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PRESS MENTION: Flushing tenants speak out against Jamaica real estate company’s alleged harassment, unlawful rent increases

Flushing tenants speak out against Jamaica real estate company’s alleged harassment, unlawful rent increases

July 31, 2023
By Carlotta Mohamed

Photo courtesy of Legal Services NYC

During one of the hottest days in New York City on Thursday, July 27, Imran Patel, a Flushing resident at 140-60 Beech Ave. claimed that he and his family are facing eviction by Jamaica-based real estate company Zara Realty for putting an air conditioner in their apartment.

“We’re in the middle of a heatwave here in NYC and they’re threatening to kick us out of our home because we want to be able to live in this heat,” Patel said. “They claim that we’re violating the lease, but nothing in the lease says that we can’t have an AC in the window. They gave us no warning — the super had even told me two years ago that it was fine, but two weeks ago we were given a notice that Zara wanted to evict us.”

A spokesman for Zara Realty said Patel’s claims for not being able to have air conditioning in his apartment is false and is a safety concern. According to the company, the building has air conditioner sleeves and the tenant refused to install the air conditioner where it is supposed to be.

“Putting the air conditioner in the window is a significant risk to health and human safety as it could fall out of the window onto someone below causing serious injury or death,” the spokesman said. “The air conditioner sleeve is the appropriate, safest, and approved place for the air conditioner unit, not the window.”

Patel, who has been living at the apartment for 20 years, was joined by rent-stabilized tenants from two other buildings owned by Zara Realty (140-30 Ash Ave. and 140-50 Ash Ave.) at the July 27 press conference in calling out the company for alleged harassment of immigrant tenants, including asking for birth and marriage certifies, excessive fees for keys, and increasing rents by nearly $300 per month.

The tenants are being organized by CHHAYA CDC and Catholic Migration Services and represented by Queens Legal Services’ Tenant Rights Coalition.

“Zara has been continuously harassing us since they bought the building in 2019—there is no peace,” Patel said. “When Zara changed the locks, they only gave us one key for our family of five. We still only have one key. We have leaks and mold in our bathroom; the electrical outlets are loose and often don’t work.”

“And I’m not the only one,” Patel continued. “They’ve started eviction cases against a few other families in the building for the same reason. I’ll fight back and I know I will win, but I also know that for every tenant like me, there’s another who would move out of fear because an eviction record can destroy your chance at finding a home.”

After two years, Maria Jenny Lopez, a tenant of 140-30 Ash Ave., was able to get a key for her brother who lives with her. Lopez claims she suffered harassment, including Zara employees on the fire escape taking pictures through her window.

“Other tenants are still waiting for a key and are forced to pay up to $100. It’s outrageous for such a simple yet important thing. They are also asking us for marriage or birth certificates. This isn’t right. That is abuse. That is harassment,” Lopez said.

Doug Ostling, a tenant organizer and resident of 140-50 Ash Ave., said he’s “sick and tired of Zara’s harassment tactics and attempts” to raise their rents.

“This is our home. This is our community. We pay our rent just like everyone else, but Zara continues to harass us and treat us like pawns in their money-making schemes,” Ostling said. “They don’t make basic repairs and then try to raise our rent? Enough is enough. We just want to live peacefully and in safe and livable homes!”

The tenants claim Zara is trying to unlawfully raise rents by filing Major Capital Improvement (MCI) applications with the NYS Department of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR), the state agency that oversees rent-stabilized buildings in New York.

They’re calling on DHCR to deny Zara’s applications due to building disrepairs and apply the letter of the law which prohibits MCIs while certain violations exist.

The tenants allege that there is a lack of heat and hot water, roaches and mice infestation in the hallway and basement, leaking roofs, broken garage chutes, and security cameras they can’t access. According to the tenants, Zara’s repairs include “patchwork jobs” that quickly fall back into disrepair.

Zara Realty, which manages about 2,500 rent-stabilized apartments in Queens and surrounding areas, was sued in 2019 by New York State Attorney General Letitia James over violations of New York’s rent stabilization and tenant harassment laws.

In response to the Flushing tenants’ allegations, Zara Realty said it “provides quality, compliant, affordable housing and refutes the baseless accusations.”

“The company’s unwavering commitment remains in providing top-notch homes for its tenants that are clean, safe and modernized — meeting the standards set by all New York City and New York State climate laws and mandates,” the company said in a statement.

According to Zara, it cannot raise rents or MCI costs without the city or state approval.

“It is important to note that the process for any major capital improvement (MCI) project at a rent-stabilized building requires that tenants weigh in and landlords establish cause, that is before state regulators authorize any related cost increase,” Zara Realty said in a statement. “The company continually makes quality capital investments in all its properties, as approved by New York State and, in turn, any cost increases incurred by our tenants are directly authorized, in advance, by those same state regulators.”

According to Zara, the company is years ahead of the 2025 and 2030 environmental standards set for building owners that city and state regulators have mandated to “decarbonize, solarize rooftops, and replace older heating and hot water systems with cleaner, greener energy efficient models” to boost performance while reducing emissions.

In regards to safety, Zara said it reaffirms “its stance on tenants to respect the safety and security of neighbors and buildings where they live,” while noting concerns of “unauthorized people gaining access to their building.” Zara also noted that city public records show it’s in compliance with ADA accessibility guidelines, as well as heating and hot water requirements.

Meanwhile, organizers said their demands are clear.

“Audit all MCI in the Zara portfolio and pause all current MCI until the audit is complete,” said Rima Begum, associate director of the Housing Stability Program at Chhaya CDC.

Xiaowen Liang, an attorney at Queens Legal Services’ Tenant Rights Coalition, said Zara’s deceptive rent practices and intimidation have gone on for too long.

“It’s time for the NYS Department of Homes and Community Renewal to step up and apply the law fairly by denying these unlawful MCI applications,” Liang said. “These tenants deserve better. They deserve dignity and respect and they deserve to live in safe and affordable homes. We won’t stop fighting until Zara is held accountable and puts an end to their exploitation of these tenants and their families.”

Local elected officials, such as State Senator John Liu and Congresswoman Grace Meng, are supporting those who are speaking out against Zara Realty.

“Zara has a long history of mismanagement and harassment in its buildings and this example here in Flushing is one the worst,” Liu said. “Using MCIs to improperly increase rents while buildings sit in rampant disrepair with outstanding violations is totally unacceptable. Enough is enough.”

Meng said that tenant harassment is “unacceptable” and must not be tolerated.

“No New Yorker deserves to be subjected to harassment, unfair treatment and adverse conditions by their landlord and that includes those who reside in apartments owned by Zara Realty,” Meng said.