April 3, 2023
By Ethan Marshall
Tenants of the Jackson Heights apartment building at 94-16 34th Road were joined by representatives from the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition (RTCNYC) and Catholic Migration Services on April 3 for a rally demanding safer living conditions and a statewide right to counsel.
The rally outside the Queens Housing Court in Jamaica marked the second held by the tenants in just over a month.
With the building’s tenants being predominantly low-and-middle-income people of Hispanic descent, they held the rally to bring attention to the poor living conditions that has put the health and safety of the building’s residents for the last 30 years. Additionally, they are uplifting their case to call for the passage of legislation-Statewide Right to Counsel (A1493-Joyner/S2721-May) for all New York state residents in any type of case that could result in eviction.
When the tenants and landlord met at their Feb. 27 court appearance, an agreement was ultimately reached to arrange access for maintenance to complete the repairs. However, the landlord’s workers frequently didn’t show up on certain access dates, according to the tenants. This has led to unresolved repairs, including insufficient heat and a malfunctioning elevator.
According to one of the tenants, Wanda Martinez, in her 30 years living at the building, she’s seen it change from owner to owner without any of the violations being addressed. She credits the Catholic Migration Services for helping the tenants organize and get the case to court.
“The first time [we were here] we established dates of access so that they can come in and start the repairs,” Martinez said. “They showed up to some, but didn’t show up to others, so we’re back here to negotiate. We’re going to give the [landlord] one more time to do what they have to do before we approach the judge and let them see that there is no good faith and that we may have to present a court case.”
Martinez said that the feedback she has received from the Catholic Migration Services attorney representing them, as well as the willingness of tenants to discuss their problems, has led her to determine April 3 as being an ultimatum date for the landlord.
According to Catholic Migration Services attorney Sarah Hainbach, there has been an agreement to a May 31 deadline of getting the building’s issues fixed. If the issues are not resolved by then, the tenants would sue the landlord.
“The landlord and the tenants agreed to a settlement today,” Hainbach said. “They agreed to all the repairs being completed by May 31, 2023. We’re hoping that’s what happens.”
“Our thing is to get our repairs done, to have a good quality of life and not to be at a war with the owner,” Martinez said. “We understand that it’s his property, but we live in it and we deserve a good quality of life.”
In addition to repair issues like a lack of heat and hot water and the failure to address the building’s broken elevator in a timely manner, other factors leading to the tenants’ legal action include the failure to address mold and pests in the building. Additionally, the landlord attempted to pressure tenants to sign illegal leases without offering them new correct leases as well as harassing them by showing up at tenant association meetings and banging on their doors without warning.
A representative from the office of Assembly member Jessica González-Rojas was also on hand to read a statement she provided. In the statement, González-Rojas voiced her support for the tenants.
“No one should have to experience harassment at home,” Assemblymember González-Rojas said in her statement. “It is outrageous that the landlord has not provided the tenants with the renewal leases and that the repairs are not being completed since [the workers] are failing to show up on the dates arranged. Everyone deserves dignified housing and it’s clear that the tenants are not receiving that from the landlord. I urge the landlord to correct these issues immediately and stand and will continue to stand with the tenants of 94-16 34th Rd. until the repairs and needs are met.”
According to Catholic Migration Services Tenant Organizer Bryan Fotino, the landlord will be held accountable for doing the bare minimum in getting the repairs done before the deadline. If the work is not done by May 31, he said they plan to file a lawsuit against the landlord in contempt.
“We are also out here in support of statewide right to counsel,” Fotino said. “We have been up in Albany working with state legislators to support this statewide right to counsel legislation. It would not only expand right to counsel throughout New York State, but it would also cover affirmative cases. Tenants who have repair issues will now have a lawyer who can support them as they’re filing their cases to sue their landlord. It’s been very important for the tenants to have the support of CMS legal team, helping them file out paperwork, helping them magnify their voices, helping answer questions about their rights. What this law would do is expand that for everyone.”