I Fought the Landlord, and the Landlord Won

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

It had been like this for several weeks; suspiciously, however, the super and a handyman arrived to inquire about the leak during the Voice's visit. (Weeks later when a Voice photographer visited the apartment, they still hadn't fixed the tiles nor the mold, and Montealegre's children had severe bedbug bites.)

A mile away, the Mirabal Center occupies a modest storefront on a quiet residential block in Hamilton Heights. A lot of its work these days consists of organizing tenants in the once overwhelmingly Hispanic neighborhood, especially as Columbia University's expansion threatens access to affordable housing in one of the few Manhattan neighborhoods where such a thing still exists.

(Samovha's apartments will likely remain affordable, if rat-infested. He doesn't seem to have plans to improve them and bring in higher-paying college students or others who might be more savvy about their rights.)

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.

On a warm evening in June, the Mirabal space was standing room only during a weekly community meeting. The speakers wanted tenants to understand what their housing rights are, despite their immigration status. A running theme was the importance of recording housing financial transactions.

(Many of those who were present do not have bank accounts. Because of Montealegre's illiteracy and immigration status, opening a bank account is impossible for her. She resorts to saving by turning over her cash earnings to a network of women every week and getting them back once a month. This "gifting" scheme makes her extremely vulnerable with the little money she has.)

The speakers exhort the audience to use money orders. The Voice asks the leaders to ask the crowd: Who has ever paid their landlord in cash without a money order?

Only Montealegre raises her hand.

In many ways, her eviction can be traced back to this fact. In a later meeting with Montealegre and her lawyer, it becomes apparent how crucial the cash payments were to her downfall.

Montealegre told the Voice that she and her neighbors always paid Samovha in cash and that he refuses to accept money orders. Islam explains that under city law, a landlord must accept a check or money order; if a landlord takes cash, it is the landlord's responsibility to provide a receipt.

After the attempt at a group lawsuit failed, Islam and the UJC decided to take on Montealegre as an individual client. Shortly after she filed the police report in August 2011, Samovha served her with a notice of petition in September to evict her for allegedly failing to pay rent.

Islam considered it a retaliatory measure, to evict a troublesome tenant from a rent-stabilized building. The amount Samovha sought—$11,000—was coincidentally about the same amount the city has doled out for him over the past decade in order to make repairs. And it was absurdly high. Samovha receives about $400 a month directly from Housing Rental Assistance for Montealegre's four kids. If she had missed her balance (about $750 a month), it would have taken her about 14 months to owe Samovha $11,000. And there was the timing. If she had been such a deadbeat for so long, why file for eviction right after she'd landed him in hot water with the protective order?

However, Islam's assumption that 1985 Amsterdam was rent-stabilized proved fatal. When Islam first went to housing court with Montealegre before the trial stage, in February 2012, Samovha's lawyer shocked him by proving that the building was not stabilized.

Islam was caught off guard. To "destabilize" a building—an Orwellian term for making a rent-stabilized building no longer beholden to rent-stabilization laws, including most tenant protections—a landlord must show evidence of substantial repairs. According to documents Samovha's lawyers produced in court, Samovha had applied for an exemption in 1998 and had been granted one by the Division of Housing and Community Renewal on June 9, 1999.

Islam found the idea that Samovha had done sufficient repairs to the decrepit building unbelievable, and he asked DHCR for documentation. But he was told the department only keeps records for seven years.

Because DHCR had destabilized the building in 1999, and there were no records explaining why, there was no way Islam could even introduce any evidence about how bad the building still is in housing court.

Considering how dangerous it is, Muro asks, "Does someone have to die before [the city] will step in and make this building safe?"

Still, Islam thought, they had one card to play. Samovha said that Montealegre hadn't paid rent because she couldn't prove she had done so in cash. But he knew that all the tenants had paid cash, and Samovha had given no one receipts.

All they had to do, Islam thought, was have Montealegre's fellow tenants corroborate the cash payments at the trial in April, and the onus would shift to Samovha. He'd be on the hook for not having given anyone receipts, and his nonpayment claims about Montealegre would ring hollow.

