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The Door of Angel DeJesus's Mt. Hope Apartment

Without Legal Aid, Bronx Residents Are Lost at Housing Court

Angel DeJesus was certain that the pictures of the black mold growing on the ceiling of his apartment, or the massive holes in the walls would make the Housing Court reverse the eviction that left him and his family out on the street. 

Angel DeJesus’s Mt. Hope apartment.

But the lack of legal aid resources in the Bronx, coupled with the complicated process of filing a complaint with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, made suing his landlord a challenging prospect for this Bronx Resident. That’s how DeJesus found himself and his two daughters out on the street, with more than $10,000 to pay in back rent if he wanted to reclaim his family home.

DeJesus’s daughters were the third generation of his family to occupy the Mt. Hope apartment, which first was rented to his immigrant Puerto Rican parents. “Things were really good,” he said. Paying $936 every month for the rent-stabilized three-bedroom apartment had been “a gift from God.”

But over the last two years, the apartment had become increasingly damaged. During the summer a hole appeared in one of the walls, through which DeJesus said rodents would enter the apartment. This resulted in a July 2018 incident where his 16-year-old daughter was hospitalized for a rat bite. Despite this, DeJesus said the landlord had refused to make repairs.

Then in October, hot water began to pour continuously from the faucets and shower, DeJesus said. The apartment became extremely hot and humid. “If you wanted to go to the sauna, I’d tell you just come to my place,” DeJesus joked bitterly. 

The moisture, he said, began to warp and splinter the walls and doorframes of the apartment. It caused the black mold to grow across the ceiling, before the super finally turned off the hot water, two months after it first began to flow. 

DeJesus was incensed. He’d heard that withholding rent was a legally protected response to a landlord failing to comply with the terms of the lease, so in October 2018 he decided to stop paying until the landlord completed all of the repairs.

“There’s a very specific protocol for withholding rent,” according to Jessica Hurd, Assistant Director of tenant advocacy group Housing Court Answers.

Tenants in this situation should begin by contacting building inspectors for the city, Hurd said, and make copies of any letters sent to their landlord. Above all, Hurd said tenants should secure the help of a lawyer who can help navigate the process and potentially even hold the unpaid rent money in a trust.

But DeJesus’s apartment lies outside the four Bronx zip codes whose residents are eligible for free legal counsel, and Bronx Legal Aid’s Housing Court office can only take seven cases a day. This is despite the fact that the eviction rate for the Bronx was more than double that of any other borough, according to data from the New York City Council website. DeJesus would likely have had to retain his own lawyer, which he said was challenging: his income as an occupational therapist’s assistant places him below the poverty line. 

So DeJesus, who said he never completed high school, was left to navigate the system alone. Appearing in court alongside his 22-year-old daughter Jailene DeJesus on Sept 18, DeJesus was certain that he’d followed the correct steps to document complaints against his landlord. 

He’d been shocked when just two days before, he found the locks on his apartment changed, and his family out on the street. He said he never received a letter of eviction, though the attorney for his landlord said that one was mailed out. 

Clutching a manila folder filled with photos of what he says is mold creeping across the ceiling of his bathroom, a hole in one of the apartment’s walls, and an emergency room discharge paper showing that his daughter was treated for a rodent bite – DeJesus appeared before a Housing Court judge. But he was informed that any violations committed by his landlord were irrelevant now that he was no longer in possession of the apartment.

In order to continue legal proceedings against his landlord for the damages to the apartment, DeJesus was told he’d have to repay almost the full year’s worth of unpaid rent and legal fees. “We’re going to the bank now,” said DeJesus as he and his daughter Jailene left court that afternoon. “We are going to go get the money, so we can get our house back.”

Mark Cohen, the attorney for DeJesus’s landlord, said he wanted to work things out with the family, and even met with him before court that morning.

“I feel for him, I really do. But he didn’t pay his rent,” Cohen said.

