I Fought the Landlord, and the Landlord Won

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

"If [Samovha] called the police, they would hang up on him," Murtha says, apprised of her case. "She is not on their radar."

But Islam notes that many undocumented immigrants still live in fear that any contact with the government will lead to danger. They avoid official channels at all costs—sometimes even if they've been the victims of crimes.

And finally, the lawsuit faced an uphill battle because Samovha had made it known that he would make life hell for any tenants who opposed him.

During a typical work evening, Montealegre and her daughters set up underneath the East Tremont elevated station in the Bronx and sell flowers, trinkets, and lilies.
Arlene Gottfried
During a typical work evening, Montealegre and her daughters set up underneath the East Tremont elevated station in the Bronx and sell flowers, trinkets, and lilies.

When Samovha found out that Montealegre was organizing these meetings, he told her that if she continued to get involved, he would kick her out. She says he then offered her a bribe to stop passing out flyers and said he would pay her for the camera that she'd used to document the building's faults. She refused.

For a while, it looked as if the organizing was paying off. Building improvements were being made. Mailboxes were installed for the first time since Montealegre moved in. The trash that cluttered near her door was removed.

However, according to Montealegre, Samovha told her that repairs to other units would be handled before hers because she had caused the stir.

Then, on August 26, 2011, her front door was left open while a water heater was being installed in her apartment. According to Montealegre, Samovha barged in with flyers for a September 2 meeting, which read: "We'll say it once, we'll say it 100 times: Tenants have the right to insist on their right to repairs and good living conditions. New York City and state laws protect us, and we can meet together to deal with our building problems."

Samovha asked Montealegre's 13-year-old daughter if the flyers were theirs. When she answered yes, Samovha grabbed her by the arm, and the rest of her children began yelling, "He's hitting her!"

Montealegre rushed out from another room and reached for her daughter to move her out of the way. Instead of striking the girl, Samovha hit Montealegre. A struggle between them ensued.

"I pushed him, and he was looking for some sort of tool to hit me with," she says. "All the kids ran outside, and he followed them, yelling that we were hitting him. He called the police, and then my daughter called the police."

Once the ambulance and police arrived, Samovha said he had been assaulted and wanted Montealegre arrested. But cops led away Samovha, pictures taken by a member of the Mirabal Center show.

Montealegre suffered a bruised arm and a split lip but was told she didn't have to go to the hospital. Montealegre and Muro went to the 33rd Precinct that same afternoon to file a police report of the incident but instead got the runaround. "We were made to wait forever," Muro says. "The officer disappeared; the paperwork never showed up."

The following day, Samovha returned to the building and continued to harass Montealegre and her daughters, she says. About a dozen members from the Mirabal Center arrived at the 33rd Precinct and threatened to stage a sit-in demanding the police report.

"I was very scared because I thought he would hit me again," Montealegre says. "But that first blow wasn't intended for me. It was aimed at my daughter."

When the Voice reached Samovha on the phone for his side of the story, he bellowed, "She is a big fucking liar." But Judge Tamiko Amaker of New York Criminal Court didn't seem to agree. On January 19, 2012, the court granted an order of protection for Montealegre and her daughter against Samovha, which stated that he wasn't allowed to enter his own building.

The judge ordered Samovha to "refrain from communication . . . assault, stalking, [or] harassment." His order also commanded "no third-party contact. No contact whatsoever" until January 19, 2014. Still, it wouldn't matter.

For one thing, a handwritten addendum negates that strong language with "incidental contact for landlord/tenant matters is allowed." For another, protection orders are notoriously unenforced until they are violated. Even then, when Montealegre called the police to enforce hers, she says they were not helpful.

After the assault, Samovha's improvements to the building stopped, Montealegre says. The trash piled up again, and men loitered in the hallways, where many took drugs and left syringes on the ground. Fights would break out, leaving trails of blood on the walls and door handles.

And shortly thereafter, Samovha began the process of evicting his most problematic tenant.

The Voice visited 1985 Amsterdam Avenue in May and found the main entrance completely open, a violation of safety regulations requiring it to be locked at all times. The hallway reeked of urine, and bags of trash were everywhere. The seven flights of rickety stairs felt like their collapse was imminent. The space under the stairs hosted vagrants loitering outside Montealegre's door. (Building tenants say these men pay Samovha a small fee for the right to bed down in the hallway.)

Montealegre's bathroom has broken tiles and mold on the walls. The floor was flooded because of a leak spewing water from a pipe near the toilet, creating a humid mist throughout the apartment. Rats competed for terrain with the pet birds, turtles, and cat.

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