In 2015, Ved Parkash was crowned the worst landlord in New York City. A Bronx Ink investigation has found his buildings to be riddled with routine complaints of broken elevators, invasive mold, water damage and more serious reports of collapsing ceilings, illegally sub-divided apartments and lead exposure. We visited tenants to profile their buildings (you can read those to the right), with many telling us that while Parkash was slow to respond to complaints, he aggressively litigated against those whose rent was overdue. He is just one piece of a wider housing picture that blights the Bronx: reinforcing poverty and diminishing quality of life for inhabitants whose ability to pay the rent is being rapidly outpaced by a booming real estate economy. This report is the story of both the piece and the wider picture.
By Majlie de Puy Kamp and Micah Hauser
FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT, HOUSING IS A RIGHT
Laughter echoed in the lobby of 2185 Valentine Avenue as Inalda Aguilar, a home health aide, scurried across the linoleum floor to mimic the rats that infest her apartment. Sixteen fellow tenants gathered around her to air grievances and map out next steps in demanding better treatment from their landlord.
“It’s a process,” said Felix Meleo, 52, an elevator repairman who has lived in the six-story apartment building in the northwest Bronx for 17 years. “Little by little, we’re starting to understand our rights and the laws. The bottom line is that before all this started, we didn’t have any information.”
The group at 2185 Valentine Avenue, along with nascent tenant associations in 22 other buildings, have joined forces to form the Parkash Tenant Coalition, an alliance designed to pressure their landlord, Ved Parkash, into making repairs, increasing security, and pursuing less aggressive legal action against them. Parkash owns over 70 buildings across the city, most of which are in the Bronx. Last year he sat in first place atop the Landlord Watchlist, a register of the worst landlords in New York City published by Public Advocate Letitia James. This year he came in fifth.
Press play and use the arrows in the top left of the video to take a 360-degree tour of 750 Grand Concourse, the building owned by Parkash with the most violations.
“We make this list to put landlords on notice,” said James. “Everyone has a right to decent housing, and we want every tenant to know that they are not alone. The message is that shame works.”
Cumulatively, buildings owned by Parkash have at least 992 open violations with Housing Preservation & Development, the agency responsible for protecting the city’s housing stock. Violations include mildew, peeling paint, leaking pipes, outdated plumbing, elevator malfunctions and faulty electrical wiring.
As rent throughout the city continues to climb, it has become increasingly difficult for low-income New Yorkers to find and keep affordable housing. In 2015, 22,000 families were evicted citywide, one-third of them in the Bronx, which also has the busiest housing court of any borough, the only one where cases increased between 2011 and 2015. Over 80 percent of the tenants who move through its clogged courtrooms do so without legal counsel. In an interview with The Bronx Ink, Ved Parkash admitted that he decided to build his housing empire in the Bronx because its housing court is “a different ballgame,” where “judges help the landlord.” In Queens, where he first went into business, the judges would never hear the landlords out, he said. Community organizers and tenant advocates have taken steps to fight back, but a landlord-centric court system and dysfunctional rent stabilization laws persist.
The meeting at 2185 Valentine was led by the energetic Emmanuel Pardilla, a Bronx native and tenant organizer at the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. Pardilla came prepared with colored markers and three sheets of butcher paper outlining the agenda for the night: introductions, building problems, election of floor captains, legal options and closing statements.
“What you’re building here is important,” said Pardilla. “Only tenants can hold landlords accountable. But I’m tired of hearing my own voice. I want to hear from you now.”
When Pardilla ceded the floor, complaints in both English and Spanish began to flow. He listened and nodded while writing down their concerns: leaks, cracks in the wall and ceiling, mildew, mold, defective electrical wiring, outdated appliances and an unresponsive superintendent.
Press play to see the number of complaints made each year from 1989 to 2016 for the properties profiled on the right.
“We need a railing by the stairs outside,” said Maribel Oliveraz, who has lived in the building for 37 years. She said her mother, who also lives in the building and is now in her 80s, cannot leave by herself because there is no handrail next to the steps outside the front door.
Other tenants complained that the superintendent would make only superficial fixes, like repainting a water stain on the ceiling, while ignoring the leaky pipes that lay underneath.
“A paint job doesn’t solve a leak,” said social worker Gina R., who lives in the building with her husband and 18-month-old daughter. (She asked that we not use her full last name.)
Since the tenant association formed last summer, conditions have started to improve. “I’m friends with [the super] now,” laughed Aguilar. “When I need something done, he’ll fix it for me.”
But others still feel intimidated by his “bad moods.”
Almost on cue, the tall, Albanian-born superintendent entered the lobby. “Did somebody die?” asked Medo Redzematovic as he cut through the circle of tenants. “Who said you could be here?”
