Tenants at 1392 Sterling Place have been on a rent strike since November 2021.
Photo-Illustration: Lined; Photo: courtesy of subject
The four-story Crown Heights building that Michelle Stamp, 59, has lived in since she was a child is collapsing. Her apartment at 1392 Sterling Place, which she inherited from her grandmother, is one of 23 units – all rent-stabilized and in dire need of repairs. In Stamp’s rear-facing unit, the windows don’t close completely, so rain seeps in and keeps him awake at night. There are cockroaches, rodents and mold on every floor. In some of the upstairs units, nails are sticking out of the floor and rainwater is falling from holes in the ceiling. Every winter the old fashioned steam boiler in the basement stops working – what seems to be the coldest days of the year. In total, the building has 478 open violations. ” It’s horrible. They really let us live in destitution,” she says.
Conditions like these – although extreme – are not unheard of in New York. But this building has an even more fundamental problem: no one claims to own it. “You don’t know who to complain to,” Stamp says. “The money has been collected, but we don’t know who receives the money. They certainly don’t put the money into the building. This made it difficult for tenants and the city to hold someone accountable for repairs.
It has not always been so. Until recently, Stamp knew who the owner was; the Dukler family, led by its patriarch, Rubin Dukler. The Duklers owned his building and two others through Rikud Realty, their real estate company. They were lax in their management – “There were always maintenance issues,” she says – but things have gotten particularly dire in recent years. In 2018, then-public attorney Letitia James named Rubin Dukler the 17th-worst landlord in the city, averaging 531 open HPD violations at four properties. But what records from the time did not show was that Stamp’s building had quietly changed hands months earlier.
In December 2017, the Duklers sold half of their stake in Rikud’s portfolio of three rent-stabilized pre-war buildings – 1392 Sterling, 1018 Eastern Parkway and 1074 Eastern Parkway – to a real estate company called Iris Holdings Group, who paid $6.2 million and agreed to take over the day-to-day operations of the buildings. The company, founded in 2014, focuses on buying ‘distressed’ residential properties – it has paid off $12 million in 2020 for a pair of Staten Island rent-stabilized buildings with hundreds of open violations, and $68 million in 2018 for eight mostly vacant multi-family buildings in Borough Park. But Iris didn’t tell the Rikud tenants that — and introduced herself as their new property manager. Stamp thought Iris was being friendly when she showed firm managing partner Chayim “CK” Kirschenbaum around her building in 2018 “to show him what the place really needed, renovations and repairs” , she says. Kirschenbaum promised to do them — he was “practically salivating,” Stamp recalled. But Iris became inaccessible soon after. “There were no repairs and they didn’t accept any calls or texts from us.”
Then Rubin Dukler died last February. And with repairs still not done, tenants began planning a rent strike. It was then that they learned of Iris’ deal to buy half of Rikud and understood why Iris had stopped doing maintenance and even left some units vacant. The Duklers and Iris had signed their agreement about a year before the passage of groundbreaking property law – the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act 2019, which severely restricted landlords’ ability to deregulate rental apartments. stabilized after repairing them. or when tenants have moved out and made it harder for them to evict. Essentially, it took away a key tool many landlords used to get their units off rent stabilization and — Stamp suspects — made his building, and the other two in the deal, suddenly much less attractive. “Their intention was to do all the repairs and get them out of rent stabilization. And basically kick all the people out of the building and then rent it out for what they want,” she said. Now Stamp and his neighbors have learned that Iris is desperately trying to get out of the deal.
But George Nuñez, an Iris property manager, says his business started to go downhill long before the rent law passed. The problem, he said, was that Dukler had sold the building to Iris for false reasons. The state’s Housing and Community Renewal Division had ordered a rent freeze at 1074 Eastern Parkway in 2002 until repairs were made – something Rubin Dukler apparently ignored and then fraudulently hid from Iris in order to conclude the case, Nuñez said. They initially attempted arbitration with the Duklers in 2018 through a bais din, a Jewish rabbinical court — but “Rubin delayed the arbitration and then refused to participate in the process,” says Nuñez (a lawyer representative Rikud Realty declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation). Although Iris paid $3 million of the agreed $6.2 million to the Duklers for the three buildings, the deal was never completed and “Iris has no ownership interest in any of these buildings”, Nuñez said. But he also acknowledges that Iris collected rent from the tenants and could not say if any of that money went to the Duklers.
With no one intervening, the tenants launched their strike over a year ago, on November 1, 2021, demanding that Iris, or the Duklers, or somebody please fix their fucking building. But instead, they say Iris threatened them. A few days into the strike, the company sent a handyman to tour the building, but when Stamp asked when Iris would make full repairs, he threatened to “fuck her up” and attempted to fight her, forcing her to call the police. , she says. Then the building manager at the time, Shay Hart, started going door to door trying to “bully” people into paying their rent. “We had a code that if he comes into your apartment you should start screaming, and someone will come and help you get rid of him.” Nuñez said he was unaware of these incidents, but pointed out that Hart no longer works at the company.
In May, Iris Holdings Group sued the Duklers, arguing that the Duklers defrauded them into the purchase by covering up the 2002 rent freeze. In a countersuit, the Duklers argued that the “real reason” why Iris had tried to pull out of the deal was due to the new rent law. Meanwhile, Iris had taken “all benefits, revenue and profits” from the new buildings, while not paying the Duklers the agreed-upon 50% rent, according to the Duklers’ counterclaim. Depositions began last month.
Meanwhile, an HPD lawsuit against Rikud for building violations has so far come to nothing, according to Charlie Dulik, an organizer with the Urban Homestead Assistance Board, a nonprofit organization representing tenants. . Court hearings have been repeatedly pushed back, and an HPD lawyer told the tenants “he doesn’t have the ability to take things to court, because they’re so underfunded, they have so few staff,” says Dulik. Instead, HPD’s attorney has offered a settlement with the owners (whoever they are) for $125,000 – a fraction of the total fines owed – if the owners promise to fully repair the buildings by appealing. to professional contractors. (In an emailed statement, an HPD spokesperson said the agency was taking “aggressive action to ensure the owner corrects violations and improves conditions.”)
Stamp says the only thing that caused repairs was the rent strike: “We’ve been taking what they give us for generations. And they never thought we would get up like this. Now that the strike has passed a year, Iris seems to have adopted a conciliatory tone. There was a small breakthrough last week when Nuñez met with locals and promised Iris would come up with a plan by mid-December to make full repairs. At the meeting, Nuñez told the tenants, “I understand that there are elderly people living here, and I wouldn’t want my mother under those circumstances.” Stamp was hopeful. “It was a very positive meeting,” she says.
Nuñez says Iris wants to “do the right thing”: He shared documents that show the company has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for work in the three buildings over the past few years, including new appliances, windows, doors, plumbing, and other repairs and pest control treatments. But he also concedes that the company has little choice, due to a court order requiring Iris to maintain the buildings during the trial: Iris had filed a motion to be relieved of this obligation, but was rejected last month. “It’s very painful from an economic point of view,” he says. “Companies are in business to make money. To not lose money.”
Stamp says tenants will end their rent strike if repairs are completed as promised. Otherwise, all options remain on the table, including finding a way to convert the building into a co-op and buying it, which the Urban Homestead organization helped another Bronx building do. earlier this year. But first, she hopes they get reparations as soon as possible. On November 30, she tells me, she reminded Nuñez of the building’s heating problems. And “true to his word,” she says, a plumber came the next day to refurbish the old steam boiler. The building may not have a specific owner, but hopefully there will be heat and hot water this winter. “Which is just basic comfort,” says Stamp. “But it’s a start.”