landlord, admits that she's afraid of the mice that dart about her kitchen and her bedroom. "They're playing with me," she says. "They're even in the bathroom cabinet."
Real estate records show that a corporation called Boro Equities LLC paid $400,000 for the property in January 2006, receiving a $330,000 mortgage from Washington Mutual. The mortgage includes standard language calling for the borrower to keep the property "in good condition and repair," including "cleaning, painting, landscaping, and refurbishing." The mortgage was signed by a Jacob Zimmerman, who listed himself as the corporation's managing member.
But there's little evidence that the owner has gotten around to the repair part. There are 74 open violations on the property, ranging from lead paint to rodent infestation. A city tab of $68,000 for emergency repairs is outstanding. Jack Zimmer disputes that amount, but he doesn't sound distressed at the figure. "How much? Nomaybe a few thousand," he says.
Despite the similarity between his name and the corporate managing member, Zimmer insists that he's not the owner. He says the sudden exodus of four of the six tenants was voluntary. "They all left because they wanted to leave," he says, adding: "And I offered them some money to help them move."
Melendez and Sanes have been represented in Housing Court by attorneys from the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Center, the neighborhood's largest social-service organization, which has Assemblyman Lopez as its powerful champion. Officials there decline to discuss their clients' cases.
So far, their courtroom victories have been modest. A few months ago, a judge ordered their apartments painted. Sanes, a quiet, church- going woman who wears her hair in a neat bun, held up a small bucket of paint to show what the landlord gave them. In June, Sanes was served with eviction papers; Gladys Melendez is expecting to receive hers any day.
Residents of 163 Harman Street need only look across the street to see the future: It's a mirror image of their own six-unit building, only empty. Apartments there are now being renovated and rented for $1,500 apiece, roughly triple what prior residents paid.