The room went quiet, but Pardilla, easily a foot shorter than Redzematovic, spoke up: “Tenants have a right to organize.”
Redzematovic paced up and down a few times, taking his time. “I won’t condone any future meetings like this,” he said, before going back outside.
“That’s him on a good day,” whispered Oliveraz.
When asked about the tenants’ complaints, Redzematovic said that most had to do “with old stuff,” and dismissed the rest as untrue.
Still, tenants here and in other Parkash-owned buildings are reluctant to take their complaints past the superintendents to housing court, where the odds of prevailing against landlords are stacked heavily against them.
“FIVE MINUTE JUSTICE”
Bronx Housing Court is a gleaming, glass structure, incongruously modern amidst the aging art-deco buildings that flank the Grand Concourse. The lines of tenants waiting to get past security are often wrapped around the block well before the 9:30 a.m. calendar call.
In 2015, according to records compiled by city clerks, more petitions were filed in Bronx Housing Court than in any other borough. Bronx residents make up only 17 percent of the city population, but represent 35 percent of the total 247,000 housing court petitions filed across the five boroughs.
It’s an overburdened system that moves through cases at lightning pace. A frequently cited study, called Five Minute Justice, conducted in 1986 by the advocacy group Housing Court Answers, found that the average case involving an unrepresented tenant was dealt with in just five minutes. The situation hasn’t improved much over the years.
“From what I can see, there’s some sort of institutional pressure to move cases,” said Matt Tropp, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society.
Non-profit agencies like Legal Aid, Legal Services and Urban Justice Center try to level the playing field by providing free legal counsel to tenants. And yet, most tenants remain unrepresented. Over a two-day period in April 2016, housing court clerks reported that only 17 percent of Bronx tenants appeared with counsel, the lowest rate of any borough. By contrast, 99 percent of landlords appeared in court with legal representation during the same period.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed $46.3 million in the city’s 2016 fiscal year budget to homelessness prevention services and legal aid for tenants facing eviction or harassment. Jessica Bellinder, who heads the Tenant Rights Coalition at Legal Aid, has been able to use that money to forge partnerships with tenant groups and organizers in the 10452 and 10453 zip codes, areas likely to experience rent hikes when the city approves rezoning of the Jerome Avenue corridor that runs from 161st to 183rd Street in the northwest Bronx.
“We’re hoping to change the culture in the Bronx,” said Bellinder. “If we can represent tenants effectively and push back on these attempts to raise rent or push people out, that may change the calculus of the landlords. They won’t think they can get away with it anymore.”
Most cases in housing court fall into two categories. The vast majority are nonpayment or holdover cases, when a landlord sues a tenant for falling behind on rent or violating the terms of the lease. A small minority, called Housing Part actions, are cases filed by a tenant or the city against the landlord to make repairs or correct building violations. Last year, there were over 88,000 nonpayment or holdover cases in Bronx Housing Court, and 4,184 Housing Part actions.
Having a lawyer decreases the likelihood that a tenant will be evicted because of nonpayment or holdover by more than 75 percent, according to a study conducted by the New York City Bar Association in 2016. Negotiating for repairs is even trickier.
“When you owe money, you have to decide what’s more important,” said Tropp. “To get time to try to pay the money, or to litigate repair issues to put pressure on the landlord. Often the former wins out.”
Tenants can sue their landlord for repairs outside of the context of nonpayment or holdover cases, but they are often reluctant to do so.
“People think that it will affect their immigration status, which isn’t true,” said Tropp. It also takes a great deal of time and commitment to follow a case to the end. “They don’t come back for court dates, and sometimes they don’t complete all the steps they would need to in order to get repairs.”
For Aguilar, who has been sued by Parkash for nonpayment at least three times, there are more immediate concerns.
“If I skip a day of work to go to housing court, I lose $100,” she said. “That makes it even harder for me to pay my rent, which makes the problem worse.”
Some advocates see tenant associations as a way to circumvent the court system entirely.
“Housing court facilitates business for landlords,” said Pardilla. “It treats housing as a commodity, not as a human right.”
But organizing tenants only goes so far.
Loopholes in the rent stabilization law provide an explicit financial incentive for landlords to turnover apartments. The current regulations impose powerful limitations on the amount that rent can increase for stabilized units – zero percent for one-year leases and two percent for two-year leases. However, every time a tenant leaves, the landlord can take advantage of a vacancy increase allowance, which permits them to raise the rent of the apartment by 17 to 20 percent before the next tenant moves in.
“It encourages landlords to do some shady things to get vacancies,” said Tropp. “It’s not like there’s a shortage of people looking for apartments, especially when you consider all the people who are living in shelters.”
