April 16, 2019, Brooklyn, NY – Ten rent-stabilized tenants filed a complaint in Kings County Supreme Court today alleging their landlord, the notorious Shasho family, has engaged in long-term tenant harassment and illegal housing practices in an effort to push tenants out of their rent-stabilized apartments in Brooklyn's gentrifying Prospect-Lefferts Garden neighborhood.
The charges include failing to provide heat and hot water, refusing to repair dangerous living conditions, filing baseless eviction proceedings, charging erroneous late fees, repeatedly offering unwanted buyout deals, pushing long-term rent-stabilized tenants out, and converting newly vacant units to Airbnbs. Tenants allege the landlord has even installed separate heating and cooling systems in the Airbnb units while the long-term tenants suffer in the frigid cold.
Now tenants, represented by Brooklyn Legal Services' Tenant Rights Coalition which receives support from the City's Anti-Harassment and Tenant Protection program, are taking their landlord to court to seek penalties and punitive damages and put a stop to the long-term harassment and illegal housing practices.
"Sometimes I come home and the lights don't come on. In the wintertime, I freeze in my own apartment because there's no heat," said Digna Doesserie-Mitchel, a tenant of 611 Flatbush Avenue since 2006. "How is the landlord going to fix up these other apartments for Airbnb and not maintain the rest of the building? We actually live here. We pay our rent just like everyone else. Enough is enough. We deserve better than this."
"These buildings are unsanitary fire traps. Not only is the landlord terrorizing these tenants to drive them out of their rent-stabilized homes, but they are actively putting the tenants' lives at risk," said Catherine Frizell, an attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services' Tenant Rights Coalition, a program of Legal Services NYC. "The landlord also mocks, threatens, and gaslights tenants when they request repairs or complain about the landlord's illegal hotel operation, operating under the assumption that tenant protection laws won't be enforced. But they are dead wrong. We won't stop fighting until every tenant in this building gets the justice they deserve."
"Every New Yorker has a right to a safe and healthy place to call home and this administration is using every tool available to enforce the law against unscrupulous landlords who disregard their basic obligations," said NYC Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks. "We are proud of our partnership with Legal Services NYC as we continue our efforts to prevent tenant harassment and displacement by holding landlords accountable for their actions."
Over 220 Open Housing Violations
The Shasho family has racked up over 220 open housing violations in these three buildings (611 Flatbush Avenue, 607 Flatbush Avenue, and 599 Flatbush Avenue) over the last four years, including 207 Housing Preservation & Development violations for lack of heat and hot water, fire hazards and repairs, seven Department of Building violations for illegal construction practices, and eight Environmental Control Board violations related to construction, the building's boiler, and electrical violations. One of the buildings, 607 Flatbush Avenue, is one of the most distressed buildings in the City, which HPD has put in the City's Alternative Enforcement Program. If repairs are not made within four months of the initial notice, the City could file a tax lien against the property.
Hazardous Living Conditions
Tenants have suffered chronic heat and hot water outages in violation of the City's Housing Maintenance Code. They recently sought the help of Heat Seek, a non-profit group that installs temperature sensors to document the lack of adequate heat. In October 2018, Heat Seek installed sensors in six apartments and found inadequate heat in multiple units, including two units with over 2,000 hours (or 83 days) of inadequate heat.
Tenants also complain of deplorable and hazardous living conditions. In one tenant's home at 611 Flatbush Avenue, the kitchen ceiling and floor is cracked, the stove is defective, the bathroom walls are moldy, the bedrooms floors are damaged, the living room walls are crumbling, the hallway ceiling is leaking, and the tenant has had both a bug and mouse infestation. The ongoing construction of Airbnb units has also caused multiple tenants' walls to crack, a chandelier to crash from the ceiling, lights to cut out, and created dust that contributes to tenants' respiratory problems. The installation of a separate heating and cooling system for the Airbnb units also caused one tenant to lose water pressure in their bathroom fixtures.
