South Bronx Tenants Demand Rent Suspension

Residents of two chronically ill-maintained South Bronx buildings rallied Apr. 1, calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to give tenants a break from having to pay rent while thousands of people have been put out of work by the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic.

Photo credit: Jacob Udell

“Everybody’s fear is ‘how am I going to pay the rent?’” says Juan Cano, who’s lived at 386 East 139th Street, on the corner of Willis Avenue in the Mott Haven neighborhood, for almost 20 years. “That fear of getting evicted puts a lot of pressure on everybody.”

Cano, a building-maintenance worker and member of the 32BJ SEIU union, says he has been fortunate enough to get part-time work, but a lot of people in the building work for restaurants, which have been shut down except for takeout meals—not enough business for many to stay open. One man’s attempt to pick up extra cash by collecting cans, he adds, ended when the recycling truck stopped making collections in the neighborhood because of the epidemic.

The two adjacent buildings, 380 and 386 East 139th Street, have different landlords, but long histories of problems such as leaks, vermin infestations, and lack of heat, hot water, and cooking gas.

Photo credit: Jacob Udell

At 380, the ten apartments have not had gas since October, as landlord Carlo Careddu is trying to convert the building to electric stoves. Tenants also complain about a rat infestation on the first floor, mold throughout the building, leaks, electrical outages, and broken ceilings.

 They say when they called Careddu to discuss this, he told them, “I don’t need to acknowledge the Tenants Association, it’’ not an LLC. This is my building, not yours.” 

The building’s mortgage is owned by Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, which recently announced that it would defer mortgage payments for three months if landlords promised not to evict tenants. The Tenants Association wants Careddu to put those savings back into the building, “to improve conditions to a level that makes it a safe and habitable place to quarantine.”

At 386, tenants have been in Housing Court with their landlord, Saul Piller—son of notorious slumlord Moshe Piller—for three years, trying to force him to make repairs. In October 2018, they filed a lawsuit alleging that the building had chronic problems with rats, leaks, and lack of heat and hot water; that Piller either failed to do repairs ordered by the city or done inadequate patch jobs; and that he harassed tenants by filing baseless eviction cases and offering them money to move out.

“Things haven’t really changed at all,” says Cano—except that the heat is on even when it’s warm outside, and the hot water comes out scalding. He says that when the ceiling in the first-floor lobby collapsed in January, they patched it up, but did not fix the leak that caused the problem.

The 386 East 139th St. Tenant Association said it has sent a letter to Piller and City Councilmember Diana Ayala that the tenants will not be paying rent. 

Photo credit: Jacob Udell

“If I had the option to stay home and not work I would do it for my health and my family, but if my housing is insecure then I would have to work, because I have to afford food for my children and pay the rent,” longtime tenant Juana Mercado said in a statement released by the association. “I want the Governor to be conscious of the communities of renters. We should not pay rent in this crisis. The Governor should protect the rights of tenants, not landlords. They have money, we don’t.”

For Cano, Gov. Cuomo’s order for a 90-day moratorium on evictions is not enough. “No, it’s not, Mr. Cuomo,” he says. “How are we going to pay our rent if we don’t have a job?”

“We just want some consideration,” he continues. He wants the governor to “look at the low-income family” and “help out the guy that’s working at McDonald’s or Duane Reade.”

“We don’t know how long this is going to last,” he concludes. Some of the restaurants where his neighbors work might not reopen, he adds. “It’s not going to be, ‘out of a magic hat, everything’s going to be back to normal.’”