Rent Strike!

| 11 Nov 2014 | 01:42

    In a Latino neighborhood six short blocks from the Marcy Avenue subway station, the tenants of a Williamsburg apartment building have held a rent-strike for the last 10 months, claiming their landlord has neglected essential repairs and wants to drive them from their homes. The building’s owner, Adam Mermelstein of TreeTop Development, is suing the tenants for the full 10 months of back-rent and, on Friday, July 20, he testified in a Brooklyn housing court that he’s made all necessary repairs.

    The six-story building at 188 South 3rd Street contains 41 apartments in a neighborhood where the shops advertise in Spanish and salsa music pumps out of passing cars. New neighbors are moving in, however, as young professionals migrate to the cheap new ’hood.

    While Mermelstein is suing his tenants for non-payment of rent, the residents argue that they shouldn’t have to pay the 10 full months since, according to them, the building has been in terrible condition, including no heat in the winter and constant noise and dust from construction. After the July 20 trial, the two sides still haven’t reached an agreement, so the judge will present the findings from her visit to the building, hear each side’s closing arguments and then make a decision on how much back-rent the tenants should pay.

    Marty Needelman, the tenant’s attorney and chief counsel of Brooklyn Legal Services, pulled up to 188 South 3rd Street early on July 20 to begin the protest against Mermelstein and Tree Top. Wearing a light-colored suit and yarmulke and shouting in Spanish with a thick Brooklyn accent, Needelman badgered 10 women into a tight circle and led them with cheers of “Tenants…United…Will never be defeated!” The protest quickly grew to about 30 people marching and chanting, some carrying signs and others pushing strollers.

    Mermelstein has been developing properties in New York and New Jersey for the last seven years, and in August of 2006, he bought the building on South 3rd for just over $5 million. The building’s current tenants enjoy relatively cheap rent, paying about $700 for a two-bedroom apartment, but during a break in the trial Mermelstein commented that the rent for new tenants will be around $2,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.

    Although half of the apartments are vacant while they are renovated for new renters, the remaining tenants say that living there has been unbearable ever since Mermelstein bought the building.

    Omayra Borrero lives on the third floor of the building along with her children Branden and Hailey. This is Borrero’s seventh year in the building, and she says the last year has been awful. “Winter was bad, it was really cold and sometimes we didn’t have hot water.”

    Jacquelin Hernandez moved to Williamsburg from the Dominican Republic in 1992. She said “It’s not about the money, it’s about the services. If we pay the rent, then we deserve the services.”

    Mermelstein dismissed the claims and said, “People make false claims about heat and hot water.”

    “I think the tenants have a different agenda than just getting the repairs done. They have a political agenda,” said Mermelstein’s lawyer, Joseph Burden. “I don’t think they made a good-faith effort to get the repairs done before they stopped paying rent, and we had to sue them.”

    Tenants also worry that Mermelstein doesn’t want them living in his building, and they know that new renters would be worth a lot more money to the owner. Posted on the website for The Real Deal is an announcement that 71 new apartments would be ready for lease in early 2007. The announcement stated that 41 new apartments would be available at 188 South 3rd Street, and another 30 would be available at 326 South 1st Street. (Tree Top purchased 326 South 1st Street at the same time they bought 188 South 3rd.) It’s not hard to see why the tenants are nervous: 41 + 30 = 71, the numbers indicating their homes as open and available.

    The fight at 188 South Third Street may be an extreme case, but it’s an example of a struggle taking place all over Brooklyn. As Manhattan rents rise and Brooklyn crime drops, the exodus across the East River will continue to pit the borough’s old guard against the newcomers, in what one participant called “an old-style Western range war.”