Sunset Park Tenants Fight Displacement and Disrepair

Tenants at 961 42nd Street, a rent-stabilized building in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, know better than to expect high standards from their landlord, Lazzo Realty Corp. The building’s common areas and 34 apartments contain 194 current violations of the city housing maintenance code, according to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Those include 20 “immediately hazardous” C violations. Lazzo hasn’t registered rents with the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal or issued renewal leases in years, and the business is listed by the Department of State as an “inactive” entity.
But Lazzo sank to a new low earlier this year. Its superintendent at 961 42nd Street began informing longtime tenants, many of them low-income Latino and South Asian immigrants, that their building had been sold. “He told people they would have to move within two months, and told them to stop paying rent,” says Milagros Cordero, who grew up in the building and whose mother still lives there. “He refused to take the rent from some tenants.”
Tenants contacted Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a Sunset Park housing advocacy group, which helped them organize meetings and retain legal counsel through South Brooklyn Legal Services. At SBLS’s advice, tenants began sending their rent by certified mail, with return receipts requested, and planned a Housing Part action against Lazzo, demanding repairs.
“The sale of a building does not affect a tenant’s rent-stabilized rights or his or her ability to remain in her home,” says SBLS attorney Brent Meltzer. “The super’s statements are patently false and appear to be an effort to circumvent rent-stabilization protections.”
No filings with the city or state governments indicate that the building has actually been sold since Lazzo purchased it in 1980.
The tenants’ most public action so far was an April 27 press conference in their lobby, which drew supporters including Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and Rep. Nydia Velazquez.
“It is unacceptable for landlords to use improper tactics to push low- to moderate-income tenants out in order to get higher rents,” Velazquez said. “We refuse to stand idly by while residents and families in our community are being unfairly threatened by displacement.”
Several tenants recounted their experiences. “Lazzo never makes repairs,” longtime resident Yessid Sabogal said. “The front door has been broken for years, and the heat and hot water are bad. We call Lazzo and there is no answer. We complain to the super and he tells us the boiler is broken, or there is no oil.”
Since the press conference, tenants say the superintendent has made no further attempts to drive them out. Some necessary repairs have already begun, and the pending HP action to force additional ones will reach the court docket within weeks.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors is also helping tenants organize in buildings owned by Jack Geula, who purchased nine, with a total of 194 units, in 2006. Although he acquired the buildings in poor repair, Geula made little effort to rectify the situation: They still contain 482 open violations, including 88 C violations. Instead, he fired a number of building superintendents.
“Now tenants don’t know who to call when emergencies or serious problems arise,” says Dagan Bayliss, NHN’s tenant organizer. “The phone number they have for the landlord is rarely answered, and voice mails are usually not returned. There is also a language barrier aggravated by not being able to talk in person.”
Geula harassed Latino residents, telling a superintendent  that he hoped to instead fill his buildings with “white people from Oklahoma” and threatening to “call immigration” on tenants. In letters to NHN, he falsely claimed that a tenant “must support her legal status in the United States,” that “it is an illegal act of a landlord to rent an apartment to an illegal alien,” and that “[a]s a landlord I am entitled to NAME, DATE OF BIRTH, SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER OF EVERY SINGLE PERSON living in that apartment” (emphasis in original).
In fact, it is a violation of the city human-rights law for a landlord to discriminate on the basis of “alienage or citizenship status,” and the state Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that landlords have no right to Social Security numbers.
Additionally, Geula warned a tenant in Housing Court that he would “show no mercy” to anyone helped by NHN, refused to write a letter confirming a tenant’s residency so she could receive public assistance, and eliminated preferential rents for dozens of longtime tenants, raising their rents to the legal maximum.
“It seems to me that the lessons from this are the danger of preferential rents—tenants should read their leases carefully—and the imperative that tenants pay rent by check or money order and keep receipts, copies or stubs to protect themselves,” says Bayliss.
With NHN’s help, Geula tenants continue organizing to defend and improve their homes. And with his record, they will probably have their work cut out for them.