Community activists braved scorching weather for a chance to turn up the heat on negligent landlords in Bushwick last Wednesday.
Members of the Academy of Urban Planning, Make the Road By Walking, and the New York Immigration Coalition held a rally last Wednesday outside of 198 Knickerbocker Avenue. There, two tenants of the building – which has amassed more than 100 housing violations – aired their grievances publicly. The groups also united in accusing the building’s owner, David Melendez, of purposely trying to force out his current tenants, in order to make way for wealthier renters from other parts of the city.
But according to Javier Valdes, who directed the event, Melendez is hardly an isolated case, but part of a growing number of owners seeking to clear out valuable living spaces. The Special Project Coordinator from the New York Immigration Coalition introduced local high school students who had researched Bushwick’s housing violations, and said their results supported his group’s conspiracy theory.
"Immigrant housing conditions in Bushwick have deteriorated historically," Valdes said. "For five years straight, housing violations have increased exponentially. For five years straight, we have had more violations than any other district in New York."
The students, who came from such local institutions as the (Make the Road by Walking partner high school) Bushwick School for Social Justice and the Academy of Urban Planning, had plotted out the violations using mapping software, which broke Bushwick down to its composite streets. The resultant maps are as detailed as cross-sections of a tree, with the violations – which are dispersed throughout – resembling an infestation of termites.
The industrious youths also mapped out the range of each class of violation, from the less-serious Class A to the immediately hazardous Class C. Student (and Make the Road Youth Power Project member) Adilka Pimentel blamed the prevalence of abuses on the lack of pressure by the city. "Tenants have to move out because they’re tired of these conditions," she said.
She also agreed with her fellow activists that the rising violation totals, especially the large number of Class C’s – which include inadequate fire exits, the presence of rodents, and lack of water, gas, or other utilities – are a precursor of what landlords are hoping for: gentrification. "After the current tenants have been phased out, there’ll be new coats of paint for the apartments, which landlords will be charging $1,200 a month," she said. "This is unfair and unaffordable for Bushwick residents."
No Fire Escape. No Lease. No Hope?
In the past, when Maria Quintanilla asked her landlord at 198 Knickerbocker Avenue to fix up her apartment, Melendez, one of New York City’s most notorious slumlords, responded by verbally abusing her.
However, that paled in comparison to what the building’s superintendent, and Melendez’ alleged mistress, did when Quintanilla asked for a renewed lease. "The super hit me," she said. "Then she said, ‘If you want a lease for another two years, I’ll hit you again.’"
The attack took place four weeks ago, and left Quintanilla with a nasty looking cut on her upper lip. But at the same time, it convinced her to take Melendez to court, potentially ending a nightmare that has persisted for more than a decade. "For 16 years, I have continued suffering abuse, but now I am breaking my silence," she said. "Enough."
Her story, which was translated by Javier Valdes for audience members, drew attention to the plight of undocumented immigrants living throughout Bushwick. According to Quintanilla, the majority of persons living in her building lack legal resident status. As a result, they are vulnerable to exploitative owners such as Melendez, or his superintendent, Carla Gevara.
Quintanilla recounted how Valdes and Gevara refused to fix broken windows, fumigate for bedbugs, or even install a shower. Afterward, Quintanilla offered a tour of the apartment, and proved that, indeed, the bathtub lacked a showerhead. "We must use a bucket to get water for showers," she said. "There are [also] constant leaks, and there is a hole in the [toilet]."
She claimed that Melendez constantly used her El Salvadorian heritage to put her down when she asked for repairs. "He said, ‘In your country, they don’t even use toilets, [so] why should I fix it?’" she said.
But the bathroom was one of numerous problems in the domicile, which Quintanilla, who works as a home health care attendant, shares with two adults and three children. All of the furniture had been discarded due to a bedbug infestation. Of course, when she asked Gevara to call an exterminator, the response was typically harsh and dehumanizing. "She said, ‘The animals will stay until you eat them with tortillas like a taco,’" Quintanilla said.
There was also a Class C violation adjacent to the bedroom – a door that had been sealed up since Quintanilla moved in. That, she said, is supposed to be the fire escape. Clearly, had there been a fire, she would not have been able to use it. "I asked the landlord, ‘When are you going to fix the door?’" Quintanilla said. "The landlord said, ‘Next week.’ Next week was 16 years ago."
Following the tour, the Star walked over to Melendez’ apartment on 255 Jefferson Street, looking to get his side of the story. A man answered the door, and claimed that Melendez was not at home. Outside his apartment, residents of another Melendez-owned building, 258 Jefferson Street, said that they were also looking for him. Their situation sounded very similar to Quintanilla’s.
Both tenants, a mother and her daughter, asked that their names remain anonymous. "[The landlord] is always insulting us, calling us slut, whore," the daughter said. "Last Friday, he barred us from our apartment. He said we were loitering people who make too much noise and break windows."
She said that the court eventually took their side, and deemed what Melendez did to be illegal. Unfortunately, he had already changed the locks, so they were waiting for him, expecting to get the new keys. The daughter staunchly defended her family, which immigrated to the United States 14 years ago from Mexico, as good tenants. "We always pay our rent," she said. "We’ve asked him for a lease, but we won’t get it. He won’t give it to us."