NYC's Ten Worst Tenants
Photo illustration by Jon Valk
But there are also plenty of bad tenants in New York City.
We're not talking about frustrated people who cause trouble for bad landlords. Nor are we talking about especially obnoxious or run-of-the-mill slovenly renters who make their neighbors' lives seem like Hell. In the following list, we focus on tenants who have caused serious misery for other tenants or housemates or building supers or the landlords who aren't slumlords. These bad tenants have stolen peace and quiet, sanity, and money from other tenants and often the general public. In some cases, they've done more than hassle or rip off others—they're accused of killing them.
This list is heavy with people who live in public housing or otherwise receive housing subsidies. But we're not picking on poor people. The reason for the seeming imbalance is that there are branches of the city's Department of Investigation and the Housing Authority that police the theft of government housing funds. Public-housing tenants are generally under much more scrutiny than renters who get no subsidies.
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City employees also heavily populate our list. One reason is that they, too, are also more susceptible to being caught doing crooked things because investigators can track their pay stubs and other financial information more easily than they can investigate people who work in the private sector.
In other words, there are many other really bad tenants in the city whom we don't know about. We hope you're not one of them.
Most of all, we hope you haven't been victimized by the likes of the following people. Here's our list, in no particular order:
Landlord Jimmy Silber's lovely 16-story building at 1 Christopher Street, in the West Village, has been in his family since 1932. By some accounts, he's a good landlord and the building of about 100 units was immaculate—until November 2003, when Dolores Miller moved in with a woman already living there. Then, the original tenant, Joan Walsh, developed dementia and wound up in a nursing home. Miller stayed.
Known for dressing like a schoolteacher, her own house was in disorder. She hoarded furniture and clothes, but that was her business. She also hoarded food—huge amounts of spoiled, rotten food—and that became everybody's business.
The one-bedroom apartment on the third floor became a horror—maybe not for her but for everyone else, especially her next-door neighbors. Katie Axelrod, a 27-year-old who works in Web marketing, lived next to Miller for three very long years. "The odors were terrible," she says. "There were literally insects—fruit flies—crawling out from under her door. It was an ongoing nightmare. I didn't want to have friends over."
Axelrod says she stayed in the building because she liked the landlord, Silber, and thought he was doing everything he could to help. Nevertheless, she says, she had to hold a shirt over her nose every time she passed Miller's door.
Another next-door neighbor, Jeff Guarino, 39, who works in insurance sales, says a black, sooty substance started creepy-crawling on the outside of Miller's door. Silber described it as green slime. In any case, it was a horror movie.
After a year of Miller's solo housekeeping, tenants say, the place smelled like a toxic garbage dump. The odors wafted through the hallways, and Miller's neighbors taped their own doors to try to keep the smell out of their apartments. Some of them say they even resorted to staying away from their homes in the otherwise beloved building.
This past March, after a drawn-out court battle that Silber says lasted seven years and cost him more than $100,000 for legal fees and garbage removal, Miller was evicted by city marshals. The landlord says that when he opened the door to the apartment, a cloud of fruit flies hurtled toward his head.
Miller had fought hard to remain in the building, even claiming that she and Walsh were lovers and that she was entitled to stay because she was Walsh's domestic partner.
Fox 5's Barbara Nevins Taylor detailed her case in amazing detail—including footage of the apartment. As to Miller's claim that she was Walsh's lover, even the Advocate, which always stands up for gay rights, wasn't convinced.
Silber has always contended that Miller's claim of being Walsh's lover and domestic partner was merely a ploy to remain in the building.
After the eviction, Fox 5 confronted Miller, asking her about the incredible mess in the apartment. She replied that living with obsessive-compulsive disorder was difficult.
Miller wound up in a homeless shelter, according to news reports.
Right after the eviction, Guarino says, he peeked into Miller's apartment and got an unforgettable eyeful. Both he and Silber say the place was jammed floor-to-ceiling with garbage, among other hoarded objects. There were drawers full of rotting sandwiches. Fox 5 noted that there were bags of cat litter and every can of food that Miller had ever opened. It was a fetid disaster worse than any restaurant dumpster.
"Once you saw the living conditions," says Guarino, "you realized that this is a person who needs help. She never got the help that she needed."
The Serial Evictee
Nina Best has been thrown out of the kind of apartment buildings that wouldn't even let you in the front door. She's been tossed from quite a few nice places, and almost never without a fight with landlords, spouses, housemates, judges, prosecutors, or even entire countries. Consider this endorsement from a former housemate: "Watching Single White Female is like watching Snow White compared to what I've been through."