But it didn't work out that way. Even though they had said they would, on the day of Montealegre's court date, not a single one of her neighbors showed up to testify.

Without them, Islam admits in so many words, they had no defense.

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19 comments
TrailsofHarlem
TrailsofHarlem

The reason why the tenants did not petition for the Article 7A is because the not for profit is against this program.  It has nothing to do with the tenants legal status to be in this country.

 

Maxwell
Maxwell

Disgusting.  This story SUCKS on soo many levels.  This woman would have been better off in her own country not being victimized in NYC.  She clearly was not able to take care of herself and now has 4 children?  I mean when does REALITY come into play with Latinos?  My heart breaks for her...but this pattern of reproduction is destroying and entire generation.  When does it stop, when does it end?  

amc32
amc32

even newer!!

amc32
amc32

super interesting

 

southernhospitality0
southernhospitality0

As for this story, that man should be locked up somewhere. He is not the only basely waste of skin doing this to people. I don't care if they are from this country or not they do not deserve to be treated like 3/5ths of a person... which ironically was the policy concerning slaves. Hypocrites will use these people for their labor, but want to kick them out as soon as they have been used up. SHAME really. It's the new slavery.

southernhospitality0
southernhospitality0

I expect nothing less from the commentators here, whose souls are just as jacklegged, bitter, heartless and just about as much of a waste of skin as Moshe Samovha. Most of the commentators under me are what is wrong with America, never mind that many of your ancestors immigrated here, and I bet some illegally too, killed off the Native Americans until they were almost non-factors. Also a people who built a country off the backs of imported slave labor etc. Yeah America is filled with saints.... Really.... and the illegal immigrant is sucking the life out of the country? You can't suck life from souls which died a long time ago.... no compassion, no love, no empathy.... all for greed and the love of money. I cannot wait for China to cash in on their debt. It will be well deserved to take this country and many of its inhabitants out of their misery.

Antony Leon Sturgess
Antony Leon Sturgess

when one of us stands up to injustice, we get squashed. when a whole lot of us stand up to injustice, the ruling class goes into a panic, bc that's called a revolution

edrocky
edrocky

Is this about a crook landlord or someone legal status? Gee....

Well, i believe, criminals like this landlord, should be in jail, beats me, why he isn't in jail yet....

MNasser
MNasser

davert: there is no tax on food from grocery stores in NYC, not that it matters when she's paying for everything with food stamps, receiving a minimum of 700 bucks a month in foodstamps  for having 4 children and no official income. Explains why she's so fat.

MNasser
MNasser

A woman that entered the country illegally multiple times, has never paid income taxes in her life and has 4 anchor babies collecting welfare benefits is complaining the system doesn't work: No Shit.

dparasuco
dparasuco

What happened to all the previous comments?  Oh I know...you misjudged your target audience.  You thought people would feel sympathy for Maria and hatred for the landlord, but instead you incurred hatred for Maria because she's an ILLEGAL.  It's exactly people like her who are here illegally, paying no taxes, with anchor kids, and collecting some type of welfare that's sucking the life out of this country.

Courtney Sampsell
Courtney Sampsell

Wow...the comments on this article reeeeeeally make me feel super proud of my country.

Nick Davis
Nick Davis

So sad. I'm glad I don't live in the US !!

dparasuco
dparasuco

 @MNasser ...and you know she's feeding her kids soda as if it were water.  They will grow up to be overweight and diabetic, and will be a further burden to our health system and society in general. 

cmcm
cmcm

 @dparasuco Oh yeah, totally... brought to America at AGE 13 by an abusive mother, struggling to get by day to day, and trying to organize vulnerable people for the benefit of all of their living situations... What a horrible person she must be.

davert543
davert543

 @dparasuco Illegal immigrants don't pay taxes? Holy crap! Next time I go to the grocery store I'm just telling them I'm from Mexico so I don't have to pay sales tax.

dparasuco
dparasuco

 @cmcmYou mean she's probably trying to help other illegals just like herself?  Instead she should report back and tell them how bad living conditions can be here, and perhaps that will help stem the flow of illegals.

 
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