CROWN HEIGHTS – The property owner who currently holds the title for New York City’s worst landlord is facing a tenant uprising at one of his distressed properties in Crown Heights. Neighbors at 1616 President St. have banded together on a rent strike, refusing to make monthly payments to owner Jason Korn until he makes vital repairs to their building.
During a demonstration outside of 1616 President St. on Aug. 25, Angela Robinson, who has lived in the building for 18 years, took the megaphone to share her story.
“The ceiling fell down on me from the bathroom. I had to get surgery on my knee,” said Robinson, adding that she once went eight months without a kitchen sink. “My other neighbors in here, we’ve all suffered different tragedies inside this building. And we are fed up.”
Korn was named the city’s worst individual landlord last year by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, whose office publishes an annual list meant to shame the city’s most notorious alleged slumlords into providing better living conditions for their tenants. (The only landlord in the city ranked worse than Korn last year was NYCHA).
Korn’s 15 properties across the city carried an average of 2,877 open violations with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) in 2019, including citations for rodent infestation, mold, heat outages and lead paint.
Jillian Edgar says she’s encountered each of those hazards since moving into 1616 President St. in 1995. Temperatures inside her apartment are often frigid in the winter, despite frequent calls to 311. Leaky pipes have led to a proliferation of black mold in her bathroom, which she says the management company, Lilmor Management, has attempted to address by sending workers to re-paint the walls several times per year.
According to Edgar, she typically has to make multiple complaints before management sends someone over. Even then, the repairs usually don’t address the root issues — for instance, the leaky plumbing that causes the mold — leading Edgar to feel trapped in a cycle of temporary fixes that soon need to be done again.
“Me personally, I get tired,” said Edgar. “I know the contractors by their names. They say, ‘How you doing, you alright?’ I say, ‘Yeah, enjoy your Christmas.’ I’m tired of ya’ll coming in.”
Vincia Barber, who moved into the building last year, says her time at 1616 President St. has been “a disaster” so far. She says she couldn’t open her daughter’s bedroom window until recently due to the rat infestation in the building’s rear court, an area that’s frequently overflowing with garbage. Barber says she’s made seventy-one calls to 311 report the rats. The black mold that grows and regrows in her bathroom is especially worrying because of her daughter’s asthma.
“It’s an issue that’s ongoing that’s internal. We have to take care of it, but he’s not. But he’s also collecting the rent. A judge has to say, no, this is wrong. This is not right. What you’re doing is totally wrong,” Barber said.
The city’s past efforts to pressure Korn into making repairs at 1616 President St. have not been successful. In 2018, the building was placed in the city’s Underlying Conditions Program, which selects properties with a high number of mold or leak violations for stepped-up enforcement from HPD. Only about 50 buildings citywide are selected for this program each year. Landlords who fail to make the needed repairs can have their buildings placed into HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program, which is exactly what happened to 1616 President St. in 2019.
Buildings singled out for alternative enforcement receive more frequent inspections for housing code violations. If landlords don’t make the corrections within four months, the city can perform emergency repairs then bill the owner. Between 200 and 250 buildings across the five boroughs are placed into the program each year.
While 1616 President was discharged from alternative enforcement in 2019, indicating that all immediately hazardous violations and 80% of violations related to mold had been corrected, the building still has 62 open violations with HPD for issues including mold, roaches, mice, unsafe wiring, defective front doors and lead paint.
Public shaming also hasn’t proven effective. Korn was ranked ninth on the Worst Landlords list in 2018, then jumped to the top of the list the following year as his properties continued to rack up violations.
Tenants are hoping that the rent strike will succeed where other measures have failed. Barber helped to form the building’s tenant association in February and became one of its leaders. When the coronavirus crisis hit, tenants started working with organizers at HOPE, a neighborhood tenant union, and on May 1 sent a letter announcing their rent strike to Korn, joining dozens of other buildings across the state withholding rent during the pandemic.
Their rent strike officially began May 1, but several units at 1616 President St. had already stopped paying rent by that time out of necessity. Seventeen units in the 24-unit building have officially signed on to the rent strike. Of the remaining units, at least one is vacant and others are unable to pay rent, although not officially participating, according to a HOPE spokesperson.
While others across New York are striking to protest the injustice of paying rent during an economic and health crisis, the tenants at 1616 President are attempting to use their collective power to leverage repairs. Although Barber, who lost her job as a nanny in March when her employers moved away due to the pandemic, says the first reason applies as well.
“It’s a decision that a lot of families are making in this country as we speak. Are they going to eat, have a meal today, or are they going to have shelter? They shouldn’t be worried about that in a pandemic,” she said.
Ricky, a spokesperson for Lilmor Management, who did not wish to provide her last name, said the company has not been able to make repairs at 1616 President St. since the pandemic began because tenants have not allowed workers into their units. When asked why the list of HPD violations stretches back years before the onset of the pandemic or the strike, she reiterated that, even then, the problem lied with tenants denying workers access to their apartments.
“It’s a beautiful building and we’re committed to doing the repairs for the tenants,” she said.
Barber confirmed that the management company has been calling tenants and offering repairs in exchange for rent.
“Management’s harassing for their rent. They’ve been calling. But we have a form of saying to management, we are in a tenant association, we make decisions collectively,” she said.
Barber said management has not yet acknowledged the tenant association or the demands laid out in the rent strike letter, which include cleaning common areas, fixing the front door, giving tenants access to security cameras and generally ceasing the pattern of “incomplete, shoddy repairs which inevitably cause tenants to make repeated calls for the same issue.”
Korn could not be reached for comment.
The President Street renters have started meeting with tenants at another Korn-owned building at nearby 776 Crown St., which currently has 102 open HPD violations for issues like mold, bedbugs, mice and roaches. They’ve hosted the Crown Street tenants at their weekly meetings and are encouraging them to join the strike and boost their collective bargaining power.
After 25 years at 1616 President St., and countless calls to 311 to report violations and to the management company for repairs, Edgar hopes that the rent strike will be the strategy that finally improves living conditions for herself and her neighbors.
This man is getting his money. He’s able to thrive in life. But, we should live in an inhumane situation, because, who are we? We’re nobody,” she said. “But we’re the people that keep money in your pocket. We deserve some type of respect.”