Property Tales

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"At night, in the kitchen, before you put the light on, you hear the rats running around. I have two young kids. It's terrible to have to tell them all the time to put on slippers, and not to touch anything because it's dirty. Some people think because you're Spanish, you don't mind living with rats and cockroaches. It's really disgusting."

-Claudia Castillo, 28,
mother and college student

LAUDIA CASTILLO, her husband, their two children and her husband's father share a rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a 31-unit building on 135th St. near Riverside Drive. Claudia's father-in-law, Diones Castillo Sr., has lived in the apartment since 1958. Claudia and her husband moved in with him in 1997.

Claudia says the apartment is very nice-but almost unlivable.

"The kitchen stinks from rats and cockroaches and garbage left outside our windows. There's a leak in the bathroom ceiling. The plaster over the toilet has fallen down three times this year. Some floor tiles are missing, and the floors are dangerously uneven. The landlord doesn't make repairs-or when he does, the repairs don't last. The problems come back, usually worse than they were before."

All the conditions Claudia mentions-and more-are listed in NYC Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) records, showing 217 building code violations for the building. That includes 37 class-C violations (potentially health-threatening, such as peeling lead-based paint, rats, defective toilets and faulty water delivery), 100 class-B violations (missing smoke detectors, blocked fire escapes, broken windows and the like) and 80 class-A violations (defective window sashes, floor tiles, dripping faucets and such). HPD records show violations as ongoing for a decade or longer.

"We try everything to get repairs done so we can live decently," says Claudia. "We're withholding rent. We've been in Landlord and Tenant Court since 1999, when my daughter's blood showed high levels of lead-from paint. The court orders the landlord to make repairs. He doesn't. I think he gets away with it because we're Spanish, uptown and poor."

Claudia says the building's ownership has changed repeatedly during the past several years.

"The landlords own the building for a year or so, then sell it for a profit. I'm not even sure how many landlords we've had since we moved in with my father-in-law, because we deal with the building agent who tells us when we have a new landlord. But I'm not sure I can believe him-he might say that just to delay repairs.

"Our current landlord has owned the building for less than a year, and we've heard he's trying to sell it-for $300,000 more. He wants us and the other tenants out so he can raise rents, especially for the bigger apartments, like ours. All our landlords have wanted us out."

Claudia says most tenants in the building pay $400 to $800 for rent, but she pays only $280. She knows the landlord could get more-especially since the West Side from 125th to 160th is rapidly gentrifying.

"Our building and neighborhood are mostly Hispanic, mostly low-income families. But that's changing fast, especially after 9/11. Now we see a lot of white people moving in-students from Columbia University, especially-and there are expensive shops opening on Broadway," she says. "We're benefiting in some ways from the change, but we're also victims. Things are more expensive, and we're under greater pressure to move."

Now the landlord is trying to buy the Castillos and other tenants out.

"He offered us $10,000 to move. That's a lot of money to us. My husband's a carpenter. He's still young in his profession, so he doesn't earn that much. I'm in college. We have two kids to support. So we could really use that money, but we'd be crazy to accept it. Where could we go?" she asks.

"Believe me, I'd like to live in better conditions, decent conditions, especially for my kids. I'd like to own a house, but what he's offering wouldn't buy it. It could get us another apartment, and cover a few months' rent. But then what?"

So, for the time being, the Castillos are toughing it out.

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