RIVERDALE — When a small group of Bronx tenants organized a protest last Friday against their landlord, Chestnut Holdings, they found their complaints nearly drowned out by a larger, louder counter-rally that Chestnut Holdings held just a few yards away.
The disgruntled tenants laid out a list of grievances including lack of heat and poorly maintained apartments, but they could barely be heard over the group from Chestnut Holdings, who booed the tenants and waved signs denouncing the nonprofits that helped the tenants to organize.
The Chestnut Holdings contingent included managers and contractors for the company, along with some tenants who said they supported their landlord, a rapidly expanding real estate company that owns and manages more than 60 buildings in The Bronx.
Amid the jeers from the counter-protest, the unhappy tenants, who had gathered outside a bank on Riverdale Avenue that lends money to their landlord, spoke out about what they say are deteriorating conditions in their homes.
Vicky Barton said that since Chestnut Holdings bought the Fordham building she's lived in for three decades, back in 2008, maintenance at 2050 Valentine Ave. have taken a nosedive.
“It has deteriorated to an all-time low,” said Barton, who explained that rodents, cracked ceilings, leaky pipes, rusted cabinets and irregular heat are all common now in her apartment.
Abrahim Ndure said that the heat in his Chestnut-owned building is often shut off overnight, turning his apartment at 1250 Grand Concourse into an icebox.
“I have to sleep in a long gown with thick blankets,” said Ndure, who added that his roommates had bought space heaters and still they sometimes keep the stove on at night for extra warmth. “That is how we survive during the winter.”
Ndure said he and other tenants in the building planned to withhold rent until the heating problem is solved.
Other tenants at the rally said they had been improperly billed for air conditioners and washing machines in their buildings. Still others said it can be difficult to reach Chestnut Holdings staff, especially any staffers who speak Spanish.
A coalition of nonprofits launched a major tenant organizing campaign last fall targeting the management company. Since then, the protest effort has attracted support from tenants in nearly 1,000 units across 18 buildings, according to Sheila Garcia, an organizer at Community Action for Safe Apartments. The coalition also includes the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and New York Communities for Change.
This month the group delivered a petition signed by more than 300 tenants to the office of Jonathan Wiener, Chestnut Holdings’ head officer. The petition demanded consistent heat and hot water, quality repair work, regular extermination services, adequate security and an end to fees and rent hikes.
The Public Advocate’s office recently ranked Wiener 20th out of 106 of The Bronx’s “worst landlords” based on building violations at 2201 Jerome Ave., another Chestnut Holdings property. That building had 206 infractions as of Jan. 18, according to the Public Advocate’s online ranking.
Last month, about 30 tenants at 1520 Sheridan Ave. filed a lawsuit against the company, seeking rent abatements for a more than six-month period when they went without cooking gas, following a major fire in August 2011.
At the pro-landlord rally Friday, some participants accused the tenant organizing coalition of trumping up complaints against the landlord and charging tenants a membership fee. (The coalition insists it does not charge membership dues and will not even accept donations from members.)
Chestnut Holdings staff passed out copies of a petition signed by 28 tenants that praised the landlord and described the coalition’s organizing efforts as a “hate campaign” led by “intimidators and rabble rousers.”
Sylvia P., a tenant at 1775 Clay Ave. who declined to provide her full last name, said she voluntarily attended the Chestnut rally to set the record straight about her landlord and did not get any reward for attending.
“They’ve done a lot for us,” she said, such as window replacements, roof repairs and painting. She added that she had been charged about $17 per month for a building washing machine, but she refused to pay the fee.
Luis Vasquez, a tenant at 1520 Sheridan Ave., said Chestnut Holdings had made his building safer.
“We have security in the building now, cameras, and they got all the drug dealers out,” Vasquez said.
A packet distributed at the rally by the landlord’s staff said the company works closely with tenant groups, funds some community programs and enjoys one of the lowest vacancy rates among large management companies.
It also claimed that many of its Bronx buildings do not have any heating violations on record.
“We have removed thousands of violations to the point where they are close to zero,” Cesar Morales, a Chestnut Holdings field manager, said at the rally.