On Sept. 1, the state’s Department of Housing and Community Renewal found that Iris Vega-Ortiz, 41, was charged an excess of $400 every month for her Perry Avenue apartment in Norwood, and is now due to collect more than $33,000 from her landlord.
“I’m excited, I wasn’t really looking for money,” said Vega-Ortiz, who had originally filed a complaint with the state back in March 2009.
The New Jersey-based landlord company that owns Vega-Ortiz’s building, Urban American Management, denied any wrongdoing and said it will appeal. Meanwhile, local housing advocates said it’s the largest ruling they’ve seen by the state for an individual tenant in the neighborhood ever.
“In the years that I’ve been doing this work, I’ve never seen a settlement, a ruling this high,” said Sally Dunford of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center, a non-profit organization that helps Norwood residents with housing issues. “It’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen. It was just really good to see the system work the way it’s supposed to work.”
Vega-Ortiz first moved into the ground floor unit of the six-story apartment building on 3210 Perry Avenue in December 2008, where she still lives today with her aunt and two young daughters.
“I started getting leaks, mold, and I couldn’t take a bath because the pipes were clogged,” recalled Vega-Ortiz, who is currently unemployed after losing her job at a pharmaceutical company more than a year ago. “There were just a lot of problems with the apartment they didn’t disclose. I felt like I was paying too much.”
As a result, Vega-Ortiz decided to file a rent overcharge complaint to the state a few months after moving in. Although Vega-Ortiz said she wanted to leave the apartment, a multi-year lease and losing her job compelled her to stay, despite the headaches she experienced.
Then a fire broke out in the upper floors of the building in late June of this year, damaging Vega-Ortiz’s apartment, and the now two-year-old complaint came back to the table. Her landlord offered her another apartment on the condition that she drop her rent complaint to the state.
“I told them I’m not going to do that, that’s not guaranteeing me anything,” Vega-Ortiz said, adding that the landlord had even drafted a complaint withdrawal letter in her name.
That’s when the state finally responded to Vega-Ortiz, saying that the rent for her apartment was only supposed to be $554.75 a month, not $975. According to the state, Vega-Ortiz is owed more than $33,000, including more than $10,000 in overpaid rent and nearly $22,000 in punitive charges for intentionally jacking up the rent.
In an email statement, Urban American Management said they have filed to appeal the state’s decision, adding that Vega-Ortiz was “fully aware” of the rent when she moved in.
According to a database run by New York City’s housing department, there are currently 31 open violations for 3210 Perry Avenue, where Vega-Ortiz lives, including six severe hazards. Urban American owns numerous properties across the city. A blog, nyctenantadvocate.wordpress.
Currently, Vega-Ortiz and her family all live and sleep in the living room because the bedroom remains unusable. Vega-Ortiz said she planned to move out of the apartment in December when her current lease is up.
“My next step is to see how they are going to pay me,” said Vega-Ortiz, adding that she would not rule out the possibility of taking her landlord to court for the money.
Dunford, her housing advocate, said it’s not unusual for landlords to overcharge tenants.
“We see it quite frequently. It is unusual for tenants to fight and win,” said Dunford. “Tenants don’t understand that the law is really on their side. But they’re so intimidated, it’s scary when your home is involved.”
A version of this article also appeared in the New York Daily News.