Court records aren't as colorful, but they still paint a strange picture of Nina Best as a serial evictee. Best herself couldn't be reached for comment, but in the late '80s, when she was known as Nina Baum, she was evicted from an Upper East Side apartment, says attorney David Brody, who has jousted with her for about a decade. In 1991, she married, changing her name to Nina Best. She and her husband moved to Chicago so he could attend business school. The couple had a child, and after a few years, they moved back to New York, eventually settling into a co-op in the East 80s in 1996.
In 1997, they separated, but life between them continued to be tumultuous. In October 1997, on the night of the Jewish holiday Shemini Atzeret, Nina forced her way into her ex's apartment and began hitting him, according to court records. The following month, an "anonymous" child-abuse complaint was lodged against her ex-husband, and someone called 911 to report a domestic dispute in his apartment. A judge found the abuse complaint to be unfounded and the 911 call a false alarm. In 1998, a court gave Best's ex-husband sole custody over the couple's then-10-month-old daughter. In 2001, a judge affirmed that Nina's "unfitness as a custodial parent is beyond doubt."
Nina Best wound up with the Upper East Side co-op, but she sublet it and moved into an apartment on East 77th Street, signing a lease and putting down a seven-month security deposit.
In late 1999, however, Nina Best stopped paying rent. In 2000, a court evicted her from the East 77th Street apartment and ordered her to pay the landlord about $10,000.
In a typical eviction, a court authorizes movers to take the tenant's household items to a warehouse until they can be retrieved. But Best didn't want her belongings to be taken to a warehouse. She arranged for movers to come instead and take her stuff to the Upper East Side co-op that she had once shared with her husband. But there was some dispute with the movers, who ended up bringing her stuff to their warehouse. Best sued the movers, as well as her East 77th Street landlord, claiming that many valuables were stolen in the confusion. She filed a detailed list of expensive items that were allegedly pilfered—jewelry, Judaica, crystal, and fine china, Brody says.
A year after the eviction, Best skipped town. In September 2001, she went international. As prosecutors later explained, she forged her ex-husband's signature on a passport and took her daughter to Israel, where she lived in an ultra-religious Jewish community under an assumed name.
With the aid of investigators, Best's ex-husband tracked them down and managed to obtain custody of their daughter by order of an Israeli court and the Israeli police. Father and daughter returned to the U.S. But when Nina Best returned to the U.S. in May 2002, she was arrested at JFK airport. A grand jury ultimately indicted her for passport fraud.
Back in the U.S., Nina Best got to know the Wolfsons, a wealthy New York real estate family. Sources tell the Voice that Morris Wolfson, one of the heads of the Wolfson Group, gave Best a suite of rooms in the Carlton, a luxury hotel the family owned in midtown, and arranged for her to get a lawyer to fight her matrimonial dispute in court. By 2004, apparently, Best had worn out her welcome: The Wolfsons sued to evict her.
After leaving the Carlton, she and her brother, David Baum, obtained an apartment at 250 West 90th Street through a Sotheby's brokerage. But in 2004, Meyer Muschel, the landlord of the apartment, sued to evict her and her brother, for nonpayment. In May 2005, he settled with her, winning back the apartment and more than $10,000.
Meanwhile, Best's passport-fraud case had come to a head.
She had pled guilty in November 2003. She withdrew her plea, but it didn't matter: She was convicted in November 2004 of passport fraud and was sentenced in early 2005 to 18 months in a federal prison in Carswell, Texas.
While in the Texas hoosegow, she complained of "medical abuse," according to a local paper, and was able to get out early. When she returned to the city, it was in a wheelchair.
At this point, it wasn't only Nina Best's life that was complicated. She was still fighting with her ex about assets and custody. Lawyers in her case were suing her over legal fees: "It got to the point where there were a good half a dozen lawyers suing her for one reason or another," says one of those attorneys, David Brody, who adds, "Nina Best has occupied a decade of my life."
When she landed back in the city, she had no place to live, so she turned to Craigslist. Eventually, she found an ad posted by a person who wanted a roommate who kept kosher. The two agreed to live together for three months. In early summer 2006, Best moved into the cushy apartment in a modern building on West End Avenue, on the Upper West Side. She was to pay $1,600 a month.
Trouble started within days, the housemate tells the Voice, when Best refused to give her a copy of her ID. Best had good reason to not want to show her ID. She had recently been released from prison, and the housemate hadn't known that.
The housemate told Best she could not live in the apartment without at least giving up a copy of her ID. Best refused and then took a rather drastic step, considering she was a tenant: She changed the locks. After the police got involved, the housemate hired David Brody and sued Best for nonpayment of rent. In July 2006, a judge dismissed the case but ordered Best to surrender the key. "I was vomiting on the sidewalk because I was so traumatized," the housemate tells the Voice.