“His daughter Jailene is about to start school, and now she’s going to be out on the street, right at the start of the semester. She doesn’t need that.” said Cohen. 

Cohen said he was unaware of the damages to the apartment alleged by DeJesus. However, multiple legal documents known as Housing Part (HP) stipulations, written on the documents with Cohen’s law firm’s letterhead and signature on them, specifically call for many of the same repairs that DeJesus alleged – including damaged door-frames caused by “heat from hot water” –   in exchange for DeJesus making payments on the rent owed. Several possible entry dates for workmen to complete the repairs were listed for July 2019, but DeJesus says the workmen never showed up, so he kept withholding rent. Cohen did not respond to requests for comment regarding the signed stipulations ordering repairs to DeJesus’s apartment

“Unrepresented tenants get into trouble because they don’t know how the system works,” said tenant’s rights attorney Sam Himmelstein. “Housing court is a scary experience, and tenants just want to get out of there as quickly as possible. They have a seasoned professional; the landlord or their landlord’s lawyer, sitting across from them, who knows the system far better than they do.” 

Tenants end up signing settlement agreements that they don’t understand, Himmelstein said, often featuring legal wording that favors the landlord. For example, a legally binding agreement known as a Final Judgement clause is often mistaken by tenants to be an agreement that the tenant will cease withholding rent in exchange for the landlord making repairs.

“The two clauses are actually separate,” said Himmelstein. “The tenant will think that the wording of the agreement means that if the landlord doesn’t do the repairs as agreed, they don’t have to pay, but the tenant still gets held responsible for paying regardless of if the landlord makes the repair or not,” said Himmelstein. 

Pelham Bay resident and father of three Joshio Sereno, 37, said that he was three months behind on rent when he showed up for a Resolutions Court appearance on September 18th. “The landlord keeps saying that I have to sign a payment plan for the rent I owe, which says I’m going to pay by the end of the month,” said Sereno.

 “I don’t understand how I can sign that when I don’t have the money right now,” he said. “I’m trying to tell the judge that I can’t sign a lie, but they won’t take no for an answer.” Sereno lost his job as a doorman after refusing to work a 16-hour double shift because he had to pick up his children from school, he said.

Housing Court had been confusing for Sereno, who like DeJesus, lived outside of the Bronx zip codes where tenants in eviction proceedings are provided free legal counsel. “I just don’t want to sign anything I don’t understand,” said Sereno.

New York City’s Universal Access to Counsel legislation offers a promising answer to this issue, guaranteeing free legal representation in eviction proceedings to all NYC residents under a certain income by the year 2022. However, Jessica Hurd of Housing Court Answers said it’s not a fix-all. 

“Affordability is going to still be a huge issue. Rents that have been increased over time are going to stay high, and landlords will always find a way around things,” Hurd said. 

Twelve days after his Sept 18th court appearance, Cohen said that DeJesus still hadn’t paid the rent owed in order to reclaim his apartment. The apartment, neighbors say, is now empty.

This article has been updated to reflect that Jessica Hurd of Housing Court Answers did not comment directly on Angel DeJesus’s case but was speaking broadly about the best practices and dangers of withholding rent.

Posted in - Housing Court Project Tenants, Bronx Neighborhoods, Special Reports0 Comments

Struck By a Subway 14 Years Ago, Still Waiting for Justice

On March 13, 2005 Luis Rodriguez got up in the early hours of Sunday morning to catch the subway from the St. Lawrence Avenue Station near his Morissania home to travel to Pelham Bay for a fishing trip on his day off.

Luis Rodriguez sits in front of his Morissania home.

The then-35-year-old HVAC technician and father of two was standing on the edge of the subway platform at around 6 A.M. when the No. 6 train pulled into the station. He recalled being in front of the empty space between the fifth and sixth cars as the train came to a stop and then turning towards the left car.

That was the last thing he remembered.

