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‘Housing is a human right’: Jackson Heights tenants rally against landlord for alleged poor living conditions and management negligence

A group of tenants residing in a Jackson Heights building rallied outside of the Queens Civil Court in Jamaica on Monday, Feb. 27, after taking on their landlord in a group repairs case after years of living in alleged unacceptable conditions. (Photo by Katy Lasell)

Feb. 27, 2023, By Carlotta Mohamed 

A group of tenants residing in a Jackson Heights building rallied outside of the Queens Civil Court in Jamaica on Monday, Feb. 27, after taking on their landlord in a group repairs case after years of living in alleged unacceptable conditions. They also highlighted the importance of passing legislation that will guarantee representation for tenants in courts across New York State.

The tenants, who are predominantly low-income people and Latino immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, are receiving support from the The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition (RTCNYC) and Catholic Migration Services’ legal and organizing teams in their case.

In Monday’s hearing, the tenants of the building, located at 94-16 34th Rd., and the landlord agreed on a settlement that will allow the city Housing Preservation Department (HPD) to inspect the building. The tenants agreed to grant access to the landlord to make the repairs. The next court date will be held on Monday, April 3, when any outstanding violations will be reviewed.

Following the court hearing, Tenant Association Leader Wanda Martinez said she was under duress to leave her apartment because of safety issues. She even spoke about one tenant who self-evicted due to the landlord’s failure to maintain secure premises.

Prior to being connected with Catholic Migration Services, Martinez said she felt afraid to stand up to her landlord. She wasn’t fully aware of her rights as a tenant.

“Personally, Sarah Hainbach, staff attorney at Catholic Migration Services, made all the difference,” Martinez said. “She informed us of our rights and removed fear from the equation, so we felt comfortable standing up for our wellbeing.”

In their case against the landlord, the tenants say the building continues to be severely undermaintained, even though the tenants have been paying rent. Over the years, there have been numerous power outages in individual units. Tearing up the walls to work on the wiring left dust flying around apartments for over a year, leading multiple tenants to develop asthma and other health complications. There have also been problems with the elevator, rodents, and heat.

On Feb. 23, one tenant was without heat for over 11 hours, according to their Heat Seek device. For some of the tenants in the building, it has been nearly impossible to reach their super for maintenance or cleaning needs, and the tenants have resorted to maintaining the building themselves.

There have also been security issues that the landlord has failed to address. There have been numerous reports of people who don’t live in the building (and weren’t invited as guests) getting inside the building, and the mailboxes, which were once broken into, have still not been repaired.

“They’re paying the rent. They’re upholding their end of the bargain, and all they want is safe living conditions,” said Bryan Fotino, an organizer with Catholic Migration Services.

The tenants of 94-16 34th Rd. are not alone in facing unacceptable living conditions.

In 2021, New Yorkers in approximately 8% of privately owned rental units in New York City suffered under serious housing code violations–HPD’s “class C” violations that are “immediately hazardous” and violate a tenant’s legal right to safe and livable conditions.

Landlords, code enforcement, city agencies and politicians allow these conditions to persist along racial lines: more than twice as many Black and Latinx New Yorkers live in units with three or more maintenance deficiencies than Asian or white New Yorkers, according to the Equity NYC Report.

The Jackson Heights tenants uplifted their case to highlight the importance of passing legislation, Statewide Right to Counsel (A1493-Joyner/S2721-May), that will address the imbalance of power between landlords and tenants in New York State’s housing courts by establishing the Right to Counsel for all New Yorkers in all types of cases that could result in eviction–including affirmative repairs cases.

The legislation was introduced by Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner (D-Bronx) and Senator Rachel May (D-Syracuse).

Under the proposed Statewide Right To Counsel bill, tenants across New York State would have the right to an attorney if their landlord violates their right to a liveable home. Many tenants, often uncounted in official eviction statistics, self-evict each year because of threats to their health and safety they experience at home. Without an attorney, a tenant’s legal right to seek justice in these cases is unattainable.

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