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Tenants tell horror tales

Civil court attorneys and housing advocacy groups have noticed increased measured by landlords to use harassment to force tenants from their homes, despite the City Council’s passage of the Tenant Protection Act this past March.

At a press conference this past weekend at City Hall, Speaker Christine Quinn and South Brooklyn Legal Services attorney Jennifer Levy highlighted one of the more egregious cases of tenant harassment in Brooklyn since the law has been passed.

“If this was the only case of harassment in New York City, it would still speak to the absolute necessity of having the Tenant Protection Act on the books,” said Speaker Quinn. “Not every landlord is trying to push tenants out of their homes. But cases like this are happening all over our city and we must ensure wronged tenants have the right to confront their harassers in court and put an end to this reckless behavior.”

Over the past 18 months, the residents of 64 Troutman Street in Bushwick endured having their heat and hot water cut off and received various threats from their landlord who has pressured them to move out. In one instance, according to tenants, their landlord filled the apartment building with garbage bags of decomposing dead cats, producing a fetid smell that lasted for more than four weeks.

“It was so bad we thought it was a dead body,” Carolyn Jessup, a tenant at 64 Troutman Street, said. “They still haven’t fixed anything in the building. The hallways are dusty and dirty and we have a lot of hole. If there’s a problem with the building we have to do it ourselves.”

The landlord of 64 Troutman, a Hasidic man affiliated with the building’s managing company Heskell LLC, was unable to be reached by press time due to the Jewish holiday this week.

With help from the Bushwick Housing Independence Project and South Brooklyn Legal Services, Jessup and the other tenants are taking their landlord to court for all of the violations and incidents of harassment that their landlord has accumulated over the years. In the past, tenants would have to go to court for every single incident or harassment complaint they would make, but the Tenant Protection Act enables tenants to consolidate their filings. On October 21, Levy will represent the tenants of 64 Troutman in Brooklyn Housing Court for one of the first cases filed under the Tenant Protection Act.

“We see harassment everywhere in areas where the market value of homes and apartments are increasing,” Levy said. “This is the first time I’ve seen a bag of dead cats.”

Levy has seen similar incidents of tenant abuse in other neighborhoods undergoing rapid transition and developmental change, such as Park Slope, Sunset Park, Williamsburg, and Fort Greene. For Levy, the pattern of harassment is the same no matter the neighborhood.

“First they offer to buy the tenants out, and then they tear down buildings around them and start shutting off essential services,” said Levy.

Landlords remain opposed to the law and have filed a lawsuit in civil court seeking to repeal it. In response, the City Council has deployed its general counsel to fight the case and Quinn is confident that the Council will win.

City Councilmember Diana Reyna, who represents neighborhoods in Williamsburg and Bushwick that have seen explosive growth in recent years and a corresponding increase of harassment complaints, believes that the law is essential to help tenants who have been abused and displaced from her community.

“Just because it is a law doesn’t mean that it will work if we don’t have our courts respond to our tenants,” Reyna said. “This harassment cannot continue. Our tenants are suffering severe actions by landlords and we have to have a zero tolerance for these actions.”

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