INWOOD — At first glance, Oscar Gell's rent-stabilized Riverside Drive apartment appears to be a gem with a wide-open living room and kitchen layout, three bedrooms and views of the Hudson River to the west.
Take a few steps into Gell's home, however, and a different picture comes to light: the floors of his apartment are sinking downward, leaving a noticeable dip and cracked wood flooring in the spacious living room.
The conditions of the home — which has cracked floors, a mouse infestation and peeling paint — are so bad, Gell doesn't allow his 1-year-old son, John Paul, to crawl on the floor.
"I took my baby to my mom's house just to put him on the floor so that he can crawl," said Gell, a 41-year-old schoolteacher.
The infestation and deteriorating conditions in Gell's apartment at the building are just one example, residents say, of poor maintenance and intimidation tactics being used by the building's landlords, Michael and Florence Edelstein of Edel Family Management.
The Department of Housing and Preservation lists 119 violations at 1781 Riverside Drive, ranging from mice and mold to "broken or defective wood flooring buckling at center of room" and "paint that tested positive for lead content and that is peeling."
The Edelsteins are slow to repair severe issues but quick to sue the tenants, residents say, making a hostile living situation by burying low-income renters under huge legal fees if they withhold rent while simultaneously neglecting the property leading to substanding conditions, all to increase the price of the apartments after they're gone.
DNAinfo.com New York spoke to tenants in seven apartments in the six-floor apartment apartment building. Several tenants wished not to be named in the story out of fear of retaliation, but their stories were all the same: crumbling facilities, shoddy maintenance work, and if they tried to withhold rent, dozens of lawsuits and acts of aggression from the management company.
The tenants claim illegal apartment modifications have removed walls, leaving tenants' floors and ceilings cracked and sinking. Residents' baby strollers have been chewed by rats thanks to rampant infestations, sewage has backed into toilets and sinks, and tenants have lived without heat on random nights during the dead of winter.
Edel Family Management, which has offices in Washington Heights and in Coney Island, did not respond to repeated phone calls or faxes requesting an interview.
Pedro Abreu, who has lived on the sixth floor of the building for 29 years, said the only recourse tenants had was to withhold rent from the landlord.
"And then you hear from him and he beats you so hard in court," said Abreu, who claims Edelstein has taken him to court 24 times for withholding rent payments.
The management company also disrupted the residents' first attempt at a tenants association in February, tenants said. Residents claim that management filmed the tenants and then distributed a letter throughout the building downplaying organizers' efforts.
"We are glad to inform you that there was a low turnout at the meeting and that there was a total of eight tenants present, of which five of them the landlord has not had any problems in the past," the letter read.
"We believe that most of you are happy with the maintenance that the landlord is providing and with the performance of the Superintendent on a daily basis," the letter stated.
Gell is among the tenants who has not been happy with management. He moved into his apartment with his mother in 1991, but once his mom moved out in 2003, Gell says he had to fight against eviction, even though the Rent Guidelines Board states that immediate family members are allowed to continue living in rent-stabilized apartments, a rule known as succession rights.
He has spent more than $25,000 in legal fees to get the lease to the apartment in his name, filing multiple lawsuits that dragged on because the case was adjourned several times — a tactic residents say Edel frequently uses in order to drain them of money.
"I'm out $1,500 in one day," Gell said. "They do it to waste your time and money."