I Fought the Landlord, and the Landlord Won

An unlikely person stands up for her rights—and pays the price

Moshe Samovha holds the 12th spot on Public Advocate Bill de Blasio's worst landlords in Manhattan watch list. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development cites Samovha with 226 violations (including 84 of the most dangerous "C Class" variety), all for one building: 1985 Amsterdam Avenue. Since 2001, the city has spent more than $11,000 via the Emergency Repair Program to fix Samovha's property under dire circumstances.

An elusive figure difficult to track down, he spells his name "Samouha" on some official documents and "Samovha," "Samovah," and "Samova" on others. The Voice also learned that he has lied to the city about where he lives and where his managing agent can be found.

This is a landlord who has acted with impunity for decades, content to let the city repair his boiler in winter while taxpayers pick up the tab, for example.

Arlene Gottfried
At a Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center meeting, leaders ask the crowd: Who has ever paid their landlord in cash without a money order? Only Maria Montealegre raises her hand.
Arlene Gottfried
At a Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center meeting, leaders ask the crowd: Who has ever paid their landlord in cash without a money order? Only Maria Montealegre raises her hand.

The city has been powerless to keep Samovha from operating a slum.

So it's surprising to find out who stood up to the man and paid a heavy price for it.

It certainly wasn't de Blasio. Other than put Samovha on his list, he couldn't be bothered to do much else. (His office wouldn't even return messages about Samovha.)

Nor was it another city agency, complacent in doing the landlord's work for him and merely slapping him on the wrist after the fact.

The one person who did stand up to Samovha was one of his Amsterdam Avenue tenants, a single mother of four children and an undocumented immigrant named Maria Montealegre.

For her attempts to fight her own landlord by organizing other tenants, Samovha assaulted Montealegre—a court order then prevented him from entering his own building. But that didn't stop him from starting eviction action against her.

This is the story of a woman who stood up to one of the city's worst landowners, and of the city and community that hung her out to dry and left her and her four kids facing homelessness when she proved everything said about him to be true.

In 1988, at 13 years old, Montealegre first came to the United States from Guerrero, Mexico, with her mother. With a limited grasp of Spanish reading and writing skills, Montealegre devoted all of her time to working, mostly as a cook or taking care of children. She eventually began her lifelong profession of selling flowers on the streets of New York, the only job she has known since.

Today, Montealegre is a petite woman who could easily pass as an older sister rather than as the mother of her four children. The Mexican immigrant population she's a part of is now the fastest growing in the city, increasing fivefold since she first arrived. Talking with us about her past, she tells her children to go inside the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center in Hamilton Heights and wait for her.

"I never knew that I could study here," Montealegre says. "My mother told me all I could do was work."

Soon after their arrival, Montealegre says her mother would repeatedly kick her out with all of her belongings, and she spent numerous nights sleeping on the streets of New York.

Sometimes feeling suicidal, "I thought that if I found somebody to be with that my life would be better," she says.

However, when she did meet someone, her mother came back and began asking her boyfriend for money in order for the relationship to continue. Things quickly got worse when her boyfriend, who was a drug dealer, became physically abusive. But by now, she was pregnant.

Montealegre tried to escape the abuse and would return to her mother's because she was the only person she knew, but her mother would only make her go back to her boyfriend. One day, he threatened to kill Montealegre's baby, and that's when she decided to leave him indefinitely.

With no place to go to and no one to count on, Montealegre and her daughter found refuge on trains and slept there until a stranger asked her if she needed help.

"He couldn't believe that my own mother would treat me that way," Montealegre says, fighting back tears. "He gave me a job and a place to stay."

That relationship didn't turn out the way she had hoped. Montealegre became pregnant with her second child and left him when he asked her to have an abortion. Because she was still a minor, Montealegre's mother gained custody of both children and took them back to Mexico with her.

Montealegre followed her south and was only allowed limited visitation with her children by her parents. The next couple of years brought on a series of failed relationships—all with men who promised to rescue her from her abusive mother. She made trips back to the United States, though they became less frequent as crossing the border illegally became nearly impossible.

"I've crossed so many times I've lost count," she says.

In the beginning, Montealegre says, the travel time from the border town of Agua Prieta, Sonora, to Arizona consisted at most of one hour of walking. From there, she could fly to New York. That all changed after 9/11 and as immigration laws became more strictly enforced.

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