Rent-Strikers Hope to Form Co-Op to Solve Housing Woes

By Alan Neuhauser on September 13, 2012 8:26am | Updated on September 13, 2012 10:28am

SUNSET PARK — Rent-striking residents are seeking to take matters into their own hands by converting their 46th Street buildings into co-ops.

For more than two years, the tenants have refused to pay rent at 545, 553 and 557 46th St., citing unsafe living conditions such as faulty electrical wiring, repeated rodent infestations, a 10-foot-high garbage pile in the basement and a super who allegedly punched and elbowed a tenant in the head during a July building inspection.

"Lights going out every summer. No heat in the winter. Bed bugs, mice," said Riccey Trelles, 20, who has lived in the building her whole life. "This building looks like it's been destroyed."

The buildings' landlord, Orazio Petito, is on Public Advocate Bill de Blasio's list of the city's worst landlords with 253 infractions, and he is also in foreclosure on the three buildings. The super, Isrrael Espinoza, was escorted from the premises by cops Aug. 21 after a judge slapped him with an order of protection during an arraignment for the alleged attack.

And last month, the owner of the building's mortgage, Seryl LLC, asked a judge to wrest the properties from Petito and place them in receivership.

"They get passed from slumlord to slumlord, and none of the issues have been addressed," said Dennis Flores, an organizer of Occupy Sunset Park, which closely allied itself with the strikers after it learned of the movement this spring.

The strikers and its Occupy supporters are now seeking to solve matters themselves. In late August, the two groups reached out to the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a New York-based nonprofit that has helped low-income residents in the Lower East Side, Mott Haven and other city neighborhoods take ownership of their buildings by forming tenants' associations or affordable housing corporations.

Trinity Lutheran Church, located just one block from the rent strikers, has publicly vouched for the strikers and provides a meeting space at a new community center it named La Casita Comunal de Sunset Park.

"They've really galvanized a lot of community support," said Laura Gottesdiener, 25, an Occupy Sunset Park member. "Members of the church, as individuals, have been incredibly helpful."

Pastor Sam Cruz and Associate Pastor Vanessa Cardinale have attended almost all of the residents' rallies and press events, including the inspection where Cardinale said she saw Espinoza attack resident Francisca Ixtilico.

Ixitilico, 49, was hospitalized after the incident.

"It's a natural outgrowth of our ministry and theology," Cardinale said. "It's about walking with people as they demand better conditions, whether it's with bankers or with their landlords."

The strikers' fight for better living conditions, she asserted, is a "human rights issue."

The rent strikers and their Occupy supporters expect to be back in housing court Sept. 28, when Petito and Seryl are next scheduled to appear before a judge for the foreclosure proceedings.

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