My name is Sophia Singh, and I am a senior at Fordham University Rose Hill in the Bronx, New York. I decided to start this blog recently to drop some of my thoughts on tenants’ rights, protections, and laws in New York City (all 5 boroughs, not just Manhattan).
To start things off here, I am going to write a bit about a situation that I researched last spring, in a class that focused on learning more about the Bronx community that graciously hosts our student body for some of our most formative years.
Tenants’ rights violations and tenant harassment by landlords have been serious issues in the Bronx for years. This particular project was focused on 919 Prospect Avenue, or 830 East 163rd Street, in the Woodstock neighborhood of the South Bronx. Examining 919 Prospect Ave as an example of the ongoing tenants’ rights crisis plaguing many Bronx residents reveals important truths about the power dynamics in urban living situations as well as the importance of community coherence in tackling this issue.
As of 2011, when the building was brought to foreclosure, the average apartment rent was $966. That year, landlord Seth Miller purchased the property for $3.7 million; five years later, then-public advocate and current New York attorney general Letitia James listed the building as the worst in the Bronx, citing Miller as the main source of these problems. This reasoning is unsurprising because Miller has a history of abusive tactics as a landlord; Bill de Blasio was a public advocate when he called Miller’s buildings some of the worst across New York, including two in Crown Heights, Brooklyn where he withheld heat from sick tenants in the winter. James supported her 2016 claim by listening to the accounts of tenants, pointing to the legal action that was taken, and reviewing the precedent of prior assessments of the building, including 525 unaddressed city housing violations in one year.
According to a coalition of resistant tenants known as Tenants United Against Seth Miller, unsafe building conditions have plagued them for as long as Seth Miller has been in power. Reports of the building’s unacceptable living standard range from accounts of mice, rats, roaches, and bed bugs to children suffering from lead poisoning as a result of excess dust from intrusive renovations. Elderly tenants had their bathroom doors drilled shut, resulting in a lack of latrine access for weeks. Additionally, tenants reported being “constantly harassed, denied basic services, left without heat and hot water…and [being] taken to court for no reason” . Several tenants reported having to move while still paying rent because of issues such as a caved-in ceiling or mold infestations. All of these conditions and more are not necessarily unique to 919 Prospect; however, their extremity and Miller’s refusal to address any of them coupled with his consistent harassment and unreasonable financial demands earned him a top spot on James’ Worst Landlords List as well.
To fight against what many were calling Miller’s “reign of terror”, tenants rallied in protest outside of the building, spoke to the press and housing rights advocates, and formed their own coalition, determined to stand up to Seth Miller. In December 2016, as an act of response and resistance, over two dozen tenants living at 919 Prospect formed an alliance with the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, a non-profit legal services and advocacy organization in New York. The groups worked together to file a lawsuit against Miller, calling for a jury trial and a permanent injunction requiring him to correct his maintenance of an unsafe building, stop overcharging rent, and start offering timely lease renewals.
On December 22nd, Miller responded by filing for bankruptcy, claiming the case was a conspiracy to remove his control of the building in order to prevent it from moving forward. A federal judge refused the argument, saying that the bankruptcy claim was simply a preventative measure taken by Miller to prevent economic troubles in his own self-interest and not actually necessary. Miller was then removed from the building, and the tenants came together with James, the Urban Justice Center, Congressman José Serrano, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. assemblymember Michael Blake, Council Member Rafael Salamanca, and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association Inc to sue for a court-appointed repairs administrator. The court responded by providing a trustee to oversee the necessary building repairs, resulting in improved conditions and safety over the course of the following two years.
Although the situation was appearing to take a turn for the better, challenges resurfaced for the tenants of 919 Prospect in April, 2019. After just over two years, Miller regained control of the building, firing those who were overseeing repairs and maintenance and hiring negligent superintendents who consistently harass tenants and ignore building needs. Since Miller has regained control, conditions have spiraled once again; tenants have reported sewage leaks and other abysmal conditions that require repairs. Miller and those that he hired are ignoring all of these needs.
Several resistance efforts ensued; tenants took to protesting outside of Seth Miller’s home. They further created a website to increase awareness of the issues in their building, publicizing tenant testimonials, images, and videos of the unlivable conditions as well as any news mentions of Miller and accounts of numerous lawsuits filed against him. They have even highlighted the charities that Miller and his wife donate to under the pretense of philanthropy, which the tenants prove is at odds with the wellbeing of the people of color that Miller exploits and mistreats in his New York properties. Organizers such as Anna Burnham spread word of the issue further on social media, using the hashtag #slumlordseth and publicizing protest efforts. On a policy level, Letitia James, who is now the New York Attorney General, worked to pass a criminal tenant harassment bill and highlighted 919 Prospect Avenue in its writing. James used the bill to considerably expand the definition of “tenant harassment” and furthermore ensured that the bill could be used in court against abusive landlords such as Miller.
The 919 Prospect tenants association has furthermore preserved its rights to sue for harassment from the 2016 bankruptcy case. The group is currently preparing to bring a case against Miller in the New York Supreme Court. Thanks to Letitia James’ aforementioned efforts in policymaking, New York law now states that harassment includes failing to offer lease renewals, threats, intimidation, overcharging rent, failure to make repairs, and deliberately causing construction-related issues for tenants. Since Seth Miller has done all of these, the tenants are hopefully looking at a strong case.
The combined effort from impacted tenants, advocates, and political figures is a representative manifestation of community solidarity against the likes of Seth Miller. The question then becomes, of course, why do landlords have so much power, to begin with? Will these types of situations continue to spiral out of control even with new legislation and increased awareness?