David Melendez owns a swath of dilapidated, vermin-infested, crime-ridden slums hidden on a forgotten block of Jefferson Street in Bushwick. The surrounding area is gentrifying, and just a few blocks away from Melendez’s buildings, new condos are selling for six figures. In contrast, rats rule the apartments of Melendez’s mostly Mexican and Ecuadorian tenants, and drug addicts get in through the unlocked doors, using the hallways in which to get high, while the tenants’ infants struggle to sleep through unheated winters.
Melendez’s four buildings at 253, 255, 258, and 260 Jefferson have a total of 473 pending code violations. He appears to be in no rush to fix them: HPD has recently made 49 emergency repairs to those buildings and charged Melendez $23,029.
The agency dragged Melendez into Housing Court in June to force him to correct the severe violations that it says have jeopardized the safety of his tenants. Last month, in a story about HPD cracking down on Brooklyn “hellholes,” the Daily News identified Melendez as one of the “worst offenders.”
Rosa Martinez, a tenant at 255 Jefferson, tells the Voice: “Everything decent in my apartment, like the stove and refrigerator, I have had to buy myself.” In order to pay $1,200 a month in rent for her run-down five-room apartment, Martinez sells mangoes and corn on the street. She plies her trade just a few houses away from 103 Starr Street, where she once lived and where Melendez currently resides.
“The front entry door to the building does not lock at all,” says Martinez. “Junkies come into our hallways at night to get high, and they are so loud that I cannot fall asleep. I have told Melendez that this is a problem and he has done nothing about it.” Despite this, Melendez increased Martinez’s rent from $1,000 to $1,200 a month. That’s a hefty price to live in a building with garbage in the hallway, broken mailboxes, and walls that are haphazardly plastered and never repainted.
Alicia Felipe, who has lived at 253 Jefferson for 14 years, pays $600 a month for her three-room apartment. The security door in front is hinged to a rotten frame and can easily be forced open. The mailboxes are broken and secured with padlocks. The hallways and communal areas are dimly lit. The floor in the entryway needs major repairs. Some of the apartments have bolt locks outside of the doors, a potential fire hazard. “I have given up on complaining,” Felipe says.
During an interview with the Voice, Melendez asks why he should be responsible for repairing damage caused by his tenants. “I fix and they break,” he says, sitting in his well-maintained apartment at 103 Starr, around the corner from his neglected properties. To prove his point, he cites an incident at 255 Jefferson in which he claims to have paid $65 for a new lock on that building and $44 to have it installed, only to have it broken by tenants. He offers no rationale for his belief that tenants broke a lock they’d long been demanding.
“I am taking care of the properties, little by little,” Melendez says. He blamed a stroke he had last year, which he says resulted in partial blindness, for the squalid conditions in his buildings. But long before the stroke, HPD had labeled him a “major problem.” Still, Melendez says that the vision problems make it difficult for him to get around and deal with the problems he concedes exist in his buildings. His tenants say he gets around just fine on the days rent is due.
Agustina Cricantos, who has lived at 260 Jefferson for 25 years, says that the only time tenants ever see Melendez is on the first of the month—when he comes to collect the rent. She pays $600 a month for her two-bedroom apartment and complains about a window in her kitchen that doesn’t open, leaks in the kitchen ceiling, and a faucet that drips constantly. The bathroom walls are rotting, and the toilet bowl isn’t mounted to the bathroom floor, causing the bowl to shift when in use. The light fixture in the bathroom dangles from exposed wires, and a large hole in the wall allows rats to scurry through. After her first interview with the Voice, HPD replaced the window in Cricantos’s kitchen, at the taxpayers’ expense.
“I had horrible bedbugs coming from one of the walls in the bedroom into my mattresses,” she says, “so I had to throw them out and buy new ones. I had to buy a new crib mattress for my daughter.” The front door to the apartment, contaminated by lead paint—a serious hazard known to cause brain damage in children—was replaced by the city this year. But other areas of her apartment that also contain lead paint have not been repaired. A three-year-old lives in these dangerous conditions.
Melendez tells the Voice that he “wouldn’t mind getting rid of my Mexican and Ecuadorian tenants,” adding that “in California, they don’t even rent apartments to Mexicans.” (He says he’d prefer Chinese and Indian tenants because they pay higher rents.) The apartments are rent stabilized, so legally he can raise the rent by only $45 to $50. Cricantos claims that one of the tenants was charged $200 for a copy of his lease and that Melendez frequently raises the rent when the city makes repairs.
Juan Martinez is willing to make repairs to his apartment at 258 Jefferson on his own—he has already started fixing the walls and ceiling in his bathroom. All he asks is that Melendez provide the materials, which the landlord refuses to do. There’s also a foot-wide opening in Martinez’s kitchen wall about two feet from the ceiling, exposing pipes. The building made HPD’s 2003 “Major Problem Owner” list. Conditions in the building have only worsened since then, according to the department.
HPD estimates that Melendez owns at least five other buildings, three of them in Bushwick as well. They are not in any better shape. His buildings at 194 and 198 Knickerbocker Avenue have almost 200 pending violations, and even the building where he lives has 38 open violations.