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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