Carmen Guillen was walking through the hallway in her apartment at 1305 Sheridan Avenue in Morrisania in Dec. 2011 when she slipped on water from an unrepaired leak, breaking her leg and injuring her back.
Guillen says the leak that led to her fall is a symptom of a larger problem faced by tenants who live in buildings owned by Chestnut Holdings, a Bronx-based real estate investment and management firm.
The 63-year-old mother and grandmother was unable to work for 10 months, and now needs back surgery.
“I used to run back and forth around the park and I can’t do that now,” Guillen said in Spanish. “Now I feel like garbage, because I can’t even walk properly.”
Tenants argue that the firm and its president, Jonathan Weiner, have failed to maintain the 70-plus Bronx buildings the company owns and manages. Last fall, the non-profit group Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) looked into those allegations and others that the landlord is overcharging for air conditioning, washing machine and repair fees.
Chestnut’s Director of Community and Legal Affairs David Tennenbaum, said the company was unable to comment on Guillen’s situation due to an ongoing personal injury lawsuit that Guillen had filed against it.
Many of the immigrant tenants also maintain that when they tried to organize, management threatened to call the Immigration Service on them.
“It was very strategic harassment,” said Patricia Torres, a community organizer at CASA, adding that tenants are frustrated by their inability to get past Chestnut Holdings’ voicemail system when they call to request repairs. Last October, tenants approached CASA, asking for help organizing against the landlord.
The tenants formed a coalition, then drafted a petition demanding Weiner address repairs, reverse illegal charging practices, and stop undermining tenants’ attempts to organize.
Adama Tounkara, who has lived at 1310 Sheridan Avenue for eight years, says she has had problems with bed bugs, rats, and leaks in her kitchen and bathroom. Last winter, management kept the heat so low that her apartment became an icebox.
“The super is never respectful. Eighty percent of the time, the work is not done,” said Tounkara, echoing other tenants’ complaints that the building supervisor insists she call Chestnut Holding’s main office when problems arise, but that there is no getting past the company’s voicemail system. Like many other tenants, Tounkara is from West Africa.
In February, tenants and advocates brought the petition they drafted—with over 400 signatures—to Chestnut Holdings’ main office in Riverdale. But Weiner and police were waiting for them, and Chestnut Holdings’ workers staged a counter-protest, holding up placards saying “CASA hurts tenants” and “Chestnut helps tenants.”
Tenants say they invited Weiner to two meetings earlier this year, but when a building manager and a lawyer showed up instead, tenants told them to leave, insisting on addressing Weiner directly.
In June, the coalition traveled to Weiner’s home again and left a new petition, threatening to take legal action if he did not agree to make repairs. Once again, Weiner refused to face them, and police forced the protestors to leave.
“Since it’s not fixed, these are still our issues,” said Tounkara, who plans to continue the fight.
Although the company finally fixed the building’s main door and has installed security cameras, many tenants say the problems in their apartments persist.
“The supervisor will tell you he’ll come tomorrow, and then you won’t see him for the next six months,” said Assa Jawara, a 30-year-old mother of five who lives in Tounkara’s building. Her cupboard doors are falling off their hinges, shelves have fallen apart, and several of her kitchen drawers have collapsed.
She said the supervisor said he would return in two weeks to make repairs, but a month later he hasn’t been back.
“At this moment, I don’t have the authorization to answer any questions about Chestnut Holdings,” said Luis Vasquez, the super, when asked to discuss tenants’ complaints.
According to Tennenbaum, their maintenance team responded to Jawara’s requests, but Jawara and her husband refused them entry into their apartment.
Some tenants say the company is trying to force them out so it can raise rents. In recent months, three tenants have been evicted from Tounkara’s building, and three others have moved out.
Martin Warren, who has lived at 1305 Sheridan Avenue for 22 years, said he has tried, in vain, to obtain a copy of his lease, even going to the main office three times.
“They’ve been trying to do this underhand shit to get me out of the apartment,” said Warren, adding that the company has not returned any of his voicemail messages. “I guess they want to get all the people that have been here forever out,” Warren said.
Weeks later, a public relations firm working on Chestnut’s behalf sent the Herald a copy of Warren’s two-year lease, signed last January. The lease is effective through April 2015.
This story was originally posted on July 18, but was later updated to include the comments of Chestnut Holdings’s director of Community and Legal Affairs, David Tennenbaum, who responded to some allegations made by tenants. Although numerous calls to Chestnut seeking comment were not returned before the story was posted on the Herald website, after it appeared, Tennenbaum, emailed a response. The story has been amended as follows to reflect his comments:
1. With respect to Carmen Guillen’s complaint that she slipped and fell in 2011, injuring her back, Tennbaum said Chestnut could not comment on the situation due to an personal injury lawsuit that Guillen has filed.
2. Tennenbaum, said tenant Assa Jawara and her husband refused to allow maintenance workers to enter the apartment when they came to address a repair issue.
3. After long-time tenant Martin Warren argued that Chestnut had not responded to his request for a copy of his lease, a public relations firm working for Chestnut Holdings emailed the Herald a copy of the lease.