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Tenants fight protracted legal battle with landlords

Tenant Juan Cano points out a leak in his apartment at 386 E. 139th Street. By Rachel Rippetoe

Soon after reporting a leak in the sink in her apartment at 386 E 139th St., Blonnie Rodgers, 63, said she heard an aggressive knock at her door. When she opened the door the building’s managing agent, Sam Rosen, was standing outside.

“He told me, ‘You better watch whose toes you’re stepping on,’” she recalled Rosen allegedly saying. “I don’t know what that meant or if that was a threat or what. When people got money they can have things done to you, you know?”

Rodgers, who has lived in her apartment for 42 years, is one of nine tenants filing a harassment suit against Rosen and Saul Pillar, the building’s landlord, according to a 2014 mortgage document. Pillar’s father is Moshe Pillar, who in recent years has landed on the Public Advocate and Mayor’s lists of the city’s worst landlords. He is also the owner of 720 Hunts Point Ave., where a fire caused by a faulty radiator caused the deaths of two toddlers in 2016. Four apartments in that building were enrolled in the city’s controversial cluster site shelter system, through which landlords receive generous subsidies from the city to house homeless individuals and families.

In affidavits submitted to Bronx Housing Court, tenants said Rosen and Pillar sent them buyout offers for their rent-controlled apartments. After they refused, conditions grew worse, including threatening visits from the managing agent, a non-level staircase with holes rats live inside, non-certified workers showing up to make repairs at odd hours and incorrect rent statements, according to several tenants in the building. 

Tenants in rent-stabilized South Bronx apartments commonly complain that landlords are attempting to push them out so they can raise rents in Mott Haven’s newly hot real estate market. 

But Juan Cano, president of the building’s tenant association, said that Rosen and Pillar’s motives seem to be different. He said some units in the building appear to serve as cluster sites. Urban Justice Center attorney Rajiv Jaswa said the landlords are making up to $95 per diem for the units.  

It’s an incentive to harass existing tenants into leaving, Cano said. 

“I think because we couldn’t be bought out, they’re trying to push us out in other ways,” Cano said.

With the help of Jaswa and attorney Catherine Barreda, the tenants filed suit in August. Jaswa said the goal is to protect residents’ rights to organize, make sure they are given proper leases, and that their rent payments match the legal requirements of government programs like The Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption program, where rent is frozen for older residents in rent-controlled apartments.

On Oct. 29, Bronx Housing Court Judge David J. Bryan rejected the landlord’s motion to dismiss the case. Both parties went to trial the same day, but during opening statements, Pillar and Rosen abruptly fired their lawyer Brian Stark and requested to adjourn until they found different counsel. The next trial was set for Nov. 13, but Rosen petitioned to move the date back again. A new trial date has been set for Jan. 8.

“That’s just another tactic,” Rodgers said. “Delay, delay, delay.”

Rosen and Piller did not respond to request for comment from the Herald. In an affidavit, Rosen denied claims he was harassing tenants.

“I truly hope this game of ‘he said, she said’ would not turn into an exercise of legal gamesmanship by the Urban Justice Center,” he said in the affidavit.

Tenants say that as the lawsuit drags on, they feel targeted. After legal meetings with the tenant association last spring, Rosen filed suit against Rodgers and another tenant, 94-year-old Lillian Morada, claiming they had defaulted on their rent. Barreda filed motions to dismiss and Rosen’s lawyers quickly withdrew from the case.

But the message was clear, Rodgers said.

“I lost my husband in 2010 and being here by myself, it seems like everybody’s against me,” Rodgers said. “I was comfortable here a couple years ago and I don’t feel that way now.”

But Jaswa said that the cohesive resistance of the Tenants Association at 386 E. 139th Street should serve as encouragement for other tenants who suspect their landlords are bullying them to leave.

“This is one of the most inspiring group of tenants to work with,” said Jaswa. “People look out for each other in ways that you can’t put a value on really, and it gives them a sense of, ‘We should fight to stay and to preserve our rights.’”

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