CHINATOWN — Betty Eng is fighting to stay in her rent-controlled Elizabeth Street apartment, where she's lived her whole life.
For the past year, Eng, 43, has been battling her new landlord, Moralda Properties, to try to get repairs to her apartment, including three holes in her bathroom and kitchen ceilings. She also wants the company to clean up a rat-infested garbage area on the building's ground floor.
At the same time, Eng has been fending off Moralda's attempts to evict her. The company has argued in court that she doesn't have the right to live in her apartment, saying she also has a home elsewhere, which she says is untrue.
"I've lived here my entire life and I've never lived anywhere else," Eng said Thursday after a press conference where she spoke alongside other tenants of Moralda's Chinatown buildings, who have similar grievances. "I want the right to remain in this neighborhood...and I want to live in a safe and clean apartment, where I don't have to fight rats to throw out my garbage."
Eng is just one of a group of tenants who are demanding that Moralda Properties — which owns and manages more than 70 buildings and 1,7000 apartments throughout the city and Westchester County, including 30 buildings in Chinatown and the Lower East Side — improve conditions and stop trying to kick them out of their longtime homes.
The state has joined the fight as well. The state's Tenant Protection Unit recently subpoenaed records from Marolda as part of an investigation into the landlord's alleged "pattern of unlawful and abusive behavior" toward rent-regulated tenants, according to a press release from New York State Homes and Community Renewal.
The affected tenants, who are predominantly of Asian descent, claim Marolda has denied them basic services, refused to renew their leases, started groundless eviction proceedings and pressured them to accept low buyout offers.
Marolda Properties declined to comment.
Bing Cai, 38, said he is in litigation with Marolda because the firm refused to let him take over the lease of his rent-regulated apartment after his father died in 2012.
“Before the lease end, I call them up and say, ‘It’s time for you to give me a renewal lease. I haven’t gotten it yet.’ And I got an answer from them: ‘Contact your own attorney,’” Cai recounted in the kitchen of his Baxter Street apartment recently.
Under state law, Cai should have been able to keep the apartment after his father died, Cai said.
The company also changed the lock to his apartment without notifying him, Cai added, and has twice offered him buyouts this year. Cai said he rejected them because the $10,000 and $15,000 offers were too low.
The company has also claimed that tenants, like Eng, violated their rent-controlled leases because they lived elsewhere, according to state's press release. Marolda used common surnames to tie tenants to other addresses in an attempt to evict them, officials said.
“They said that they didn’t see me come in and out of the building,” Wei Zhuang Wu, 52, who has lived in his Elizabeth Street apartment for about 10 years, said in Catonese through a translator.
The landlord accused Wu of living in at a few specific addresses, most of which were unfamiliar to him, he said.
“I didn’t know where these places were. One was actually a family member’s address, but I’ve always lived here,” Wu said.
The tenants organized against Marolda with the help of local advocacy groups that included the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence Organizing Asian Communities, MFY Legal Services, Asian Americans for Equality, University Settlement and the Cooper Square Committee.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement that the case against Marolda was "especially egregious" because many of the tenants where elderly and did not speak English fluently.
“No New Yorker should be forced to live in fear of harassment by their landlord," Cuomo said.