By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
An unlikely person stands up for her rights—and pays the price
Moshe Samovha holds the 12th spot on Public Advocate Bill de Blasio's worst landlords in Manhattan watch list. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development cites Samovha with 226 violations (including 84 of the most dangerous "C Class" variety), all for one building: 1985 Amsterdam Avenue. Since 2001, the city has spent more than $11,000 via the Emergency Repair Program to fix Samovha's property under dire circumstances.
An elusive figure difficult to track down, he spells his name "Samouha" on some official documents and "Samovha," "Samovah," and "Samova" on others. The Voice also learned that he has lied to the city about where he lives and where his managing agent can be found.
This is a landlord who has acted with impunity for decades, content to let the city repair his boiler in winter while taxpayers pick up the tab, for example.
The city has been powerless to keep Samovha from operating a slum.
So it's surprising to find out who stood up to the man and paid a heavy price for it.
It certainly wasn't de Blasio. Other than put Samovha on his list, he couldn't be bothered to do much else. (His office wouldn't even return messages about Samovha.)
Nor was it another city agency, complacent in doing the landlord's work for him and merely slapping him on the wrist after the fact.
The one person who did stand up to Samovha was one of his Amsterdam Avenue tenants, a single mother of four children and an undocumented immigrant named Maria Montealegre.
For her attempts to fight her own landlord by organizing other tenants, Samovha assaulted Montealegre—a court order then prevented him from entering his own building. But that didn't stop him from starting eviction action against her.
This is the story of a woman who stood up to one of the city's worst landowners, and of the city and community that hung her out to dry and left her and her four kids facing homelessness when she proved everything said about him to be true.
In 1988, at 13 years old, Montealegre first came to the United States from Guerrero, Mexico, with her mother. With a limited grasp of Spanish reading and writing skills, Montealegre devoted all of her time to working, mostly as a cook or taking care of children. She eventually began her lifelong profession of selling flowers on the streets of New York, the only job she has known since.
Today, Montealegre is a petite woman who could easily pass as an older sister rather than as the mother of her four children. The Mexican immigrant population she's a part of is now the fastest growing in the city, increasing fivefold since she first arrived. Talking with us about her past, she tells her children to go inside the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center in Hamilton Heights and wait for her.
"I never knew that I could study here," Montealegre says. "My mother told me all I could do was work."
Soon after their arrival, Montealegre says her mother would repeatedly kick her out with all of her belongings, and she spent numerous nights sleeping on the streets of New York.
Sometimes feeling suicidal, "I thought that if I found somebody to be with that my life would be better," she says.
However, when she did meet someone, her mother came back and began asking her boyfriend for money in order for the relationship to continue. Things quickly got worse when her boyfriend, who was a drug dealer, became physically abusive. But by now, she was pregnant.
Montealegre tried to escape the abuse and would return to her mother's because she was the only person she knew, but her mother would only make her go back to her boyfriend. One day, he threatened to kill Montealegre's baby, and that's when she decided to leave him indefinitely.
With no place to go to and no one to count on, Montealegre and her daughter found refuge on trains and slept there until a stranger asked her if she needed help.
"He couldn't believe that my own mother would treat me that way," Montealegre says, fighting back tears. "He gave me a job and a place to stay."
That relationship didn't turn out the way she had hoped. Montealegre became pregnant with her second child and left him when he asked her to have an abortion. Because she was still a minor, Montealegre's mother gained custody of both children and took them back to Mexico with her.
Montealegre followed her south and was only allowed limited visitation with her children by her parents. The next couple of years brought on a series of failed relationships—all with men who promised to rescue her from her abusive mother. She made trips back to the United States, though they became less frequent as crossing the border illegally became nearly impossible.
"I've crossed so many times I've lost count," she says.
In the beginning, Montealegre says, the travel time from the border town of Agua Prieta, Sonora, to Arizona consisted at most of one hour of walking. From there, she could fly to New York. That all changed after 9/11 and as immigration laws became more strictly enforced.
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 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.
"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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 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.
"As an organizer, I feel a lot of responsibility because I told her to fight," Muro says. "And she's a fighter. She's a remarkable human being. She's very eloquent and articulate. She was able to organize these meetings, but the landlord was able to out-organize us through intimidation and threats."
Muro, who recently got laid off from the Mirabal Center because of a lack of funding, consistently speaks out on behalf of Montealegre, translates to her the latest developments in the case, and reaches out to those who might be able to help her, including alerting El Diario la Prensa, New York City's Spanish-language daily newspaper, which first reported on Montealegre's ordeal.
Still, "I feel like I dropped the ball," Muro says.
The Urban Justice Center seems to be out of ideas as well. The Public Advocate and HPD simply note Samovha's violations but have yet to hold him accountable.
Unmoored, Montealegre has been searching for a new room to rent, but no one will take in her entire family. She also notes that she has been turned away because landlords say she is listed as a bad renter. With nowhere to go, she will stay until the end of the month and hope for a miracle. Her options after July 31 will probably lead her and her kids to a shelter. She's afraid her children's schooling will suffer from this.
In the end, Montealegre's efforts resulted in improvements to the apartments of neighbors who didn't vouch for her when she needed them in court. She doesn't seem bitter about it—just disappointed.
Would she do it again?
"Yes," Montealegre says. "I did it for my kids."