Illegal Airbnb Units
The tenants also allege the landlord is illegally renting out units on Airbnb in violation of the state's Multiple Dwelling Law and City's Rent Stabilization Code. Tenants believe the landlord has listed at least five illegal ads on Airbnb.com with higher rent rates advertising "New Cozy, Clean Designer Apartment" and "beautiful sun filled space" while dangerous living conditions persist throughout the rest of the rent-stabilized units. Tenants complain that the Airbnb units create a constant stream of strangers in the building which make tenants and their children feel unsafe. Tenants report that short-term guests routinely leave trash outside of their units and party loudly for hours in the middle of the night. The Airbnb units also flout New York City's fire and safety regulations, endangering both tenants and Airbnb guests.
"I fear for my life," said Elizabeth Hayes, 65, a tenant of 607 Flatbush Avenue since 1981. "It's the not knowing that make me afraid. This building is unsafe. Any time I smell something burning I think the building is on fire because it's very possible. I lay awake at night hearing all kinds of noises from people in the building who I don't know. This landlord clearly thinks he can get away with this, but not anymore. We're taking action."
Ongoing Tenant Harassment
In response to complaints about deplorable living conditions and harassment, the landlord told one tenant, "It is a shit building and you are still here. You guys must love this shit." When a tenant notified the landlord that they were going to call 311, the landlord replied, "What are they going to do about it?" and later quipped, "What did reporting to the City do for you?" When the landlord has responded to tenants' repair issues, the response was delayed and woefully inadequate. In one instance, the landlord provided a "refurbished" refrigerator to a tenant that contained a live rat after she complained her refrigerator was no longer working. Another received a refurbished stove infested with roaches and mice.
Tenants also allege the landlord relentlessly harasses them to force them out of their rent-stabilized units in violation of the City's anti-harassment statute, including filing baseless eviction proceedings, charging erroneous late fees, failing to return copies of counter-signed leases to tenants, making repeated and unwanted buyout offers, and forcing tenants to pay rent through a portal in a convenience store 7-Eleven located 30 minutes by foot from the buildings. The landlord forces other tenants to pay through an electronic payment system and when one tenant refused to use the system, the landlord replied, "When are you moving back to Barbados?"
The tenants also report being afraid of an unlicensed contractor the landlord employs named "Q." who has repeatedly threatened and menaced tenants, yells spontaneously in the hallway in the middle of the night, plays music at very high decibels, and otherwise disturbs tenants' peace. On one occasion in 2018, Q. taunted a tenant with a gun after he asked Q. to stop threatening female passers-by. When the tenant complained about Q.'s behavior to the super, the super indicated that Q. gets "riled" when he is drinking.
Tenants Demand Justice
Tenants report feeling constant stress and anxiety. Some have reported losing sleep and feeling unsafe in their units because of the constant stream of guests who loiter in the common areas. Tenants report feeling dehumanized by the illegal practices and harassment. One tenant expressed "great sadness" when he sees a neighbor pushed out of their apartment and is "constantly on edge" because he does not know what his landlord is going to do next or who will be affected.
Brooklyn Legal Services filed the complaint in Kings County Supreme Court on behalf of the tenants who are seeking to stop the harassment, nuisance, and illegal practices, force repairs to the building, and seeking civil penalties, attorney's fees, and punitive damages.
"Landlords are making a huge profit, but they want to make more. It's just greed and tenants won't stand for it," said Nesly Paul, a tenant leader at the Flatbush Tenant Coalition. "Housing is a human right. Everyone deserves a decent place to live," continued Jennifer Lee, another tenant leader. "Flatbush Tenant Coalition stands with our neighbors in their fight for justice and fully supports their demands for fair treatment," said Sandra Cordner, also a tenant leader.
"No one should have to suffer through a winter without heat. It is unconscionable that a landlord would withhold heat as a harassment tactic," said Noelle Francois, CEO of Heat Seek NYC. "Landlords routinely flout the law because they know it is difficult for tenants to independently document the indoor temperature, which is why Heat Seek exists. By using our temperature sensors, tenants are able to collect the objective, reliable temperature data they need to demonstrate the lack of heat and successfully bring cases like this one. We applaud these tenants and Legal Services NYC for taking action and look forward to continue fighting to make New York City a safer, warmer place for tenants."