Sunset Park residents engaged in a protracted rent strike packed into a Brooklyn courtroom this morning to find out the fate of their three apartment buildings.
The rent strike actually began more than two years ago, when Sara Lopez and other tenants of three buildings, 553, 545, and 557 46th Street began organizing against their landlord, Orazio Petito. Tenants have stepped up their campaign in the past month, and with the help of members of Occupy Sunset Park have begun to draw media attention to their plight.
Residents say they’re furious over the neglect of the buildings, which are infested with mold and vermin, frequently go without heat in the winter and without any electricity in the summer. Department of Buildings records for the three buildings list dozens of violations, many of them severe, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
Residents say Petito stores trash behind locked doors in the basement, and a recent CBS New York spot showed a desk fan being used to cool and antiquated and underpowered fuse-box.
Petito, as head of 553 46 Street Corp., is listed as number 26 on Public Advocate Bill DiBlasio’s Worst Landlord Watchlist.
Petito is already being sued in housing court for code violations in two of the buildings, but this morning he appeared in civil court to begin foreclosure proceedings on the three buildings. The owner of the mortgage on the properties, Seryl LLC, has asked the court to take the property away from Petito and appoint a receiver.
Judge Sylvia Hinds-Radix was clearly sympathetic to the tenants and their allies, who filled one half of her courtroom in bright red shirts. “This building is crying out for a receiver, based on what we’ve seen in the papers,” she said.
Today’s hearing was complicated by the fact that Petito’s lawyer wants to quit, telling the judge that Petito was uncooperative and uncommunicative. Petito claimed he had only learned of this discontent this morning, but his lawyer told the court he had been informed of it earlier.
The appointment of a receiver could be a good or bad development for the rent-strikers. With Petito still the legal owner, it’s conceivable that the pending cases against him in housing court, brought by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, could compel him to repair the code violations. But Petito has already been sued in similar cases in the past, and they haven’t prompted him to make the ordered repairs. HPD is allowed to conduct the repairs itself in a case like this, but doesn’t always do so, said Michael Grinthal, a lawyer with South Brooklyn Legal Services representing the tenants.
“HPD has a lot of power, and they can decide how to use it,” Grinthal said.
Once the court appoints a receiver for the buildings, HPD doesn’t have the power to compel repairs anymore. A court-appointed receiver might be more inclined to make repairs, but the only money it would have to do so would come from tenants’ rent — hardly enough to cover the extensive work necessary.
There’s another reason some of the tenants are wary of a quick rush to finish the foreclosure process: “We don’t just want a new landlord,” Lopez said today. “We want to own the building ourselves.”
In the meantime, the rent-strikers are planning new strategies to keep their issue in the public eye. Next up: a show of photographs documenting the community of residents and their unsafe and illegal living conditions opens tomorrow night.