Angry Tenants Take Landlord To Court

114 East 1st Street ExteriorAndre Tartar The six-story brownstone at 114 East First Street has been riddled with problems — including a four-month-long gas outage and a rat infestation. Today, the building’s tenants are taking the landlords, Galron Realty, to court over the conditions.

Across from Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston Street is a six-story brownstone with cast-iron fire escapes zigzagging up its front, a Punjabi grocer on the ground floor, and a laundry list of problems.

About a third of the building’s apartments were recently without cooking gas for 138 days — no less than 20 separate complaints were filed with 311 since late June. Rats long ago colonized the garbage area and have been heard fighting under some tenants’ windows — 24 vermin complaints have been filed with 311. And water damage in several units is beginning to look like a possible health hazard while shoddy repair work plagues many apartments, as was observed during a recent visit to the building.

Most of this concerns rent-stabilized apartments, which make up about half the building’s 30 units and can go for as little as $500 a month or less. That said, new tenants in renovated apartments, some paying rents above $2,000, have been among those affected by the gas outage and experiencing leaks. So today, the fed-up tenants of 114 East First Street will face their landlord, Galron Realty LLC, in housing court.

The gas first went out on June 19. Gacin Barkett, who has lived with his boyfriend on the fourth floor of the building for 14 years, went to make tea and found there was no gas to light the burner. He says a sign written in green highlighter was posted on the building’s front door, which read: “Water B Closed, 9-2. Also Gas B Closed.” The apartment a few floors below his was being gutted, so Mr. Barkett, who is president of the building tenants’ association, assumed the gas had been shut off because of renovation work and would be turned back on by 2 p.m. But it never was.

“You’re not supposed to touch their” – Con Ed’s – “lines,” Mr. Barkett said in a recent interview conducted in his kitchen, while leaning against a yellowing fridge covered in magazine clippings and postcards. “Once you turn off the gas, everything has to be checked for leaks.” Con Ed was notified by a tenant on June 29 and “locked off” the gas. “To turn the gas back on,” a company spokesman explained in an e-mail, “we needed the landlord and his plumber to attest to the safety of the piping and get a ‘blue card’ from the city’s Department of Buildings.”

But, Mr. Barkett said, “The people who own the building obviously do not hire licensed people,” adding that plumbers came by over the course of weeks and months, leaving holes in walls, but never restoring the gas. At a tenants’ meeting on Monday, several people present complained that workers sent to do repairs often arrive with no tools and that problems reappear mere weeks later. Galron’s solution to the gas outage was to hand out hotplates.

Apt. 19--Ceiling Collapse
Apt. 19--Hole in bathroom wall, caused by pipe that broke through during construction in upstairs apartment (2)
Apt. 26--Hole in wall, unknown origin (2)
Apt. 15--Hole in bathroom ceiling
Apt. 19--Water that leaked into apartment during stormAndre Tartar Holes in ceilings and walls and dirty water pooled inside apartments after rainstorms are just some of the building’s ills.

Hope Rosenfeld, a 23-year-old student at Columbia’s Teachers College who lives on the third floor, calls it, “the summer of shrimp cocktails and fruit salad.” Mr. Barkett, who has culinary training from the City College of Technology, began ordering pizza on a regular basis and turned to his electric skillet: “I’ve discovered that you can cook pasta in this, but you have to stir it every 30 seconds or it sticks to the bottom.” Another tenant, he claims, left the building over the gas outage, among other issues.

Galron Realty is owned by the Moses family, headed by Henry Moses Jr. Galron bought 114 East First Street for $5.2 million in the summer of 2005, according to the city’s Department of Finance. The Moses family owns several real-estate management companies around the city through Vanderleigh Properties, based in Tuckahoe, not far from Yonkers. (The company’s sparse website says that any similarity with the fictional Vandelay from “Seinfeld” is pure coincidence. Their subsidiaries all bear “Star Trek”-inspired names: Galron, 7 of 8, Borg, Praxis, Vulcan, and others.)

Several messages left for Mr. Moses seeking comment on the issues at 114 East First went unanswered.

As the weeks passed without any progress, Ms. Rosenfeld and Mr. Barkett also tried e-mailing Galron — Mr. Barkett sent regular e-mail messages with subject lines like: “102 Days Without Gas.” E-mail messages between the tenants’ association and Galron, provided to The Local by tenants, show that the firm hired a New York-licensed and bonded plumber in August and that weeks sometimes passed between management updates on the gas outage. Last week, as day 135 came to a close, Mr. Barkett said, “Now I just laugh at some of this. It’s just so unbelievable.” 
Then, without warning, the gas was turned back on last Friday.

Asked why it took four months, a Con Ed spokesman said that the landlord’s plumber only sent in the “blue card” on Oct. 27, but then a vertical gas riser had to be brought up to code.

But the gas outage was only the beginning. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development says it has issued 133 housing code violations for 114 East First Street, including 10 C-class violations that are so serious the owner has just 24 hours to resolve the issues. A 30-year tenant living on the first floor has so much water damage in his apartment that two walls painted in August are already bubbling and cracking.

Another 30-year tenant, on the first floor, has to wash her dishes in her bathtub because her sink hasn’t been fixed in months. Recently, since the heating was turned on, several tenants began reporting that water was coming out excessively hot. Monday night, Mr. Barkett measured the temperature of his tap water; it was 140 degrees. Things were so bad that the Department of Housing Preservation and Development itself had to perform $5,355 in emergency repairs to the property.

Brandon Kielbasa from the Cooper Square Committee, a fair housing advocacy group, has been advising tenants in the building. Mr. Kielbasa says that he has witnessed a pattern in the area of aggressive owners and landlords whose expertise is not in managing buildings, but in pushing out long-term tenants, deregulating rent-stabilized apartments, and creating a continuous turnover so they can keep increasing the rent. Mr. Kielbasa, who attended Monday’s tenants’ meeting, calls them, “tenant relocation experts.”

“When every aspect of the tenant-landlord relationship is strained, it’s probably not an accident,” Mr. Kielbasa said when he addressed the assembled tenants Monday.

The tenants are anxiously awaiting their moment in court today, with the hope that Galron and Vanderleigh will be ordered to make, at the very least, the most pressing repairs. In the meantime, at least a few people have re-discovered the small pleasures of a home-cooked meal. Thanks to having his cooking gas restored, Mr. Barkett recently prepared a meal of kielbasa sausage and cauliflower, with a beurre noisette sauce.