After that debacle, Best moved into a neighboring building. But in 2009, she was again threatened with eviction. The landlord again hired attorney Brody. This time, the battle was over Best's Yorkshire terrier, Lexi, and the case went to court. Lexi's shrill barking, a neighbor testified, was "very loud, as if the dog was in pain." The neighbor complained that she feared getting bitten because Best allowed the dog to roam the hallways without a leash. The landlord, who claimed that the building was generally "dog-friendly," also alleged that Best allowed her dog to pee and poop in public areas. It was a messy case.
Best's lawyer in that eviction suit, Paul Finkelstein, says, "All I'll say on the record is: I represented her, and I believe she has problems." A judge wound up giving Best 10 days to get rid of the dog or she'd be evicted. She got rid of the dog. Lucky Lexi.
Clarence McGann had spent years working his way up in the City of New York Department of Corrections and was a captain at Rikers Island, earning a six-figure salary. He had a longtime girlfriend, Maria Torres, officials say. In 2002, Torres applied for Section 8 subsidies for a townhouse at 16 Doreen Drive, on Staten Island's north shore. Section 8 is a federal housing program that gives rental assistance to poor Americans, and on her application, Torres claimed that she had recently been homeless, officials say. She also stated that she lived alone with her two children, and she listed McGann as the landlord. That meant that the monthly subsidies for Torres's apartment were to go directly to McGann. If the city had known that he lived with her, his salary would have disqualified them for Section 8. A few years later, McGann bought a townhouse at 379 South Avenue, in the same general neighborhood, and the couple moved. Torres applied for Section 8 subsidies there, too.
During an annual inspection, a city housing inspector working for the Section 8 program knocked on their door, looking for Torres. He became curious when McGann, ostensibly the landlord, answered the door wearing only a bath towel.
Later, surveillance cameras caught the couple on video returning home with grocery bags, officials say. Another time, McGann requested a sick day from work to take care of his wife, Maria Torres. (This turned out to be a double lie: He was still married to another woman, though the two had been separated for some time.)
McGann and Torres were busted. Over six years, they had stolen $59,484, court records show. He was busted, but he still made out like a bandit. He retired on captain's pay the day before he was arrested, which means he still collects a city pension, officials tell the Voice.
Now a pensioned ex-caption, he pled not guilty, and the case went to trial. In court, McGann claimed that there were no hard and fast rules that said a landlord could not live in the house with his tenant. (McGann's lawyer says the two were not a couple.) McGann also said that the house was subdivided and that he lived in the basement. (It wasn't.) McGann, no longer a captain at Rikers, went casual: At one point, he wore an Adidas tracksuit to his trial. He was convicted of grand larceny and fraud on the facts, but was sentenced only to probation instead of serving jail time. He was ordered to pay the city back the money. Good thing he got his pension.
The Domestic-Violence Faker
Latonya Malone, 26, worked as a security guard at Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center in Manhattan. A state employee since 2002, she earned a $35,000-a-year salary, so in 2007 she applied for a Section 8 apartment. Victims of domestic violence can point to their dire situations to get Section 8 subsidies, for which there's a huge waiting list. In support of her application, she included copies of an order of protection issued by the Bronx County Criminal Court and a domestic-violence incident report issued by the New York Police Department. According to Malone's paperwork, "John Brown had beaten her."
It turned out that "John Brown" was fictitious and that both the order of protection and the domestic-violence incident report had been forged, according to prosecutors. Last October, Malone admitted to investigators that she had paid $500 to a woman named Cynthia who was selling Section 8 paperwork.
In October 2010, Malone was charged with grand larceny. She allegedly stole $14,000 worth of subsidies. Malone has pled not guilty, and the case is pending.
Over the past year, six women have been arrested for allegedly falsely claiming to be victims of domestic violence in order to obtain public housing or Section 8 housing vouchers. In another case, Chevelle Richardson filled out an application for her 20-year-old daughter, Chandera, that included not only a fabricated domestic-violence incident report and a phony order of protection but also a forged letter from the domestic-violence shelter organization Safe Horizon.
As the government cuts sharply back on its subsidized-housing programs, there may be greater incentive for people to falsify complaints. Because of long waiting lists and budget cuts in the program, the only people who are now permitted to apply for Section 8 subsidies are victims of domestic violence, youngsters who become too old to stay in foster care, and people in witness-protection programs. It's a crisis for people who would legitimately qualify for public housing: Officials say there are currently 130,000 people on the waiting list.
