Steven Kessner, 53, lives in a two-story mansion at 16 Paddington Road in Scarsdale, at the end of a long driveway and manicured front lawn. He bought it, and a nearly 18,000-square-foot lot, back in 1990 for $1.05 million. In 2003, he purchased a $1.41 million condo inside the Porto Vita luxury community in Aventura, Florida. A 2006 Mercedes Benz CLS 500C and a 2004 Lexus RX 330 are registered in his name. His tenants struggle to make ends meet on the bustling streets of East Harlem.
Kessner owns nearly 60 buildings and over 1,200 units, housing approximately 5,000 New Yorkers, most of them within blocks of one another in El Barrio. The empire has drawn the attention over the years of the Daily News, El Diario– La Prensa, and numerous other media outlets, focusing on his bad buildings, which currently carry an astonishing 3,975 code violations. But it’s Kessner’s good buildings that raise the most profound questions.
His company R.E. Group has a two-tiered portfolio of properties—well-maintained, gentrified properties located painfully close to rattraps occupied by poor, mostly Latino, families. It’s the palpable differences in demographics and service that make it clear that Kessner is a slumlord by choice. He knows how to make a building work, but sometimes he simply decides not to.
Voice visits to buildings that Kessner recommended we take a look at—such as 102 East 116th Street and 244 East 117th Street—revealed that residents are likely to be young and either single or with small families. One white, middle-aged tenant at the 117th Street building says: “I decided to move here because it was cheap for Manhattan prices. The broker advertised it as a ‘transitional neighborhood’ and urged me not to worry because ‘everyone in the building has a job.’ ” The broker for Kessner’s company is Vertical City Realty, which shares the same address, 1790 Third Avenue, and is owned by Kessner’s son, 29-year-old Adam.
The best evidence of the two-tier portfolio is right across the street from this building. At 231 East 117th Street, Voice visits to eight apartments found far more severe conditions and twice as many violations—173, some quite serious. Tenant Guillermina Reyes says: “I have always paid my rent, but when I need things fixed they tell me that it’s me and my family ruining the apartment. This past winter I went up to two days without heat and hot water and my kids got sick.” Another tenant, Florencia Aguilar, told us that her four-year-old daughter’s skin was burned when water leaked from the light fixture in her bathroom—a problem that her calls to Kessner hadn’t resolved even a month after the complaint. Other tenant complaints at this building include holes in walls, chipping paint, falling ceilings, malfunctioning sinks, broken stoves, and intermittent availability of heat and hot water during the winter. All of the tenants the Voice visited in this building were Latino, whereas the well-maintained building across the street is ethnically mixed, with some Latinos and some whites.
HPD spokesperson Neill Coleman notes that Kessner’s buildings “have thousands of housing maintenance code violations” and says, “HPD has used every tool in its enforcement arsenal, including legal action, to get Kessner to carry out his responsibilities as a building owner and to maintain his buildings up to code. Tenants should not have to live in the conditions HPD inspectors have found in Kessner’s buildings.” HPD has brought suit against Kessner and his managing agent, Anita Benitez, on numerous occasions in the past two years. Kessner’s buildings recently tallied 640 C-level violations, defined as “immediately hazardous,” and 2,595 B-level, or “hazardous,” violations.
Steven Kessner’s empire includes
photo: Giulietta Verdon-Roe
More than a hundred Kessner tenants are working with the Movement for Justice of El Barrio, which has led protests, rent strikes, and rallies against the landlord. “This is a struggle led by immigrants, and that is the miracle,” says Juan Haro, a leader of the protests. “They work 12 hours a day for six days straight and they are still willing to give that extra day to protest and organize. Gentrification is clearly the ultimate purpose, and the immigrants living in Kessner’s buildings know it, but they are working to resist it.” With the aid of the Movement, nine of Kessner’s East 117th Street tenants have filed court papers against him. Kessner, in effect, blames his tenants—or at least some of them. “The issue here,” he tells the Voice, “is the illegal overcrowding going on in my buildings and the fact that HPD refuses to issue violations for this.” He insists that he actually wants HPD to issue overcrowding violations against him so he can then take the tenants to court, but he says the agency is instead ignoring the problem in his buildings. “I will, under no circumstances, repair any overcrowded apartments,” he says, adding, “All I do is fix, and they damage.”
Haro sees Kessner’s attempt to use overcrowding as a pretext for refusing to repair apartments as an unacceptable excuse to get out of his legal responsibilities as a landlord. “It is an anti-immigrant act,” Haro argues. New East Harlem councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito has met with members of the Movement for Justice and is co-sponsoring the Healthy Homes Act, a bill designed to strengthen the city’s powers to pursue slumlords. Both Viverito and State Senator José Marco Serrano reject Kessner’s refusing repairs in response to supposed illegal overcrowding. “That is not the right way to go,” says Serrano, claiming that overcrowding is “another issue altogether,” and that it does not “give him the opportunity to ignore” his obligation to make repairs.
“Kessner and his company have treated us like we’re not worth anything,” says Paula Serrano, one of Kessner’s tenants at 328 East 106th Street who finally won some court-ordered repairs. “It gave us more strength to fight against him. We will not give up.”
Kessner says he won’t give up either. “I’m not selling,” he says. “No one is forcing me out of the neighborhood I helped build. This particular problem with this group has been my only headache. Listen, I like this neighborhood. I have four sons in the business and we’re going to grow. I’m going to finish my job. I want this neighborhood to be tree-lined. The media has an agenda, and it has been biased against us. How bad of a landlord can I be? I never made the ’10 Worst’ list at your paper.”