Major Rent Strike Against Millionaire Slumlord Catches Fire in Brooklyn
Tenant Sara Lopez marches on Thursday
Photo Credit: Diego Ibanez
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The electrical box in the basement of multifamily brownstone on 46th Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, looks like a middle-school science fair project gone horribly wrong. The door to the box is ajar and a cheap plastic fan, positioned only inches from the fuses, desperately tries to keep the wiring from catching fire when it sparks and overheats, plunging the building’s 51 apartments into darkness and threatening to set the entire structure ablaze.
“Last night was so bad, the lights were going on and off every ten minutes,” said 20-year-old Riccey Trelles, a recent college graduate who lives with her family on the first floor. “It was pitch-black; I couldn’t see the person across from me.”
Despite the darkness, Trelles was up until almost two a.m. making posters and banners for the following day’s protest to expose her building’s slumlord, Orazio Petito, and implore city officials to intervene in a case of housing violations that tenants are now describing as human rights abuses.
As foreclosures continue to displace millions and put historic pressure on the nation’s rental market, slumlords now have more opportunity than ever to prey on the most vulnerable of tenants. The problem is especially bad in an owner’s market like New York City, where average rent price increased more in the second quarter of 2012 than in any other city in the country, sending landlords into a frenzy to evict old tenants--especially those with stabilized rent--and jack up the prices for newcomers. But despite a vicious landlord and a city that prefers aiding the housing market's rise than enforcing tenants' rights, Trelles and her neighbors are fighting back: speaking out, occupying an assemblymen’s office and launching a rent strike that tenants hope will spread across Brooklyn.
“We are people,” said Sara Lopez, a retired public employee who was the first to begin withholding rent payments almost two years ago. “We deserve to live with dignity. We pay for our apartments, so we deserve our rights as tenants.” After months of door knocking by Lopez and Trelles’ mother, Sue, the rent strike now includes 80 families across three of Petito’s buildings—and Lopez hopes to spread the movement to his other properties.
Petito, for his part, is a classic exploitative building owner. Ranking 51 on city’s watch list of worst slumlords, he owns approximately twenty buildings across the boroughs and dozens of small real estate corporations that flit in and out of existence like fireflies and list PO Boxes for addresses. He’s frequently fined and issued court dates, which he rarely shows up to, and he seems quick to take out million-dollar mortgages that he never repays. The only time his tenants see him is when rent is due, or—more recently—when he knocks on the doors of striking families and tries to intimidate them into paying.
“So many threats, so much abuse,” said an elderly resident who asked not to be named. “He said he was going to evict me; he told me that he was going to call immigration on me.” As a newer resident, she was paying $1,600 a month for an apartment that rarely has heat, hot water or electricity before she joined the strike despite the barrage of threats. Many of the building’s tenants lack residency papers, and Petito is more than willing to wave forged eviction notices in front of tenants who speak little English.
Like the historic rent strikes in Lower East Side before WWI or in Harlem during the 1960s, female tenants of color are leading the grassroots organizing at Petito’s buildings. Many from Occupy Sunset Park have joined in to support, tying this slumlord’s abuse to the broader context of housing injustice, one that includes the current foreclosure crisis but is, in truth, a constant reality in a country where private property is a right but a family’s need for shelter is considered a privilege.