Harassed South Bronx Tenants Picket Landlord’s Brooklyn Home

“I pay my rent on May 5. On May 9, he kicked me out of the apartment,” says Maricela Catalan, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter.

She and her 10-year-old daughter were among a group of South Bronx tenants who traveled to the Midwood section of Brooklyn March 21 to protest outside the home of her landlord, Sam Applegrad. Applegrad, who bought the 10-apartment building at 387 E. 138th St. for $2 million in March 2020, began trying to oust the tenants almost immediately, demanding that they pay twice their current rent or be evicted. 

Magaly Herrera, also speaking in Spanish, said he wants to raise her rent from $1,250 a month to $2,500. Her refrigerator doesn’t work, she adds. 

The building’s legal status is ambiguous. The previous landlord deregulated it about 20 years ago, but longtime tenants say he did not do the substantial renovations he used to justify taking it out of rent stabilization, according to the South Bronx Tenant Movement, which organized the protest.

Catalan, a 39-year-old mother of four children aged 3 to 20, says the harassment began in late April, when she and her husband, who was laid off from his job as a dishwasher when the pandemic hit, were both sick with COVID-19.

“Every single day they would be knocking on my door,“ she says. The building’s superintendent once tried to break the door open with a metal rod, she continues. Another time, he told her, “you have no document that proves you live here.”

No one in the building had a lease, she adds.

The super then told them they had to move somewhere else, and brought them papers to sign. But the papers, Catalan says, were in English, which neither she nor her husband can read. Immigrants from the Mexican state of Guerrero, their first language is the indigenous tongue Tlapaneco.

Finally, on May 9, the super “told me I had to leave or else they would lock me out and they would turn off the lights,” she says. The family, who had lived in a three-bedroom second-floor apartment for four years and were paying $1,500, were relocated to a one-bedroom apartment in another Applegrad building, in the Northeast Bronx neighborhood of Allerton.

They had to leave behind some of their furniture, including the couch and wardrobe, Catalan adds.

One of the other tenants moved out last year. Applegrad filed holdover evictions against the other eight in October. Those cases have not seen any action in Housing Court because of the state moratorium on evictions during the pandemic, says South Bronx Tenant Movement organizer Aldo Reséndiz.

In 2019, the Right to Counsel NYC Movement ranked Applegrad and his University Realty Holdings 18th on its “Top 20 Worst Evictors” list, down from 12th in 2018. Others on the list included Ved Parkash, Jonathan Weiner of Chestnut Holdings, Larry Gluck’s Stellar Management, and Moshe Piller, whose son Saul owns a building at 386 East 139th St. that the South Bronx Tenant Movement is also organizing.

According to the list, Applebaum owns 32 buildings in the Bronx, with a total of 1,555 apartments, 94 percent rent-stabilized. In 2019, it says, he evicted 51 tenants. 

Tenant/Inquilino tried to contact the landlord’s lawyer, Trudy-Ann Mckenzie, but the number listed for her office was out of service.

“We feel invisible and unprotected,” 138th Street tenant Ericelda Hernandez, speaking in Spanish, told a rally of 25 to 30 people at the intersection of Avenue M and Kings Highway. “Even though there’s a moratorium, Mr. Sam Applegrad and his workers have not cared.”

She said she’s been living in the building for five years and has been paying for gas and electricity that doesn’t work.

The group — also including 386 East 139th St. tenants, a new tenant organization from Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, and a knot of Jewish housing activists from Upper Manhattan — then marched to Applegrad’s house on a nearby, quiet, residential block in a heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The house, whose stone exterior, leaded-glass windows, and half-cylinder tower with a brick arch over the front door give it a medieval air, is the largest on the block.

“We, the tenants of 387 East 138th Street in the South Bronx, demand that Sam Applegrad return Maricela Catalan and her family to their home. They were illegally evicted,” demonstrators announced through a bullhorn. Two faces appeared at a top-floor window, one apparently filming the protest with a cellphone, but no one came out.

The tenants’ other demands include repairs, adequate heat and hot water, and 10-year leases at the same rent.

Reactions from neighbors were generally unfriendly. When one protester tried to hand a middle-aged man a flyer and told him “your neighbor’s a slumlord,” he responded, “So? I don’t want to hear it.”

“As Jewish people, we feel obligated to stand in solidarity with tenants who are being harassed and oppressed by Jewish landlords,” says Inwood activist Avi Garelick, tallis prayer-shawl strings hanging from under his leather jacket. He called Applegrad’s harassing tenants “chillul hashem” — Hebrew for desecrating the name of G-d.

Catalan has been in court contesting the eviction since November. She alleges that she was illegally locked out and was threatened and conned into signing an agreement to move. A hearing was held March 22, and another one was scheduled for April.

“The only thing I want is to get my apartment back,” she said after the march.