Harlem Tenants Protest Landlord’s ‘House of Horrors’

“We are here to raise hell.”

Tenants in three Harlem buildings plagued by broken elevators, collapsing ceilings, and infestations of cockroaches and mice staged a horror–themed protest Oct. 28, dressing as ghouls and goblins for a march around West 141st and West 140th streets between the boulevards named after Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X.

Tenants in Halloween costumes speak through a megaphone in front of their building.
Tenants in Halloween costumes speak through a megaphone in front of their building.

“We are here to raise hell,” Deborah Metts of the West 141st Street Tenants Union told the 50 to 60 people assembled in front of 117 W. 141st St. The building is one of three adjacent ones owned by Guardian Realty Management. “It’s been 90 days and two hours since I had a working elevator in my building.”

The buildings’ other ills, she added, include broken stairs, loiterers, stolen packages, and inconsistent heat—yet the landlord inexorably calls tenants asking for the rent a few days into the month. Meanwhile, as the COVID-19 epidemic hit the city, Metts was watching the lines at the food pantry grow longer, and apartments in her building, 137 West 141st St., begin to empty out. 

Then she lost her job. And people in her building began finding out that tenants in the other two were having similar problems.

“I just got tired,” Metts said. When Guardian and its owner, Chaim Simkowitz, ignored the tenants’ petition for repairs, “we started a rent strike.” 

That was in May. The three-building tenants union was organized in June. In September, they requested a meeting with Simkowitz to discuss the repairs, but he refused. Guardian has also refused to negotiate rent decreases for tenants who have lost jobs or income due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to tenants and Met Council, and has filed eviction papers against at least six. 

About a quarter of the tenants are now on rent strike, says Met Council tenant organizer Ben Rosenfield. The residents of 137 are planning to file an “HP action” lawsuit demanding repairs within the next week, with aid from Manhattan Legal Services.

The three buildings have 135 open violations listed by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, with 28 of them Class C, “immediately hazardous.” Those include violations issued Oct. 26 for missing glass in a roof skylight and mice infestations in two apartments, and others issued last month for roaches in multiple apartments. There have been over 9,600 housing-code violations reported for buildings in Guardian’s portfolio, according to data The Tenant obtained from JustFix.

Tenants hold up signs detailing the ‘horrors’ they have to live with in their buildings.

Meki, a woman from 127 West 141st St. who calls herself “the Harlem Moon”—to “reflect other people’s lives, and bring light to the darkness”—read a series of poems inscribed on black cardboard, verse immersed in the house-of-horrors theme.

My landlord is a vampire
He gorges on my blood
But alas…
There is no love
When he finally drains me dry
He’ll have his rats and roaches gnaw the flesh from my desiccated hide.

Tenant protestor holding sign in the shape of a coffin with a poem about their landlord written on it

Another, about a woman killed when a falling slab of plaster smashed into her head while she was sitting on the toilet, didn’t require much of a stretch of her imagination.

“I have had no less than seven ceiling collapses,” Meki told the rally. “In my bedroom. In my bathroom.” Last Christmas, she suffered ankle and back injuries when she was hit by falling plaster. Her bathroom was unusable for the next two weeks.

“I tell you, I’ve had enough,” she told Tenant/Inquilino. But she says Guardian, which acquired the building in 2016, is no worse than the previous landlords. Every owner, she says, “has abused and gotten away with it.”

When she moved in in 2008, it was owned by Pinnacle, the “predatory equity” firm notorious during the ’00s for buying up buildings with 20,000 apartments and filing eviction notices against 5,000 tenants. It was then acquired by Castellan Real Estate Partners, a firm founded “during the depths of the financial crisis in 2008/2009” to take advantage of “distressed real estate investment opportunities” such as “undervalued assets.” In the real-estate industry, “undervalued assets” is a common term for “buildings that would be worth a lot more if we could get rid of the rent-stabilized tenants.”

Residents at 137 West 141st St. went three months without heat and hot water, said Lisa Macauley, clad in a long black coat and witch’s hat, as the march concluded outside the Savoy Park apartment complex on Malcolm X Boulevard.

Macauley, a teacher of disabled high-school students, said that despite the number of people who’ve lost income because of the pandemic, landlords like Guardian are still acting “like it’s business as usual.”

“Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.”

Lisa Macauley

“We need the universal cancellation of rent,” she told the crowd.

The temporary moratorium on evictions is only a temporary solution, she explained, as back rent keeps piling up for people whose employment is on hold.

But when she and other tenants met with state Sen. Brian Benjamin, who represents the neighborhood, and told him that enacting a bill to cancel rent accrued during the pandemic was the only way to prevent the evictions of thousands of people, he told them the proposed legislation was too controversial, she said.

“Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures,” she averred.