South Bronx Tenants Say Slumlord

The son of one of New York’s most notorious slumlords is following in his father’s footsteps, according to the tenants in a South Bronx building he owns.

The 386 East 139th St. Tenants Association are suing Saul Piller, son of Moshe Piller, and his property-management company. The nine tenant plaintiffs allege that the building has chronic problems with rats, leaks, and lack of heat and hot water; that the landlord has either failed to do repairs ordered by the city last year or done inadequate patch jobs; and that he has harassed tenants by filing baseless eviction cases against some and offering others money to move out. 

“Basically, he’s a slumlord,” says Shaquan Clark, 42, a tax-preparation office manager who moved in about two and a half years ago. Her kitchen ceiling caved in from leaks, and the lights in the building’s common areas are often broken, she says. “Sometimes, when you go in the hallway, it’s black.”

The case was supposed to go to trial Oct. 29, after Bronx Housing Court Judge David J. Bryan rejected the landlord’s motion to dismiss the case. But Piller’s lawyer asked to withdraw, and on Nov. 13, his new attorney asked for more time to prepare for the trial.

Saul Piller acquired the five-story red-brick walkup in 2014 for $1,430,000, according to property records. His father, Moshe Piller, was ranked fourth on the Public Advocate’s 100 Worst Landlords list in 2015 and owns a Hunts Point building where two baby girls were scalded to death when a radiator burst in December 2016. The two are partners in Ryms Realty Group, which in 2014 spent $40 million to buy a building at Broadway and 37th Street in Manhattan.

The 139th Street tenants began organizing in late 2016, led by Juan Cano, who has lived in the building since 2000, on the same floor as his mother and nephew. He had the advantage of being fluent in both English and Spanish. “We were barely getting any heat and I think it’s because we were being punished because the landlord just wanted us out,” Cano declared in a court affidavit. “There was garbage everywhere…. That’s around the time that rats and mice started to infest the building.”

In March 2017, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development got a court to order the landlord to provide heat and hot water. HPD and other city agencies also found repeated signs of rat infestation.

Tenants say some repairs have been made. Lillian Morada, 93, points at her newly plastered bathroom ceiling. “They fixed it a couple weeks ago,” she says. But she still keeps towels stuffed into the window to prevent rain from coming in. 

“It’s just the half-assed patching up,” says Shaquan Clark. She says her bathroom ceiling was fixed, but the source of the leak wasn’t. “The moisture is in the yellowness,” she adds, pointing at a discolored spot. “When it rains, that’s when the water leaks in.”

Several tenants claim they were offered buyouts to move out, and in February, the landlord tried to evict Morada, a rent-controlled tenant, and another woman whose rent is subsidized because she is disabled. Piller quickly dropped both cases. 

The building is on the corner of Willis Avenue, a wide, sunny street of churches, housing projects, bodegas, and schools. It’s a few blocks north of the gentrifier-beachhead “Piano District,” but Cano says the landlord’s motive for wanting them out is less upscale: The city will pay $2,000 to $3,000 a month to rent apartments for formerly homeless people.

Shaquan Clark is one of them. She says the cluster site housing program she’s in pays the landlord about $2,500 a month in rent, and her share varies with her income. In tax season she pays $1,875, but in the off-season, when she works part-time, it goes down to $400.

The main harassment is around repairs, tenants say. “They were mad because I reported them,” says Morada. The disabled woman told the court that when she complained, a burly building worker she knows as Dmitri told her, “you’re stepping on the wrong toes.” Tenants are “more afraid of asking the landlord for repairs than of the problems,” says Rajiv Jaswa, an Urban Justice Center lawyer representing them. 

As two reporters enter the building, Dmitri tells them it’s “private property.” Escorted by a group of tenants, they ignore him.

Clark points out the gap between her kitchen counter and the wall and the hole around the pipe under her sink, both places where she says rats got into her apartment. They’ve been hastily filled with foam. Downstairs, she and another tenant show the uneven staircase, with empty spots under the steps filled with plaster, a rathole in the wall, and the three-inch gap under the door to the basement, wide enough for rats to come through.

“They tell you not to talk, but that’s not fair,” she says. “What about the next person who moves in?”

Calls to numbers listed under an address for Saul and Moshe Piller have gone unanswered.

The landlord’s lawyer had argued that the tenants’ suit should be dismissed because they could not claim “an actual injury traceable to the defendant”; that the only evidence about building conditions that should be considered was the owner’s work orders, because the tenants’ complaints were opinions; and that allegations about harassment were “a community spread vicious rumor.”

“I can confidently state that myself or no member of my staff have never contacted a tenant regarding signing a buyout agreement or surrender agreement; never interfered in tenant associations’ meeting; sending inaccurate rent statements; entered apartment without authorization; commenced frivolous evictions; and used threaten language that harasses a tenant,” property manager Sam Rosner averred in an affidavit filed October 11th. “From my knowledge no direct evidence of harassment of tenants by the staff, landlords or owners.”

He called the tenants’ suit a “game of ‘he said, she said’” and accused the Urban Justice Center of wanting to use “their most friendly forum in the Judicial branch” to “usurp the Legislative branch by making laws to stop gentrification.”

The case will probably go to trial in December or January, says Urban Justice Center lawyer Catherine Barreda.

A version of this article originally appeared on Gothamist.