Tenants Struggle, Living in the City’s ‘Worst Building’

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The tenants living in the city’s “worst building,” which has 705 open housing department violations, pay close to $800 a month to live without heat, intermittent hot water, leaking ceilings, rats and roaches.

The peeling living room floor used to be covered in rugs, the TV was between the two windows on the other side of the room and pictures of the family used to hang on the walls. But, after being rained on multiple times in her living room, Shirvern Bacchus, 27, had to throw out her moldy rugs, pull her couches away from the walls, move her TV and pack away her family photos.

Bacchus knew shortly after moving in to her apartment at 245 Sullivan Pl. six years ago that the building was not up to livable standards. There was no super to fix things when they broke, hot water was scarce, the heat rarely turned on and when it did, it was hardly noticeable.

“I’m unhappy from sunup to sundown,” she said. “I don’t feel like it is a home.”

Shirvern Bacchus, 27, has lived in the city's 'worst building' for six years. CREDIT: Coral Garnick

Shirvern Bacchus, 27, has lived in the city’s ‘worst building’ for six years. (Coral Garnick / The Brooklyn Ink)

Bacchus’ building, which has 40 units, has been at the top of the city public advocate’s worst landlords list for more than a year with a growing total of 705 open violations from the department of Housing Preservation and Development.  The second worst building on the list has 485 violations and the 50th only 184. Paying nearly $800 dollars a month in rent Bacchus, her husband and her two children live in the cold and in fear of what might happen next.

With crumbling ceilings and mice and cockroach’s scurrying around the building, the Environmental Control Board has also issued more than $134,000 in fees for violations dating back as far as 2008.  The building owner failed to appear at any of the board hearings scheduled for those violations.

When called for comment, a woman answered and said the landlord James Crossman, 94, is unwell and unavailable to comment on the condition of the building.

Once the ceiling in the apartment bellow Bacchus’ started crumbling, her ceiling, floor, and wall were finally fixed by the city. But the yellow stain above her living room windows is growing larger by the week, meaning the leak is still there.

“They patch it to make everything look good,” she said. “The city is wasting their money coming in and patch-working – if only they would just fix the problems.”

According to the housing agency, the building has been part of the Alternative Enforcement Program since 2011. The program works with the city’s most distressed buildings to bring the properties up to code so that the residents are not forced to live in substandard and hazardous conditions. To date, the housing agency has spent approximately $129,507 on emergency repairs along with fees associated with a property being in the program.

Bacchus doesn’t think the city’s work is all bad when they step in where management fails.  After she had her son, five years ago, the city checked the paint in her apartment, and found that some in the kitchen was lead-based.  The workers cut out the parts of the wall that had the lead, replaced them and then painted, leaving one wall brilliant white and the rest of the room dull and worn.  In an effort to make her apartment feel more homey, Bacchus bought some paint and painted the rest of the kitchen walls to match.

A couple of years ago, when the kitchen and bathroom floors were about to cave in, she said workers came and fixed them. All the floors in her apartment are uneven, with torn and worn linoleum and laminate. With all the problems the building and her apartment has, she worries that the workers did not do a good enough job fixing her kitchen and bathroom floors.

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Albert Whittaker’s ground-floor apartment has a hole in the bedroom ceiling and mold growing on the oposite wall from leaky pipes. (Coral Garnick / The Brooklyn Ink)

“I tell my kids – ‘don’t jump because we might end up downstairs,’” she said. “And, I know I have one of the more decent apartments in the building because of my kids – some of the other’s are so much worse.”

Before her daughter was born, two years ago, Bacchus tried to move out.  But, the new apartment fell through, so she was still at Sullivan Place in January when she had her baby.

“I was afraid to go home,” she said.

In the middle of winter, with intermittent heat and a newborn, she was worried about her baby’s health. She said she usually stayed with her two children in her bedroom rapped in blankets with one electric heater going – “It was the only way to keep them warm enough and not have a steep electric bill,” she said.

Now, after six years of grappling with unhelpful management and patchwork fixes, the building has new management: Called Management. The new company took over at the beginning of January, but nobody in the building understands the difference.  They simply received notices slipped under their doors and then received another telling them to send their rent checks to the same address in Queens they used before.  But, the tenants have yet to see any changes to how the building is run or maintained.

“Over the years, people have come to ‘help’ – they show up and then disappear with out doing anything,” Bacchus said. “The new management…who knows if they will stay?”

The building currently has at least 20 empty apartments that were not fit for tenants to live in any more, some of which are padlocked closed or have 2×4’s screwed into the doorjamb to keep people out of them. A few people have been to the building, looking in empty apartments and slipping notices under doors, but tenants are unaware of who they really are or what they are doing.

When asked for comments, a spokesman for Called Management said the company is working on stabilizing the building by working on plumbing and electrical.

Lavelle Bert, who has lived a few floors below Bacchus for four years, has been trying to organize the tenants who are still living in the building. He said it is important to figure out what is actually happening with the building so they can find answers and see action. Bert and Bacchus agree that everyone needs to work together, but say many older residents do not want to speak out for fear of retaliation from the landlord.

However, Bert did get 12 of the 18 tenants to sign a petition that he passed around with the help of New York Communities for Change – an organization that works to ensure New York families have access to quality schools, affordable housing and good jobs.

The NYCC sent the petition to City Councilwoman Letitia James in an effort to have their voices heard and concerns about their living situation addressed.

In an email, James said that she has been in contact with housing agency and it is her understanding that the organization has summoned the landlord to correct violations. If landlord fails to correct, the agency will do repairs, she wrote.

“Now it is a waiting game,” Bert said.

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Mold growing in the kitchen of Lavelle Bert’s third-floor apartment. (Coral Garnick / The Brooklyn Ink)

Bert’s apartment is riddled with black mold in the kitchen. Another tenant, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation form the landlord, trips multiple times a day on her the uneven and peeling floors, keeps a pot under her kitchen sink to catch the drips, and stuffs newspaper between the baseboards and the walls in her entryway to keep the mice and cockroaches out.  Her next-door neighbor has the same floor problems, as well as unsealed windows, and yellow rings forming on the walls and ceilings, indicating leaks somewhere in the pipes above. Albert Whittaker, who lives on the first floor has a hole in his ceiling and mold growing down his walls, broken windows patched up with plywood and exposed electrical wiring.

The tenants don’t know what exactly is being done with the building, but the rumor circulating now is that the housing agency is releasing funds for all repairs to be done, but they don’t even want to guess when those repairs might start happening.

Bacchus said she has had enough. Living with her belongings in boxes and being told something different at every turn, she has been saving her and her husband’s extra money to prepare for moving from Sullivan Place to somewhere that will take care of their tenants even if it means paying $1000 a month.

“I just don’t’ know what else to do, so I have been saving to leave,” she said. “My perspective is that they just need to knock this whole building down.”

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