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Tenant Advocacy Group Lands on Public Advocate's Worst Landlord List

By James Fanelli | November 13, 2014 7:38am
 Zxavier Simpson has been in a legal fight with SHUHAB, a tenants advocacy group that owns 640 Riverside Drive. SHUHAB made the public advocate's worst landlord list this year for its operation of the property.
Zxavier Simpson Fights Landlord Over Shoddy Apartment
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HAMILTON HEIGHTS — Public Advocate Letitia James' list of the city's 100 worst landlords had a surprising new entry this year — a longtime tenants advocacy group.

The nonprofit Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which regularly holds rallies shaming bad landlords and has even drawn James to its protests, joined the real estate rogues' gallery through its joint ownership of a Hamilton Heights apartment complex. 

Under a partnership known as SHUHAB, UHAB and another nonprofit, Settlement Housing Fund, have owned the building at 640 Riverside Drive for nearly a decade. The 134-unit building currently has more than 300 open housing code violations issued by the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, records show.

James published the annual list last month and, at the time, 640 Riverside had 397 open violations, according to the public advocate's office.

HPD issues housing code violations that are categorized by class A, B or C. Class B and C violations are the most serious. About 81 percent of the violations at 640 Riverside are class B or C, according to the list.

Some of the violations were issued for lead paint, defective window guards, broken wood floors and illegal bars on windows blocking a fire escape.

Tenants also told DNAinfo New York that they routinely deal with stuck elevators and are frequently left shivering in the shower.

"The heat and hot water situation here is horrendous," said a tenant, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. "I can't rely on them. I need to be able to take a shower."

"They're hypocrites," the tenant added when asked about UHAB's work as an advocate for tenants rights.

Other tenants in 640 Riverside Drive said their apartments have suffered extensive leaks leading to mold.

"When this management took over, they didn't want to fix anything," said tenant Zxavier Simpson, 45, who has lived in the building for 13 years.

Simpson said he currently faces eviction after he made a stink about the perpetually leaking ceilings in his bathroom and kitchen and claimed SHUHAB's contractor didn't fix the problem.

Simpson suffers from a host of medical conditions including lymphoma, asthma and depression. He lives on a fixed income, but he said he has always had his rent paid on time through a government-assistance program.

He said a few years ago he began complaining to SHUHAB's property agent, Wavecrest Management, about leaks which caused his ceilings and walls to buckle and paint to peel. It also led to mold, which exacerbated his medical conditions.

After months of complaining and city inspections, Simpson got a housing court judge to order SHUHAB and Wavecrest to move him temporarily into another unit in the building and repair the leaks in three days.

To this day, Simpson is still in the temporary unit because he said the contractors only made "cosmetic fixes" and the leaks remained.

SHUHAB eventually began an eviction proceeding because of his refusal to return to his original apartment. In January 2014, after settlement talks stalled, he agreed to vacate the temporary unit and find an apartment in another building.

Simpson said he made the decision while he was recuperating from a major surgical procedure. He has since tried to undo his decision and stay in the building — mainly because he's had such a difficult time finding another apartment.

He said other landlords are wary to lease apartments to people relying on government-assistance programs. He also said the eviction proceeding led to a judgment on his credit, making him even less appealing as a prospective tenant to a landlord.

"I don't have any place to go," he said. "I'm between a rock and a hard place."

Under the settlement, Simpson had until March 31 to leave. He has gone to court since then to extend his stay while he searches for a new apartment.

Simpson called UHAB's role as a fighter for tenants "a big crock."

"They have never tried to work with me," he said. "Their lawyer has fought me tooth and nail in court." 

SHUHAB took over 640 Riverside Drive and its sister property, 644 Riverside, in 2005 after the buildings had been owned by tax delinquents Alex DiLorenzo III and Andonis Morfesis, who earned the nickname the Dracula Landlord for allowing many Harlem apartments to fall into disrepair.

SHUHAB purchased the property through HPD's third-party transfer program, where a building that is in tax arrears is handed over to a responsible party for a nominal cost. The program's goal is for the building to be rehabbed through commercial loans and, if the tenants have expressed an interest, to turn it into a cooperative.

The tenants at 640 and 644 chose SHUHAB to be its sponsor in the program with the intent that they would eventually purchase their apartments for $2,500 as part of a limited-equity cooperative.

UHAB has been involved in tenants rights since 1973 and says it prides itself on its history of assisting in the preservation of 1,700 buildings and creating home ownership opportunities for 30,000 households.

The group holds rallies on behalf of residents in buildings with poor conditions. Letitia James even attended one of UHAB's protests in the Bronx last year, less than a month before taking office as public advocate.

Andrew Reicher, UHAB's executive director, said when his group took over 640 and 644 Riverside Drive the buildings were some of "HPD's extremely distressed buildings."

SHUHAB obtained about $27 million in loans from HPD and the Bank of America to repair the buildings. But he said renovations and the move to cooperatives has taken longer and cost more than expected because of the condition of the buildings.

The renovations of individual units in 644 Riverside began in 2006 but the entire building wasn't completed until this year, according to Reicher. He said SHUHAB is now focusing on rehabbing 640 Riverside.

"We've been removing those violations [at 640] as we can in preparation for the rehab," he said.

He said that the roofs of both buildings have been repaired.

"If there's ongoing leaks, they aren't showing up on our list of tenant complaints, nor has management heard about them so they could address them," he said. "That may be the problem. They're communicating with you, not management."

Settlement Housing didn't respond to a request for comment.

HPD and the public advocate's office also did not respond to requests for comment.