The rent could increase even more than 17 to 20 percent if the landlord makes improvements to the apartment, such as remodeling the bathroom or replacing a stove.
“When you’re doing that kind of an increase between tenants, you don’t need the authorization of the tenant to do it,” said Bellinder. “You can just go in and do it and then charge the next tenant the increase based on that work.”
Unless the new tenant requests a rent history from the city or hires a lawyer to examine the stabilization paperwork, there’s no way to know whether the increase is legitimate.
For landlords, the light at the end of the tunnel is something called high-rent deregulation. When the rent for an apartment surpasses a certain threshold, currently set at $2,700, it becomes deregulated and enters the open market. Not only is the landlord then free to charge whatever rent the market can bear, but the value of the building, which is tied to the rent roll, increases as well.
“I think that is the goal of every for-profit landlord,” said Bellinder. “The ultimate goal is to take it to market.” Deregulating isn’t only about collecting higher rents – few buildings in the Bronx could actually command $2,700 per month – but, according to Bellinder, “the thing about having a market-rate apartment is also that you aren’t regulated in the same way.”
Tenants living in market-rate apartments have virtually no right to organize and landlords have much more latitude to refuse to renew leases. Bellinder put it bluntly. “If your tenant is a pain in the keister, because they call 311, or they’re trying to start a tenant organization, if you have even a colorable argument as to why you don’t want to rent to them, you can find someone else. You don’t need to keep irritating tenants if you have a market-rate apartment.”
Even rent-stabilized tenants sometimes end up in a bind at the end of a lease term. That’s because many actually pay less than the landlord is allowed to charge. It’s called “preferential rent,” and on its face allows tenants to rent apartments they couldn’t otherwise afford. But it, too, comes with drawbacks. When the lease ends, the landlord can decide to start charging the legal rent, no matter the difference between the two.
“For us, it’s one of those double-edged swords,” said Bellinder. “Tenants need preferential rents because there’s nothing out there in their price range. But it puts them in a very tenuous position because they are always at the mercy of what their landlord wants to do at the end of the lease.”
That leverage has a chilling effect on tenant complaints.
“It almost makes them like they’re market rate tenants,” said Bellinder. “If they complain about a reduction in services, file an HP case, or fall behind in their rent because they lose their job – all of those are situations that a stabilized tenant may be able to recover from and keep their tenancy. But if you have a market apartment, or a preferential rent, where you can’t really afford the legal rent, then the landlord is in the catbird seat.”
RIGHT TO COUNSEL
A defective court system and porous housing laws make for long and busy days at the offices of the Northwest Bronx Clergy Coalition.
“So many tenants walk through the door in the midst of a crisis,” said Pardilla, who serves as de facto building administrator for many distressed tenants in the borough. “It’s a fire you have to extinguish immediately.”
Northwest Bronx was established in 1974, a time when Bronxites lost their homes in actual fires and landlords were mostly concerned with insurance payouts. For 42 years, they have sought to empower tenants while simultaneously holding landlords, and even the banks who loan them money, accountable.
Though they’ve facilitated many successful campaigns, tenant organizations are always hamstrung by law and policy. Without systemic changes, tenants continue to come up against the same challenges, year after year.
A significant step was taken this year by City Councilmembers Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, who introduced a bill that would, if passed, level the playing field for low-income tenants in housing court. The “right to counsel” bill guarantees free legal representation for low-income tenants facing eviction or foreclosure.
On September 26, at a hearing at City Hall, over 80 tenants and various politicians, including Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., spoke in favor of the bill. Supporters say that free legal representation for these tenants is a cheaper alternative to providing shelters after evictions. Opponents argue the bill is too costly and that the funds can’t be fully recovered from savings in shelter housing.
“There is so much psychological trauma when people are threatened with eviction,” said Pardilla. “If the bill passes, at least people won’t be evicted due to lack of information.”
At a press conference on October 13, Public Advocate Letitia James assembled a huge cast of community advocates in Foley Square in downtown Manhattan. Katy Perry’s “Roar” blasted from the public address system as James prepared to announce the updated Landlord Watchlist for 2016.
Donna Mossman, a founding member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union, in Brooklyn, approached the microphone.
“They have money, but we have people power,” she said. “When tenants are united, they will never be defeated.”
Parkash, as it turns out, was dethroned – dropping to the fifth spot and relinquishing top honors to Harry D. Silverstein. It’s difficult to untangle what precipitated the change, but tenants and advocates who have been fighting Parkash would like to think their efforts played a part.
“The landlords have to accommodate tenants in Manhattan and in places where they have access to legal representation in a very different way than they do in the Bronx,” said Bellinder. “And if Bronx tenants have better access to that, hopefully the landlords will treat them with greater respect.”