ASTORIA — A religious organization that's been trying to boot tenants from its dormitory-style building for nearly a year is now making the property "unlivable" — cutting WiFi and other services like trash removal — in an effort to get them out, according to residents and their attorney.
The Legal Aid Society filed for an injunction Monday morning in Queens Supreme Court on behalf of 12 tenants at 31-65 46th St., asking the judge to prohibit the property's owner, the New York School of Urban Ministry (NYSUM), from what they describe as harassment of residents, who rent single-occupancy rooms in the building and share common areas like bathrooms, a kitchen and living room.
In recent months, staff from NYSUM — which trains religious leaders — "has repeatedly entered the subject premises without notice, often at unusual hours and during the weekend" to pressure residents about moving out, according to court documents that Legal Aid shared with DNAinfo New York.
NYSUM also abruptly discontinued the building's WiFi, cable and trash-removal services; took away furniture from the shared common spaces; and threatened to remove appliances like the stove and refrigerator, according to the documents and a tenant of the building.
NYSUM was trying to make the place "unlivable," Legal Aid wrote in a press release.
"In August and September, they were in here almost every day talking to everybody: 'When are going to move? When are you going to move?'" recalled Linda Smith, a classical singer who has lived in the building for three years. "There's a pattern of aggression from them."
Sateesh Nori, an attorney at Legal Aid Society's Queens Neighborhood office who is representing the tenants, said the landlord's tactics are an attempt to "just force people to leave on their own."
"It's an underhanded way to deal with this problem," he said.
Legal Aid has been working with those at the Astoria building since late last year, when tenants were delivered a letter notifying them that they had to vacate their rooms in a little over a month.
NYSUM said at the time that it planned to lease the building instead to an undisclosed, private nonprofit, and that it could no longer afford to house residents in its "dormitory program," in which tenants paid between $350 to $500 a month for a single room in the building, while sharing communal areas.
The tenants' lawyers filed a lawsuit in February claiming the building is covered by the city's Rent Stabilization Law, meaning residents are entitled to lease renewals for their units. Many of those living in the building are low-income tenants and would otherwise not be able to afford market-rate apartments in the neighborhood, Nori said.
"Some of these people are elderly, some of these people have been here for many years, some have nowhere else to go," the attorney said.
But Ira Clair, a lawyer for NYSUM, contended that the building's units are "absolutely not" subject to rent stabilization, citing an exemption to the Rent Stabilization Law for properties that are used for charitable purposes (Legal Aid countered that NYSUM does not meet the requirements for that exemption).
Clair also denied the harassment allegations, saying that NYSUM "has tried during the course of the past 10 months to resolve things amicably."
"Many residents have left with assistance from NYSUM," he said, adding that the tenants who remain have not paid rent during the last several months as their lawsuit was pending.
"Obviously they got very used to being there, which is understandable — NYSUM has always been sympathetic to the stress of having to move," Clair explained. "The people there have been greatly benefited by NYSUM."
Nori said tenants were previously told by NYSUM that they didn't care about rent and that the organization had made no effort to collect rent from them since the group first attempted to evict residents last year.
He added that NYSUM has been generally unresponsive to their attempts to resolve the dispute, but also hasn't begun any actual eviction proceedings against tenants.
"Seemingly they abandoned any kind of legal strategy, and then they started to push people in other ways," Nori said.
Smith, the tenant who's lived in the building for three years, said the last few months have been "pretty stressful," especially after NYSUM workers removed furniture from the common areas, including computers there for residents to use.
She's worried that she'll come home one day to find the personal items she keeps in the basement storage discarded.
"It's horrible not knowing," she said. "You have to know you’ve got a home to come to."