Nearly a month later, Rodriguez said he woke up from a coma to find himself in the Intensive Care Unit at Jacobi Medial Center in the Bronx. He was told he had fallen underneath the subway cars. His right leg had been amputated below the knee, his skull had been crushed.

Now, 14 years later, Rodriguez, disabled by the accident, is still fighting for a monetary settlement from the New York City Transit Authority. His claim argues that design flaws in the train’s safety mechanisms allowed him to fall between the cars, and then failed to set off an alarm once he had been struck by the train.

Year after year, Rodriguez’s lawsuit against the New York City Transit Authority has dragged on with little end in sight. His medical bills have piled up for occupational and physical therapy, among other expenses.

As of publication time, an MTA spokesperson had yet to respond to emails requesting comment on the status of his case.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez argued that lawyers for the Transit Authority have taken every opportunity to delay. Vital evidence has been repeatedly withheld, and transportation officials have on numerous occasions failed to turn up for depositions, causing the case to be continually postponed.

This game of legal cat and mouse has now spanned nearly 15 years, and 46 adjournments. In the meantime, a loophole in a little known New York State law called Public Authorities Law § 1212(6) allows the New York City Transit Authority to pay a relatively small penalty in the form of a 3% interest per year on any settlements, in contrast to other state agencies which must pay a higher interest rate of 3% per year. This diminished rate means that the Transit Authority pays a smaller price for stringing along lawsuits than other state agencies do.

According to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s 2018 report to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, its active inventory as of December of last year was 9,215 personal injury claims, though Transit Authority records. In an internal audit report from 2019, the MTA estimated that in 2018 they had paid out $45 million for injury claims.

Rodriguez, a resident of Morrisania, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City, said he has struggled to find work after his accident, and that the $902 monthly disability check he receives from the federal government is not nearly enough to help fund vigorous litigation.

The duration of Rodriguez’s lawsuit might sound uncommon, but it’s not. Two years ago, the city settled a case brought in 2004 by the family of a 12-year-old child who was struck by a bus for $21.6 million. According to Joe Rappaport, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence, a group that has been involved in three separate civil suits against the MTA for issues related to handicapped access on the subway, 14 years is not an unheard of amount of time for a lawsuit against the state transportation agency.

“It’s a timeworn tactic to delay the release of records,” said Rappaport. A New York Daily News article reported in 2016 that the Transit Authority retained a staff of 48 tort attorneys, for the purpose of fighting lawsuits like Rodriguez’s. Tort law deals with cases where plaintiffs are seeking compensation or to attribute responsibility in civil court for harms caused by others.

Christopher Seleski, a New York City injury lawyer, spent a year as one of those tort attorneys for the Transit Authority before growing disillusioned with the way the agency dealt with injured passengers.

He said that the use of delaying legal tactics is not necessarily a codified doctrine among attorneys employed by the Transit Authority, but it’s definitely a strategy they employ. “As a rule of thumb for the Transit Authority or any other big corporation, it’s in their interest to take as long as possible,” he said.

The city’s willingness to prolong the legal battle,  Seleski said, is partially tied to New York State’s Public Authorities law. This law states that in the case of a verdict favoring the plaintiff, most state agencies have to pay a 9% interest rate on every year it takes to reach a settlement. However, the Transit Authority only has to pay 3%, which means there is a minimal penalty for stringing along injury lawsuits like Rodriguez’s.

“On the other end, you have a person who has been injured, but they still have a family to support,” said Seleski. “They still have credit card bills and rent to pay for. The Transit Authority knows that as time goes on, the person who is suing will likely be more willing to settle for lower and lower amounts.”

For Rodriguez, these past 14 years since the accident have been unbelievably hard.

Formerly an HVAC technician by trade, Rodriguez is now confined to a wheelchair. An HVAC tech needs to be able to go up stairs and ladders to repair heating and cooling systems. Potential employers won’t even accept his resume once they see that he’s in a wheelchair, he said.

