Jan. 11, 2019 By Laura Hanrahan
Residents of a Greenpoint building are sounding the alarm on the hellish living conditions and harassment they’ve allegedly been subject to by their landlord in a years-long battle over their rent-stabilized apartments.
The five remaining tenants of 97 and 99 Clay St.—a 24-unit building between McGuinness Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue—say their landlord, Perfect Management, has made life all but unbearable for them in a bid to drive them out of their units since purchasing the property five years ago.
The ongoing problems between the tenants and Perfect Management have forced many longtime residents out over the years. Tensions, however, have flared right up in recent times, stemming from renovation work that started on the site about a year ago.
Since then, the tenants say they’ve had to live in squalid conditions, with broken pipes, flooding, leaky roofs, constant dirt and piles of garbage now just part of life at the Clay Street building.
The residents have taken to Instagram in the past month to document their hellish conditions, creating an account that shows images of exposed nails in the hallways, heat and water being shut off, and even wildlife inhabiting vacant apartments.
The problems, the tenants say, began in December 2014, soon after Perfect Management bought the site.
Gretchen Mongrain, 36, who has lived at 97 Clay St. for the past decade, said she first grew suspicious of the landlord’s intentions on Christmas Eve 2014, when the front door locks were changed without notice.
The move prevented mail carriers from accessing the mailboxes inside, leading to missed deliveries and even missed paychecks.
“And then they stopped cashing people’s rent checks,” Mongrain said, who believes it was a deliberate act to start driving rent-stabilized tenants out.
“I think that’s a common tactic,“ Mongrain said. Many landlords, she added, will not cash the check so they can come back months later and demand back rent, hoping that the tenant doesn’t have the funds.
But a spokesperson for Perfect Management, owned by Joel and Lipa Lefkowitz, refuted this claim and offered their own explanation–that the tenants had erroneously mailed the rent checks to the previous landlord.
Still, Mongrain, along with fellow residents George Manatos and Julio Mora, said the owners clearly want them out. The tenants said they were all offered $4,000 by the owners to leave—with a warning seemingly attached to the offer.
“It was really turned around to be like, ‘If you don’t take this money you’re going to have to live through these renovations and it’s going to be a nightmare,’” Mongrain said.
According to a Department of Buildings spokesperson, landlords offering tenants money to vacate their apartments is considered a form of tenant harassment.
The Perfect Management spokesperson, however, said the owners never offered any money and, in fact, wanted the tenants to stay in their apartments.
But the rent-stabilized tenants are far from convinced by the company’s words, reflecting back to when renovation work began on the premises in late 2017.
Workers, the residents say, walked into the building wielding crowbars and started smashing apart the empty units.
“They were walking around making sure we knew it was crowbars,” Manatos said.
The residents captured some of the demolition on video, showing doors being left open into the hallway, allowing dust and debris to gather in the common areas and infiltrate the airways.
“Our eyes were burning,” Mongrain said. “If you came into my apartment, within 20 minutes you were thirsty.”
The residents said their household items would fall out of cabinets and off shelves from the banging on adjoining walls. Manatos described the scene as like something out of a “bad movie.” At one point, he said, the construction workers broke through his bathroom wall.
Every few weeks, the building’s heat and hot water is turned off without any warning as a means to harass them, the residents further claim.
They recalled their heating being shut off around Thanksgiving, and while the landlord acknowledged that the heating unit had to be fixed, they claimed that a plumber could not be found because of the holiday.
“We feel that this is kind of the retaliation,” Mongrain said.
For two months as renovation work went on, the tenants said that the front door to the building did not lock or close. Then, on one particular Friday afternoon, they found that the door was removed entirely.
The residents, however, were unable to get a hold of anyone from Perfect Management until the following Monday.
The lack of a functioning front door, or any door at all, was especially concerning to residents, as the building is located near a shelter that has made headlines in the past for alleged loitering, fighting and drug deals.
“When I would bring up that it’s [about] our security, they would just roll their eyes and act like we’re overreacting,” Manatos said about the landlords.
Mongrain, Manatos, and Mora estimate that they have made roughly three to four calls every week to 311 over the past year of demolition and construction to report the unsafe living conditions.
As a result, the Department of Buildings (DOB) has conducted several inspections and issued violations and stop work orders on the site between May and October 2018.
A $2,500 violation, for instance, was issued in May after the landlords falsely stating on a permit application that no one lived in the building.
DOB also found that during construction, the building was not kept up to fire code; had an excessive amount of debris in the hallways; had no public tenant protection plan posted; the staircases had no handrails; and there was unlicensed electrical work being done.
In October 2018, the owners were issued another violation for continuing to work while under a stop work order issued six days prior.
The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has also visited the buildings numerous times to ensure the heat and hot water are turned on and functioning. After another visit on Jan. 9, HPD says both are in working order.
The residents claim that the landlord was also trying to buy their silence in the midst of the issued violations and stop work orders. They say Perfect Management offered them a weekly housekeeper and would reimburse them for the air purifiers they bought, in exchange for the them not making any more complaints to 311.
But the landlords contend that all the construction work was for the tenants benefit, and that it had done nothing nefarious.
“The work being performed at 97 Clay Street is meant to upgrade the building to improve the quality of life to benefit the tenants,” according to a spokesperson. “We are trying to be responsive to the tenants’ concerns and are working to resolve all of the issues related to the construction as quickly as possible. We look forward to continuing to work with city agencies to resolve all issues to everyone’s satisfaction.”
The tenants, however, are looking to hire an attorney for their case, and have also reached out to St. Nick’s Alliance, the non-profit group, for help. Community Board 1 and Council Member Stephen Levin have also been notified of the ongoing issues.
The Clay Street residents hope that sharing their experiences publicly will not only make future renters aware of Perfect Management and the Lefkowitz brothers’ tactics, but will also encourage other tenants across the city who feel they are being pushed out and harassed to speak out.
“With so many being displaced and so many places rising in rent and with Amazon coming, it’s just going to happen more and more,” Manatos said.“In these kinds of situations it’s important for us to hold our ground…the more we can push back on these people, the less this is going to happen in the city.”