Tenants in a group of Upper Manhattan buildings owned by Barberry Rose Management Company held an online press conference March 6 to demand that the landlord make repairs and provide adequate heat and hot water, instead of trying to impose rent increases for major capital improvements (MCIs).
“Our demands were outlined by the basic standards taken by both the departments of Homes and Community Renewal and Housing Preservation and Development,” said Barberry Rose Tenant Union member Kristiana Cowcer, who has lived at 565 West 175th St. for five years.
Barberry Rose, owned by Lewis Barbanel, has acquired 33 buildings in Inwood and Washington Heights over the past seven years. In 2019 and 2020, it filed applications for 15 separate MCI increases in ten of those buildings. Manhattan Legal Services attorney Thomas Honan, who has been representing the tenants, said that if the MCIs are granted, the rent of some apartments would increase by $19.77 per room for the next 30 years — about $79 a month for a four-room apartment.
The landlord has been actively abusing the MCI system, Honan charged, and his main intent is to increase rents. Tenants accuse Barbanel of prioritizing cosmetic improvements and the renovation of vacant apartments instead of repairing the apartments of long-term residents.
Barbanel was ranked as the city’s second-worst landlord in the 2020 Public Advocate’s Worst Landlord Watchlist, up from 16th in 2019. The rankings are based on the number of housing-code violations per unit in their buildings: 548 West 164th St., with 55 apartments, averaged 277 HPD violations, about five per unit; while Kristiana Cowcer’s building, 565 West 175th St., averaged 113 violations in 30 apartments.
Tenants displayed photographs of apartments filled with rat droppings, black mold, leaky ceilings, and lead paint. Tenant leader Maria Lara alleged that Barbanel does not provide basic services, does not comply with housing laws, and does not care about the tenants suffering, but is demanding thousands of dollars in rent increases for improvements in the buildings’ public areas.
They said that in May 2020, when the Barberry Rose Tenant Union sent Barbanel a detailed letter about conditions in the buildings, the landlord dismissed all their concerns.
Those concerns include the forced displacement of long-term residents of color; rent overcharges; fraudulent MCI increases; inconsistent heat and hot water; rat and roach infestations; poor communication from building management; and a lack of apartment repairs and building security.
All those problems, Cowcer said, “violate New York’s Real Property Law, Multiple Dwelling Law, and other laws that regulate the landlord and tenant relationship in the city and state.”
The tenants are demanding that Barberry Rose hire “a property manager that is responsive to the needs of the tenants and the building in a timely manner”; that they have “the right to a safe and stable home,” with all violations corrected once the dangers of COVID-19 have passed; “the right to comfortable, legally mandated temperatures during heat season,” and that all tenants’ rent be cancelled until one month after the COVID-19 pandemic is declared over, “not only because of the current national crisis, but because of the thousands of violations across his buildings.”
Barbanel denied all of the claims outlined in the tenants’ letter, and refused to speak or meet with them.
The landlord is seeking the multiple MCI increases in a year when the city Rent Guidelines Board froze rents for tenants renewing their leases, and while the federal Centers for Disease Control had placed a temporary moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent because of the pandemic.
“As elected public officials, [we] must get more involved in working with all of you, in order to improve the conditions in your home,” state Senator Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan) told the press conference. “Obviously, safety and security is number one, and the rodent situation must be resolved. Whatever we’re going to do, I’m going to be there with you all the way.”
Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa (D-Manhattan) said that she would join with tenants in putting pressure on both the state and city governments “to make sure that these MCI increases are not granted to Mr. Barbanel.”