News & Politics

Tenants fed up with nonprofit landlord ask court to appoint administrator to take over building

A group of tenants living in a building owned by supportive housing provider Food First have filed a petition in housing court to get an administrator appointed to manage the building, which has over 150 outstanding violations.

Residents of 201 Pulaski say that nonprofit landlord Food First has refused to address a host of issues in the building – including leaks in the roof that have led to water damage in the hallway (left) and the collapse of one unit’s ceiling (center), and the presence of vermin like rats (right).

Residents of 201 Pulaski say that nonprofit landlord Food First has refused to address a host of issues in the building – including leaks in the roof that have led to water damage in the hallway (left) and the collapse of one unit’s ceiling (center), and the presence of vermin like rats (right). Linda Holmes; April Cheeks; Linda Holmes

A group of tenants in a rent-stabilized building owned by the Brooklyn-based nonprofit Food First HDFC have filed a lawsuit seeking to force Food First to turn management of the building over to a court-appointed administrator. The tenants of 201 Pulaski, who are being represented by attorneys at The Legal Aid Society, told City & State that Food First has for years refused to address serious issues with the building, leading to prolonged dangerous and unsanitary living conditions. The building currently has 166 outstanding violations.

Meanwhile, Food First is trying to sell its portfolio of rent-stabilized buildings, including 201 Pulaski. In a recent interview with The Real Deal, the nonprofit blamed the state’s 2019 rent reforms, which limited the situations in which landlords can raise the rent on rent-stabilized units, and the pandemic-era eviction moratorium for making it economically infeasible to maintain the buildings. 

But tenants say the real problem is Food First, not the rent laws.

Building mismanagement

On Wednesday, Legal Aid filed what is known as a 7A petition in housing court on behalf of six of the nine tenants living in 201 Pulaski. A seldom-used provision of the housing law, 7A allows either the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development or a group of tenants to petition the court to appoint an administrator to assume day-to-day management of a building that is being neglected by its landlord. Food First and an attorney representing the nonprofit both declined to comment on the proceeding.

Linda Holmes, the Legal Aid staff attorney overseeing the case, said that if the court does decide to appoint an administrator, then Food First will no longer receive rental income from the building’s tenants; instead, that rental income will flow to the administrator, who will use that money to pay for building repairs and maintenance.

According to the 7A petition, conditions at the 201 Pulaski building include “vermin infestations, persistent roof leaks, inadequate heat, and inadequate janitorial services,” leading to mold and general deterioration across units. The building’s nine units are all rent-stabilized and owned by Alfred Thompson, head officer of Food First. Last year, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams named Thompson the “fifth worst landlord” in New York City, with 1,341 violations across his portfolio of 15 properties.

There is no mortgage on the property at 201 Pulaski, though Legal Aid found that the property has an outstanding tax bill of $91,580.05 due to the New York City Department of Finance and outstanding charges of $17,205.75 owed to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

April Cheeks, one of the building’s longtime tenants and a participant in the 7A proceeding, told City & State that she experiences constant leaks in her kitchen ceiling. She said that the leaks caused her ceiling to collapse in 2015 – and it took more than six months for Food First to repair the damage. Even then, which she claims was a “bandaid” on the building’s widespread leak issue. 

Left without a functioning kitchen for months, Cheeks had to rely on neighbors like Crystal Brown, who has experienced both leaks and vermin problems.

“Outside the building are rats. In the garbage area, the rats are chewing through the building, through the ceiling area and sometimes you could hear them scurrying. I had flies coming into my apartment from the light fixture because it's open, due to something dead being in the ceiling,” stressed Brown. 

Cheeks and Brown have both filed previous lawsuits in housing court, commonly known as “HP cases,” alleging violations. But despite the lawsuits and repeated complaints, residents of the building saw little to no improvement.

“We had our first case in 2019,” Brown said. “So what I had at that time was a major leak from the ceiling, and I live on the third floor. So what's going on in between the fourth floor and the roof, was my issue right? I had major leaks in my living room, and the constant mice issue.”

The leaks resulted in outbreaks of mold, traces of vermin and unpleasant smells, which led some tenants to send their children to live with relatives rather than continue to live in such damaging conditions. Cheeks, whose additional damages include rat holes in her windows and broken appliances, even planned to relocate to a hotel during the last snowstorm.

“When it snowed, we were supposed to get so much snow. I cried because, if my ceiling comes down, the rats will come in with it. I told my neighbors that I'm going into a hotel. I’m gonna use the money that I have for rent, and I'm taking my kids and putting them in a hotel. That issue with my ceiling is actually not fixed, and it’s just a matter of time before we have a huge snowstorm or rain,” stressed Cheeks. 

Tenant organizing

Brown and Cheeks worked with other tenants to form a tenant association in the hope of improving living conditions in the building. The association now includes six tenants. 

“We formed a tenant association, and along with the help of Legal Aid and the Brooklyn Eviction Defense, because we didn't know what we were doing. But we learned what our capabilities are, and we realized we were being harassed,” said Brown. 

As most tenants were faced with no improvements and a lack of communication from management which resulted in wasted work days, the new 7A filing reiterates these poor conditions.

“Harassment being, the landlord makes us stay home numerous times. We try to reach out to give access (for repairs), they'll make us stay home and they don't show. So they'll make us stay home all day and when they come they’ll take a photo of the issue and go, with no follow up,” Brown said. 

While some tenants like Cheeks have opted for a rent strike since November of 2022, most tenants only joined the rent strike in February. It’s already caused significant damage to their credit. 

“We're not getting the necessary repairs. We're trying to take action to receive housing treatment that's desired and deserved,” said Jenna Huber, another tenant in the building. “Part of that is being on a rent strike, and now my credit is affected. Personally, I finally got my credit above a 750 and I got a notification that it was 719. So now I’m down 30 points, because they’ve added one month past due rent to my credit report. I don't even know if that's legal.”

Stopping a sale

Tenants said that when they previously complained about issues in the building, property managers blamed the lack of repairs on insufficient funds due to outstanding rents and unreasonable treatment from tenants. Food First appears to want to wash its hands of the ordeal and has reportedly begun to hastily auction off many of its rent-stabilized properties.

Cheeks and Brown said that they were recently informed that Food First has sold 201 Pulaski.

“The building has been sold, but we don't know who the managers are. We don't know who's going to be managing the bills, we just know that the building was sold,” Cheeks said.

Holmes, the Legal Aid attorney, said that deed to the property has not yet been transferred to a new owner. There may be an agreement to sell the property, she said, but the deal has not yet closed – and the filing of the 7A petition may lead a potential buyer to reconsider the transaction.

Ideally, the tenants in 201 Pulaski would like to have the opportunity to purchase and run the building themselves. Barring that, though, the hope is that the 7A filing will force Food First to engage constructively with tenants and finally address the issues plaguing the building. 

“Just treat us as you would want to be treated,” Brown said. “We're not villains. Everybody works. Everybody has common sense, we just want the repairs to be done. Because ideally, we don’t have a reason to bother you. We want everything to go back to normal, since this is like an extra headache.”