By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
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By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
An Orthodox Jewish bike mechanic in Williamsburg, where he owns Traif Bike Gesheft (Yiddish for "non-Kosher bike shop"). He has been a liaison between Hasids and hipsters during bike-lane controversies.
Why do you think many religious Jews pop up on lists of the city's worst landlords? The only reason why Jews predominate on this list is because Jews own a lot of properties in New York. It just so happens that being a landlord in New York for the past 50 years has been a Jewish business. If you went to Buenos Aires or Beijing, you wouldn't find many Jewish slumlords.
So when you see many ultra-religious Jews pop up on the list, what is your reaction? The list is a public service—it shames the landlords into acting properly. If you're in New York, you'll find some bad Jewish landlords. Not all are bad. Many are fair and decent. But some are bastards, and they should be shamed. The Jews that I know are good landlords. And it cuts both ways: A lot of the artists' lofts in Williamsburg couldn't have happened if it weren't for the Hasids, because a lot of Hasidic landlords were lax about codes. It's always more fun to paint "the evil landlord." No one writes the "best slumlords" list.
Sounds like you feel some empathy towards landlords. I'm a landlord. I once created a list called "Shame on Jew," about the 500 most embarrassing Jews of all time. I don't want to be on the list. Look, I'm glad you created your list. I'm sorry that these people are Jews. And I'm a landlord and I hate to think that this could be my future.
Coming from a religious community, can you say what the thinking is that doesn't prevent certain ultra-religious Jews from becoming slumlords? There's an inside/outside mentality. And there is certain understanding that if you are bad to people who aren't Satmars, you haven't done any wrong. It's not Talmudic or biblical. It's just a survival mentality.
Do you think these behaviors increase anti-Semitism? Absolutely. I talk to a lot of people in Williamsburg, and a few of them have had problems with Hasidic landlords. And it reflects badly on all Hasidism, because the average new immigrant to Brooklyn—and in this I include Americans who have moved here from outside New York State—can't distinguish between Jews as a whole and individual Hasidic landlords.
What about the whole "Never mistreat the stranger because you were once a stranger in a strange land," that I heard so much growing up? I'm sure someone has told you by now: You don't base your life on what is in the Torah. You live your life, and you find passages in the Torah that justify the way you are living.
An unofficial spokesman of Williamsburg's Satmar Jews to the outside world, a self-styled advocate, and a recent candidate for City Council.
Why do you think, when we look at who owns the most decrepit buildings in New York, many turn out to be extremely religious Jews, including Satmars? First off, I'm a tenant advocate. I represent 3,500 families in NYCHA [the New York City Housing Authority] and Mitchell-Lama buildings. Second, what is your proof here? Do you have any proof?
Moishe Indig, a leader in your own community, owns a property on the city's worst-buildings list . . . I see buildings that are literally ambushed by certain tenants—literally! And I've watched this in court. When the landlords are Jews, non-Jews, Muslims, Asians. And the tenants come back to the judge for repairs. And it doesn't last 20 minutes and the vandalism is back there again! And it's not the landlord leaving these filthy messages in the hallways.
The landlord isn't the one punching holes in the walls. He doesn't put graffiti up. He doesn't rip out the toilets! When the landlord pays the bills, the residents—they should consider their home as their castle, and instead, they destroy it.
Some tenants should be removed. Here we have a liberal system where we should find every reason for tenants to stay even as they vandalize the building, and pay them with taxpayer dollars. Even if they commit crimes, or have drugs over there.
There are definitely many irresponsible tenants. But when you see Hasidic landlords who don't hold up their end of the bargain—who don't provide heat or hot water for consecutive winters—how do you respond to that, as a Hasidic Jew? How do you respond to that within your community? Let me ask you a question: Who do you consider to be the worst landlord in the City of New York? I can give you one: NYCHA. And not because I say so, but because of the facts. They didn't provide heat in East New York. . . . There was a five-year-old child who died in a elevator. And did [Brooklyn D.A.] Joe Hynes prosecute NYCHA? There's nobody prosecuted here. No one went to prison. No one stood in front of a judge. Where do we take NYCHA when they don't provide heat? Where do we take HPD [the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development]?