Immediately after his accident, Rodriguez struggled with homelessness, and currently lives in an apartment subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

He’s frustrated with his current situation. As an HVAC technician, he made good money, but now, forced to survive off his disability check, he’s had to watch his own family members battle homelessness. One of his sons, he said, has been living out of his car. Rodriguez wonders if, if the accident hadn’t happened, he’d be able to help him.

“It’s not about the money. They could give me all the money in the world and it won’t make up for what they stole from me,” he said, sitting outside of his apartment up the block from the No. 2 and 5 trains at the 174th Street Station.

Riding the subway now fills him with fear, he  said, and the sound of the subway at night is a constant reminder of his accident.

A deeply devout Christian, Rodriguez credits his faith with helping him keep the focus necessary to keep the lawsuit going.

Yet it hasn’t escaped his notice that wealthier, whiter plaintiffs with similar injury lawsuits against the Transit Authority seem to get settlements far quicker. He remembered reading in the New York Post about Michael Dion, a 47-year-old Marketing Executive who won a $10 million settlement from the city in 2016, following a 2010 incident where Dion was crushed by the moving subway platform at Union Square.

“You’re telling me a rich white guy like that gets paid, but I don’t?” said Rodriguez. “Why is that?”

Legal records obtained by BronxInk show that one of the reasons that Rodriguez’s case has taken so long is that city and state officials have sometimes taken years to respond to discovery requests filed by Rodriguez’s attorneys, or in some cases simply denied them.

Records show that the NYPD repeatedly refused Freedom of Information Act requests for the 911 call reporting Rodriguez’s accident, despite the fact that the caller represented the only actual witness to the accident.

Rodriguez’s lawyers were eventually forced to get a signed order from the judge to enable them to physically retrieve the records from police headquarters after 10 months of waiting.

Lawyers for the Transit Authority have also disputed how Rodriguez ended up on the subway tracks. According to Rodriguez, lawyers for the Transit Authority have also suggested that he may have been trying to kill himself that March morning.

Legal documents obtained by BronxInk show that Transit Authority lawyers requested Rodriguez’s mental health treatment records, and records of any possible suicide attempts prior to the incident.

Rodriguez scoffs at the accusation that he jumped on the tracks as part of a suicide attempt. “How does that make sense?” he said. “You think I’d kill myself then, but not in the 14 years after I lost my leg? I’ve been homeless, I lost touch with my sons. Every day is a struggle. Why would I kill myself then but not now?” 

A diabetic, Rodriguez said he fell in between the 5th and 6th cars of the No. 6 train as it stopped in the station, and tumbled “either over or under” the low-hanging safety chains.

Rodriguez fell onto the tracks, where said he was struck by the remaining cars of the subway, and then by another No. 6 train that passed through the station shortly thereafter, leaving him with an amputated leg and a crushed skull. His lawsuit also alleges that the subway’s safety alarm system failed to trigger after he was struck by the train, which led to him being repeatedly run over, based on an accident report filed by Transit Authority workers following his accident.

This report says that both trains that hit him were missing a piece called a Snow Block, which according to Rodriguez’s lawsuit, is typically knocked off of the train when the alarm system is triggered, therefore indicating the trains had hit a red signal.

Despite all of the delays, Rodriguez remains hopeful. Another court date has been set for February of next year, and Rodriguez is confident that he will eventually prevail. God is on his side, he said, and it’s nearly 15 years coming.

It’s not the money he wants, but the recognition that he was wronged, and that something was taken from him, he said.

“When I had my accident, my two sons were 7 and 9,” he said. “My family are from South America, so playing sports like soccer was a really big part of our lives. After the accident, I realized I’d never be able to play with my boys again,” Rodriguez said, his voice cracking.

“ I lost so much.”

Posted in Money, Morrisania0 Comments

A Boxing Gym Owner Fights to Keep His Culture Alive

If you walk into El Maestro Boxing Gym at 5 p.m. on a Monday, you might find the gym full of young men, battering away at the bags and shuffling around the ring to the metronome of the round-timer.

