‘They Came in Like the Gestapo’ Tenant Organizer Janice Walcott Has Seen—And Fought—It All

The tenants at the Allerton Coops in the Bronx now have the worst landlord of the six or seven the buildings have had in the last few decades, one longtime resident says.

The complex, which contains more than 700 apartments, was built in the late 1920s, just before the Great Depression, by labor-union members, primarily Yiddish-speaking socialist garment workers from the Lower East Side, who decided they wanted a better place to live. But it became rental housing in 1943, after the residents were unable to keep up with mortgage payments. The landlords over the years haven’t maintained the cooperative spirit.

Since the current owners, Bronx Park East LLC, took over in 2005, the residence’s community room had been locked and boarded up; construction has taken place illegally; building cleanliness has declined; and needed repairs have been neglected. Security is essentially nonexistent now, according to Janice Walcott, a longtime organizer in the coops.

The new landlords established their presence dramatically early on, “coming in like the Gestapo” and knocking on tenants’ doors demanding rent money, Walcott says.

She has watched it all devolve over the 40 years she’s lived there. Amid disorganized renovations that kicked up lead and sawdust in the late 1980s, she and her two young children were in and out of the hospital during months of work that was originally promised to only take two days. Many tenants had to miss work to be in their apartments, and some lost their jobs. 

When the renovations in her bathroom were finally completed, Walcott took a shower, pulled a towel from the rack—and the whole rack came down. 

“I said, ‘What the heck,’” she remembers. “This is ridiculous.” 

Dozens of other tenants were equally crestfallen. They turned to Met Council and lawyer John Gorman to help them organize. In 1986, 110 of the 741 tenants went on a rent strike. They won an abatement of about three months’ rent because of the poor living conditions and knocked-down walls they were subjected to during the renovations.

Now, Walcott’s seeing the need to reorganize the residents. The landlord has been fined tens of thousands of dollars for doing construction without proper work permits, she says, and last year was fined again when “rats the size of rabbits” roamed the hallways. Because the building’s community space is still locked up, the Allerton tenants are holding holdings in the hallways. The landlord has requested a $200 payment for using the meeting space. 

 “Tenants have a right to organize,” Walcott emphasizes. “We’re collecting the funds to rejoin the association. We keep moving on.”

The priority list for the current group is to regain access to the community room; restore building cleanliness and repairs; and have real security.  Walcott has passed the tenants association’ baton on to another woman in the building, Yvonna Perez. 

“Hopefully things will work out,” she says optimistically, “before I close my eyes.”