Rose Gill Hearn, commissioner of the city's Department of Investigation, says she finds the domestic-violence fakers to be especially repugnant: "I mean, there are real victims of domestic violence out there," she tells the Voice.
In February 2010, 21-year-old public-housing tenant Unique Jones put an ad on Craigslist to sublet her two-bedroom apartment in the heart of hipster-filled Williamsburg-Bushwick corridor. Her apartment, she wrote in the post, had "hardwood floors" and was located in a "peaceful area." The rent she asked for was a steal: "$400 a month with $800 security deposit."
Jones also noted something that, in less desperate times, might have scared potential renters away: "Public housing apt building," the ad read, "working class only."
But Jones had no shortage of responses to her ad for the apartment in the Williamsburg Houses, a 20-building residential complex built in 1937 on 12 blocks near Bushwick Avenue. According to the city's Department of Investigation, Jones defrauded eight people, including students, a security guard, and a couple. Jones took their deposit money but then, in most cases, prevented them from moving in.
One man, an exchange student from Thailand, told officials that he paid Jones $600 to move in but was given a key that did not work. She is accused of collecting $2,400 from two other prospective renters whom she prevented from moving in and, at the same time, collecting $2,400 from a man to whom she actually did rent the apartment, for six months beginning in March, say authorities.
Her actual rent was $256 a month, which meant she defrauded the city of around $3,500.
Jones was charged with grand larceny, petty larceny, and fraud. According to authorities, she is still at large.
Victims of the scam told investigators that they weren't aware that it was illegal for New York City Housing Authority tenants to sublet their apartments.
Kill the Super
Shayne Sinclair had an onerous, but ostensibly simple, task. Errol Irving, one of the tenants in a Brooklyn boarding house at 1485 East 51st Street, near Avenue L in Flatlands, owed three weeks' worth of back rent.
It amounted to several hundred dollars, and the 40-year-old super had great incentive to go to the boarding house on the evening of February 4 to collect it. According to news reports, he himself hadn't been paid by the landlord for three weeks—and he was also struggling financially, trying to take care of his wife and baby daughter.
For his trouble, Sinclair was stabbed in the chest by the 60-year-old Irving, say police, who found him unconscious at the boarding house at about 8:30 p.m. The super was rushed to Brookdale University Hospital, where he died.
Irving has been charged with second-degree murder, according to news reports, and he already had a miserable track record as a human being: He had been released from prison in 2007 after serving 20 years for sodomy and sexual abuse, according to news reports. At last report, Irving was being held without bail in jail, where rent is free.
The super's family was, of course, devastated. They say that Sinclair would have been paid by the landlord after collecting Irving's overdue rent. The Daily News quoted a relative as saying, "He wasn't doing anything wrong. All he wanted was his pay. He left home to go look for a paycheck, and he's dead now."
The family told reporters that Sinclair was a kind and gentle man and that he had planned to move from the city with his wife and daughter when he could afford to.
In the wee hours of December 1, 2009, the use of a mattress kept people awake at an apartment building at 683 East 222nd Street in the Wakefield neighborhood of the Bronx. But not for the usual reason.
Omari Richards, 26, the basement tenant in a building owned by George Shim, 37, was quarreling with Shim's fiancée, according to news reports and police.
It seems that she was awakened by Richards at about 1 a.m. He was complaining that she was denying him the use of the mattress as a spare bed, the Daily News reported. She had told him she needed the mattress for her son, but as she later told reporters, "I heard [him] saying, 'She's a fucking liar.' " She ran downstairs to confront him and, according to one account, called Richards a "monkey face." Meanwhile, Shim, a livery cab driver, was hurrying home to see what was going on. When he arrived, shortly before 2 a.m., his gal and Richards were still screaming at each other. Shim was not happy. "My boyfriend heard him cussing me," the fiancée said. "He told him, 'Why are you disrespecting my woman?' " As the Daily News recounted the tale, Shim "stormed downstairs to challenge his tenant" but "a moment later, he was stumbling back up" with a knife stuck in him. "He was running back up the stairs," she told reporters. "I saw the knife sticking out. He collapsed right on the steps."
Richards was charged with manslaughter and criminal possession of a weapon. He has pled not guilty. There may very well be more to this story—was this really a case of self-defense? The case has yet to wind its way through the courts, but the fact is that a landlord is dead after a confrontation with a tenant. Shim's pals contend that the landlord was a good guy who usually steered clear of confrontations, according to the Black Urban Times.