Come in on the right Saturday night though, and you might find that instead of fighters shadow-boxing inside the ring, there’s a bomba band, or a fiery patriotic Puerto Rican poetry reading. 

“Boxing is not enough,” gym founder Fernando Laspina said. Boxers can end up broke and brain damaged, Laspina said, and that’s why he designed El Maestro not just as a gym where neighborhood kids could learn to fight, but as a place where they could connect to Puerto Rican culture and history.

But after 16 years, Laspina’s community center is now under threat. His landlord has put the squat two-story building that houses El Maestro up for sale.  Laspina has lost locations and been forced to downsize before, he said, but yet another move could be disruptive to what he’s managed to build at 1300 Southern Boulevard.

 Akmicar Torres, 33, whose son Joseph trains at the gym, said it would be unthinkable to lose El Maestro. When he first walked into the gym to sign his son up for boxing classes, he was struck by the huge mural on one of the walls. It depicts a mix of Puerto Rican nationalist heroes and scenes from Taino folklore.

“It was like I was looking at a history book from my third grade in Puerto Rico,” Torres said. He described standing in front of the wall and explaining to his son Joseph, then 10-years-old, what their connection to this history was. 

For many in the Puerto Rican community in this corner of the Bronx, El Maestro is a little piece of the old country. 

“There’s no other place in New York that feels like home,” said Akmicar. “When I feel homesick, I go to El Maestro.” Four years after signing up Joseph, now 14, he’s a New York Junior Olympic Champion. His boxing lessons, Torres explained, take place entirely in Spanish. 

Laspina’s path hasn’t been a straight one. A “jibaro” from the mountains of Puerto Rico, he moved to the Bronx at fifteen and quickly became a target for schoolyard bullying. He joined The Savage Skulls, a notorious black and Puerto Rican street gang, for protection. Within a few years, he’d risen to the rank of regional leader in the South Bronx. Fighting quickly became a part of his life. “Everyone always said I was good with my hands,” he chuckled. 

But a two-year stint in prison for extortion made him rethink his priorities. He resolved to change. Prison proved to be a crash course in community organization, as he and other Spanish-speaking inmates had to band together and use their collective voices to, among other things, demand a bi-lingual chaplain.

Once out, he’d channeled the skills he’d learned as a prison-yard organizer into a career in grassroots community activism and outreach, helping to lead a campaign to keep Puerto Rican-founded Hostos Community College open. He enrolled in college, eventually earning a masters degree from Buffalo State University in Latin Studies. More than 40 years later, Laspina’s ties to his community go deep. He runs El Maestro and works as an extracurricular coordinator for the New York City Housing Authority. 

Rising rent prices have caused the gym to have to move before: they’ve had four locations in the past 16 years. But now, the possible sale of the building, coupled with the discussion of zoning changes along Morrisania’s Southern Boulevard has many community members worried about what this might mean for El Maestro

Yet another move could force them into a smaller space, less easily accessible by train than the current location, which is just down the block from the 2 and 5 stop at Freeman Ave. In turn, this could shrink the programs the gym is able to offer, and take away a critical linchpin in the cultural landscape of the neighborhood. “This gym keeps kids off the street and out of gangs, people come here who have messed up their lives and are trying to straighten out,” said 16-year-old boxer Firdaus Abdulai. “People take this place for granted, but it would be terrible if the gym got sold.” 

Fernando doesn’t seem worried though. The Bronx has changed a lot in the years since the gym was founded, and they have always managed to survive, and if that means finding another location, so be it. Instead of dwelling on the potential sale of the property, he’s thinking about ways to grow. He’d love to launch a tutoring program for the kids who come to the gym. “That’s the dream, to have a space with computers where the kids could come and do homework,” he said. For now though, he’s happy to listen to the thud of gloves against the heavy bag.

Posted in Culture, Morrisania0 Comments