I Fought the Landlord, and the Landlord Won

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

Samovha's attorneys, Islam says, came to him before they saw the judge. Islam says they made it clear Montealegre would be out by March of 2013, at the end of her lease. Not being stabilized, she had no claim to renewal, and nothing they did would save her apartment for her.

Islam says they proposed a deal where they would forgive the allegedly due back rent if she agreed to leave by mid July. Knowing that the judge could find the case in favor of Samovha, and Montealegre could be fined up to $11,000 and be ordered out of her apartment in as few as five days, he advised her to take the plea.

She did.

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.

She had 100 days to prepare to leave instead of just five. But she still had nowhere to go.

According to city tax records, Samovha bought 1985 Amsterdam Avenue in 1985 for $55,000. Over the years, it has been in his or a relative's name, co-owned at times with such partner companies as "West Bank Reality" and "Risky Buildings, Inc."

But according to HPD records updated in April for 1985 Amsterdam, Moshe Samovha does own and manage the building, and he resides at 135-36 82nd Avenue in Queens.

The Voice showed up there on a weekday in late June. Mail addressed to Samovha was sticking out of the mailbox of the tattered, multifamily row house. After knocking on the door, a confused-looking Asian man answered.

The man explained that he was one of three tenants at that address, and Samovha (who didn't live there) was their landlord. It was not a real estate office, but the tenant said he puts the mail in the hall, and Samovha comes to collect it a few times a week.

The tenant said he paid rent by check. Asked by the Voice if he knew that Samovha was on the city's list of worst landlords, he said he did not, but he did wonder why so much mail came from courts and lawyers regarding lawsuits.

The tenant only cited one bad experience with Samovha: Last winter, the heat went out, and it took Samovha a couple of weeks to fix it. The tenant said Samovha told them it could have been repaired sooner but blamed the tenant's schedule, as the work crews couldn't get in when he wasn't home.

Samovha had little to say about Montealegre except: "She is a liar. She is a big fucking liar," when the Voice subsequently contacted him on the phone.

But many things the Voice discovered showed Samovha to be less than truthful himself. Asked why he told the city he lived at 135-36 82nd Avenue, Samovha said he had lived there years ago but admitted he no longer did. He said he would accept checks or money orders from any tenant, even though many in 1985 Amsterdam say he will not.

(And though he collects rent from tenants inhabiting a property he is supposed to be living in, Department of Finance records incongruously don't show that Samovha has ever owned 135-36 82nd Avenue.)

Without addressing his 226 violations or restraining order, Samovha hung up on the Voice (twice) saying, "She has to leave my building in 10 days" and that "it's a free country here. Everything is going through the court system."

The Voice reached out to Eric Kahan, Samovha's attorney at Sperber Denenberg & Kahan, to find out Samovha's address, but messages went unanswered. There are a number of properties under Samovha's various names, including "Moshe Samouha" and "Mike Samovha," which all lead back to the address on 82nd Avenue in Queens. There's also a home address listed online to "Samouha" in Great Neck, New York. He's not the deed holder, but he does have a phone number listed there.

A court case against "Samouha" in 1986 states that a tenant of his was overcharged in the amount of $20,945.34. Samovha appealed that case and lost in 1989. He has been sued by other individuals as well as by Con Edison throughout the years. Long Island Jewish Medical Center has an active lawsuit against him.

Montealegre, meanwhile, has tried to maintain some normalcy as her eviction approaches and homelessness looms. She still goes to meetings at Mirabal. Even though no one showed up for her when she needed them, she still volunteers to stand up for others in court.

And, of course, she still works.

On a typical work evening last month, the flower-monger loaded her buckets with flowers in her apartment, while her children gathered black garbage bags full of toys. They took a gypsy cab up to the Bronx.

There, she and her daughters ducked in and out of bodegas and restaurants selling trinkets and lilies. People didn't buy much. It was hard work in humid heat and carried no long-term solution to her problems, but it is the only work Montealegre knows.

They set up underneath the East Tremont elevated station, hoping to catch some sales as people left. A tamale vendor set up next to them, and they shared food and a few smiles.

Despite all the city agencies chastising him, the law is still working in Samovha's favor.

Montealegre's children, meanwhile, have sought therapy and see a psychologist regularly with the help of the Mirabal Center.

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