Richards's attorney, Edward Schneider, tells the Voice that what took place was an act of self-defense. "He is human, and we as humans would probably react in a similar manner if we were put in a same position," he says. "That's all I can say, without giving away the whole house."
The Anti-Tenant Tenants' Association
Arlether Middleton and her daughter, Twana Rose, served as the president and secretary of the tenants' association in a Bronx apartment building at 783 East 168th Street in Morrisania. This was a building in transition—a good one, for a change. It was part of a city program that enables low- and middle-income tenants to buy their apartments and eventually convert the building into a co-op.
The tenants' associations in such buildings are set up with bank accounts and are supposed to manage the properties during the conversion process.
Middleton works from the building, state records show, as a licensed day-care provider. But mother and daughter turned out to be bad babysitters for the building and its full-time tenants.
They stole more than $30,000 in rent that was intended for the upkeep of the building. Then they tried to defraud the city by submitting false bank statements and financial reports, says the city's Department of Investigation. Instead of caring for the building for the sake of their fellow tenants, they used the money to pay their own credit-card, cable, cell-phone, and utilities bills.
Questioned by the Voice, some of the tenants whom Middleton and Rose bamboozled say they had only a vague idea that they had been scammed. "We heard about it," says Chrystal Allen, 43, "and that should be handled by the city because if you were paying rent and they're taking it, well, that's not right."
This past January, Middleton, 64, pled guilty to third-degree grand larceny, and Rose, 38, pled guilty to third-degree attempted grand larceny.
This wasn't the first time Rose had attempted to defraud the city and her fellow tenants. In 2001, she pled guilty to charges that she illegally cashed the tenants' association's checks and kept the money for herself. She stole $7,000 and was sentenced to five years' probation. Reached by the Voice, Middleton said of the more-recent case: "That case is closed, and I'm finished with it."
They aren't quite finished: The two are scheduled to be sentenced this week.
Unfortunately, the building's other tenants are finished: Because of "financial mismanagement," the building has been taken out of the conversion program. Middleton and Rose not only robbed their fellow tenants but also helped deprive them of a rare chance to finally own their own homes.
The Fake Tenant
In order to live in Surfside Gardens, a public-housing project in Coney Island, Julienne Sialeu listed herself as a hairstylist who earned less than $17,000 a year—for her first four years in subsidized housing, she claimed to have no income at all.
In reality, she was an entrepreneurial landlord who had purchased a $155,000 property on Union Street in Brooklyn in 1998, the year before she obtained public housing.
Not only did Sialeu not live in her NYC Housing Authority apartment, but she didn't live on Union Street, either. In 2004, her son, an NYPD cop, bought a house on Flatbush Avenue for $555,000, and Sialeu lived there as her son's tenant. In June 2006, a newly filed deed made Sialeu a joint tenant of the Flatbush property, with right of survivorship. Meanwhile, her son moved into her subsidized apartment in Surfside Gardens. Officials of the Department of Investigation say she not only concealed her income and ownership of two properties but also her son's income.
Last January, she was charged with theft of federal government funds and five counts of making false statements. Authorities say she had stolen about $36,000 in benefits.
Sialeu doesn't even come close to holding the record for the longest-running scam. Among other alleged schemers, Joan J. Johnson defrauded the Housing Authority for 20 years, officials say.
Instead of living in her apartment in a public housing complex on the Lower East Side, she was actually the shareholder of a co-op on 121st Street. Meanwhile, she had moved friends and family into her public-housing apartment. Johnson was finally busted last May.
The Fake Landlord
On the surface, Enercida Garcia seemed to be a success story: She was a former Section 8 tenant who had become a landlord. But as a landlord, she wouldn't be allowed to continue receiving rent subsidies. She didn't like that idea.
City officials say she had her son, Victor, pose as a tenant in order to maintain the subsidies. Then she concealed from officials her ownership of the house.
In May 2002, Victor Garcia purchased a house at 70 Glen Street in Brooklyn. He applied to the state to become a landlord that could rent to tenants who receive Section 8 subsidies. He then rented to his mom, Enercida Garcia, and told authorities that the two were not related. Enercida lived in the Glen Street building with her other son, Joel Garcia. Then, in 2004, Victor transferred the title of the Glen Street house to his mom. Two years later, his mom applied for an apartment in public housing, telling authorities that she did not own nor did she have any interest in owning real estate.
An investigator from the city's Department of Investigation reviewed Victor Garcia's marriage license and found that Enercida was his mother. The investigator then cross-checked Enercida's name with Joel's birth certificate and, bingo! We have a match!
In May 2010, Enercida and Victor Garcia were accused of fraud. They have pled not guilty.
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