I Fought the Landlord, and the Landlord Won

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

She made her last trip from her hometown in Guerrero six years ago, when the going price for a coyote—someone who smuggles undocumented immigrants—was $3,500 per person. The trip took three days and three nights of walking. She says they went hungry and had to cross water, which left her belongings soaked. One night, while sleeping under the desert sky, men took all of her money, food, and the little water they had left.

Back in the States, Montealegre was finally away from her mother. She was still selling flowers, but her living situation improved slightly. Four years ago, her two daughters (now ages 18 and 13) returned to New York and joined their younger brothers (now ages 12 and 9). The entire family began renting a single room in an apartment at 1985 Amsterdam Avenue.

The apartment has three bedrooms (one is used as a communal space), a small kitchen, and one bathroom, all connected by a narrow hallway. Montealegre and her four children share the back bedroom. With no closet space, every corner is cluttered with things, while stuffed animals and other trinkets hang from the walls. The kitchen doubles as a storage unit, with buckets stacked up on one side, rags covering the lone window, and other articles bound to the high ceilings.

Montealegre hugs her son outside of the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center in Hamilton Heights.
Arlene Gottfried
Montealegre hugs her son outside of the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center in Hamilton Heights.
Montealegre’s daughter shows the bedbug bites on her leg.
Arlene Gottfried
Montealegre’s daughter shows the bedbug bites on her leg.

Montealegre says the person leasing the apartment had shouting matches with Samovha, which often scared the children. That leaseholder left a year after Montealegre arrived, and both the leaseholder and the landlord said she could stay and take over the lease. A couple with a baby began to rent the bedroom closest to the entrance, which brought the number of cohabitants in the two-bedroom apartment to eight.

Montealegre had never had anything in her name before. Now that all of her children were together under the same roof, she couldn't pass it up, even though the rent for the rundown apartment was $1,150.

She signed a two-year lease on March 1, 2011. "When the landlord said I could stay here without any issues," she says, "I thought it was a great offer."

The realities of having an apartment became apparent when Con Edison shut off Montealegre's electricity. The previous leaseholder had left a large amount unpaid, and the power could only be restarted if she covered the outstanding bill.

That's when she first found out about the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center, an organization that helps Latino immigrants in neighborhoods uptown.

People at the Mirabal Center quickly figured out Montealegre's Con Ed situation. They asked her if she or her neighbors had any other issues in their building.

The answer was a resounding yes. For starters, Montealegre had never had hot water or heat in the apartment. When she brought this up with Samovha, who she says is fluent in Spanish, he told her, "You don't have hot water in Mexico, so why do you need it here?"

"[Mirabal] told me that I had rights, but I didn't want any trouble," she says.

Montealegre was extremely cautious of asking her neighbors, on behalf of Mirabal, if they had any concerns with their living situations, especially because the residents in her building changed frequently.

"There's a lot of men around here, and I have to look out for my daughters," Montealegre says. "Mirabal asked me if I could find out, and I said I would try."

About a year ago, she began passing out flyers to her neighbors and photographing the building's problems. With the help of the Urban Justice Center and Mirabal, Montealegre began gathering her neighbors for monthly meetings in the hallway near her front door. Groups of about 30 or 40 people from the 24-unit building packed into the hallway. (Some were Mazateca, indigenous Latin Americans who don't speak Spanish.) They even came when the hallway was so cold they could see their breath.

Andres Mares Muro, from the Mirabal Center, and Shafaq Islam, a staff attorney with the Urban Justice Center, have been following Montealegre's case from the beginning. When they first visited 1985 Amsterdam, they found (as the Voice observed) that despite the many terrible buildings they see in their work, it ranked among the worst. (Months later, during a visit after Hurricane Irene, the two men stepped out of a room on the top floor of the building before a chunk of the ceiling collapsed where they'd been standing.)

The Urban Justice Center believed that in 1985 Amsterdam, there was potential for an effective "7A" lawsuit, the kind of case where tenants as a whole (and not Montealegre as an individual) sue the city to take over the building and make basic repairs.

A 7A lawsuit needs a third of a building's tenants to sign on. But despite the initially large crowds, it soon became apparent that a third of the tenants—eight leaseholders of the 24 units—was an unrealistic goal for three reasons.

First, Islam says, many of the people who attended the meetings were not leaseholders but rather subtenants.

Second, many tenants were undocumented. Immigration lawyer Robert Murtha points out that an undocumented single mother without a police record like Montealegre is a "low priority" for federal immigration.

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