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Owner of Building Where 2 Girls Were Killed Has History of Neglect: Tenants

By  Jeff Mays and Eddie Small | December 10, 2016 1:50pm | Updated on December 12, 2016 7:31am

 1-year-old Scylee Vayoh Ambrose and 2-year-old Ibanez Ambrose were killed after a radiator burned her and her sister inside 720 Hunts Point Ave. Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016
1-year-old Scylee Vayoh Ambrose and 2-year-old Ibanez Ambrose were killed after a radiator burned her and her sister inside 720 Hunts Point Ave. Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016
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Facebook/Danielle McGuire Ambrose

HUNTS POINT — The list of problems in Esther Estime's Ditmas Park apartment take up almost an entire page in the lawsuit she and other tenants of the apartment building at 2010 Newkirk Ave. filed against landlord Moshe Piller.

There are holes in the floor and the window frames aren't properly fitted, allowing in cold drafts of air.

A mouse hole by the radiator keeps her apartment infested with vermin.

In her bedroom, the fire escape window glass is broken and the walls are cracked.

The ceiling of the decrepit apartment once collapsed on her 10-year-old son, she said.

"We keep going to court. And he still just collects his money," Estime said. "There should be a penalty, some consequences. But nothing ever happens."

When Estime heard that two children were killed in a building owned by Piller in The Bronx after a steam valve came off a radiator, filling the girls' room with scalding hot steam and burning 70 percent of their bodies, Estime broke down.

►READ MORE: City Pays Top Dollar to Slumlords to House Homeless in Decrepit Apts.

"I’m a mother and it breaks my heart. But it also makes me angry because I know Piller," she said. "Piller doesn’t care what happens to his tenants, and neither does the city."

Piller owned the building at 720 Hunts Point Ave., where 1-year-old Scylee Vayoh Ambrose and 2-year-old Ibanez Ambrose suffered second- and third-degree burns over most of their bodies after their parents put them down for a nap Wednesday.

The apartment was one of five rented in the building to house homeless families under the city's cluster shelter housing program where apartments are leased, in often decrepit buildings, to house homeless families for above market rate prices.

There were 11,000 people in cluster shelters in 260 buildings across the city in January 2016, costing taxpayers $125 million per year in rent and social services when Department of Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks pledged to end the program.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has urged caution, saying that it was too early to blame the tragedy on the fact that the apartment where the girls were killed is a cluster site or that it was owned by Piller.

►READ MORE: City Launches 'Rigorous Investigation' Into Girls' Deaths in Bronx Building

But Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark launched an investigation into Piller after the girls' death.

Calls to Piller's attorneys and his management company were not returned.

Critics such as Public Advocate Letitia James and Comptroller Scott Stringer, as well as advocacy groups Coalition for the Homeless and Picture the Homeless, have called on the city to end the cluster housing program because it places vulnerable homeless families in dangerous conditions.

Stringer found that the cluster sites had 13,000 open violations, including more than 1,000 "high priority" violations that are "especially dangerous."

Shelly Nortz, Deputy Executive Director for Policy for the Coalition for the Homeless, called the girls' death "a terrible reminder that the city must cease sheltering homeless families in expensive, privately-owned 'cluster site' buildings, which are too often rife with housing code violations and other dangerous conditions."

► READ MORE:  City Should Stop Contracting With Slumlords, Councilman Says After Tragedy

Piller's building at 720 Hunts Point Ave., where the five cluster apartments were overseen by the Bushwick Economic Development Corp., was no different. Records show that it had has 36 open Department of Buildings violations and 26 open violations from Housing Preservation and Development.

The Bushwick Economic Development Corp. has also been previously investigated for maintaining a poor shelter and had their finances scrutinized by the Department of Investigation.

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development filed suit against Piller on Feb. 6, 2014, over his failure to make repairs at 720 Hunts Point Ave., despite claiming he had done so.

Issues at the building included a broken wooden floor by the radiator in one apartment and a defective window guard in another, conditions which were initially reported about two years before the lawsuit, court papers show.

"People have been struggling for years to get proper repairs done in his buildings and even when repairs are made the same problems are occurring again and again," said Beth Baltimore, senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services who has sued Piller numerous times. "The lawsuits don't seem to put any pressure on him."

The conditions at 720 Hunts Point Ave. are in line with the conditions at many of Piller's other buildings, according to lawsuits and tenant advocates. When Piller made the worst landlord's list in 2015, he had 4,010 units in eight buildings with 1,263 HPD violations and 168 DOB complaints.

At 2010 Newkirk Ave., Piller refused to hire a superintendent, leaving tenants responsible for cleaning the building, according to the lawsuit. The building door is left wide open and the intercoms don't work. The stairwell handrails were loose or missing. There is often no heat or hot water, even in the winter months.

In spite of these conditions, Piller continued to overcharge tenants despite repeated warnings from city and state agencies not to do so, according to another lawsuit. Because conditions at 2010 Newkirk Ave. were so bad, tenants twice won rent reductions from the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, the first in 1992.

Piller was not allowed to raise the rent until he fixed conditions in the building's common areas and some apartments. The landlord applied multiple times to have the restrictions lifted and was denied due to the ongoing poor conditions such as clogged pipes, collapsing ceilings and sinking floors.

Nevertheless, tenants say that Piller raised their rents and also raised the rent on new tenants even though he was not allowed to.

For one tenant, a 71-year-old Haitian woman who spoke little English, Piller was supposed to charge no more than $675 for her apartment. But when she moved there in 2004, Piller charged her $975 and kept increasing the rent until it was $1,268. The woman was unaware of the rent limitation.

Piller then proceeded to take the tenant to court and charged her with not paying rent even though she had overpaid more than $33,000 during her time there. Other tenants were also overcharged tens of thousands of dollars in rent.

At 1775 Davidson Ave. in The Bronx, tenants sued Piller saying they had no gas in their apartments for months. In 2015, numerous tenants lacked gas from May to December.

►READ MORE: Operator of Shelter Where Radiator Killed 2 Girls Acted Like The Mob: Suit

Other times there was no heat and hot water, yet on other occasions the water was scalding hot. Multiple other apartments had mold and exposed electrical wiring, according to a lawsuit by tenants there.

Jean Alleyne, another resident of Piller's building at 201 Newkirk Ave., said she sees how what happened in The Bronx could have easily happened in her building.

"We’ve had ceilings collapse on people and an electrical fire that destroyed apartments. When we demand repairs, management tells us 'What do you think, you live on Fifth Ave?'" said Alleyne who called the steam deaths of the two girls a "tragedy" that "could have been stopped" with stronger enforcement by the city.

"Instead, they pay these slumlords," said Alleyne.