Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Fed Up with 'Intolerable' Conditions, Tenants Sue SRO Landlord

The bathroom shared by Winston Pitts, his wife and two other tenants

First published 6 October 2016 in West Side Rag

The toilet rocked off its hole as Winston Pitts, 73, showed me the bathroom he and his wife share with two other SRO tenants at 361 W. 116th Street. “I’ve lived in New York for 42 years, but I’ve never lived like this.”
Pitts and six other residents have filed suit against the building’s owner, Morningside 116 Associates LLC, and John Lasala, head of the corporation, seeking immediate repairs to remedy the now 165 open violations issued by HPD (Housing Preservation and Development), including rat infestations, exposed wiring, broken windows, no hot water, leaks, broken entrance doors, peeling lead paint, defective floors and more.
During a visit Wednesday afternoon, conditions seemed more on par with a Jacob Riis photograph than a rapidly gentrifying brownstone block in Morningside Heights. Pitts keeps his room pin-neat – adorned with religious icons, family pictures and an MTA commendation plaque for heroism in breaking up a subway robbery. But there’s evidence of disrepair all around, from leaks into food preparation areas, to mold and dicey electrical outlets.
Garbage bags cover broken windows
Pitts says it wasn’t always this way. When the retired construction worker moved in 12 years ago, the owner was an “old man who was here 7 days a week.” When that owner died, someone else started showing up to collect the rent – in Pitts’ case, $450 a month for a single room and kitchenette.
In May 2016, the estate of Leonia Adams sold the building to its current owners for $1.2 million, according to city records.
The transition hasn’t been rosy.
A kitchenette in the building

According to the lawsuit, the new landlord, John Lasala, has made repeated buyout offers to tenants, even after they declined interest; has failed to correct conditions; provided no maintenance or services in the building; and filed frivolous legal actions against residents.
To combat those suits, Pitts says the tenants contacted Manhattan Legal Services (a program of Legal Services NYC) and Goddard Riverside Law Project for assistance. Beyond dealing with the suits against tenants, the lawyers also focused on the conditions under which they had been living.
The tenants prevailed with a default judgment when Lasala failed to appear in Housing Court, according to Jasmin E. Torres, one of the tenants’ attorneys. After that victory, tenants filed the current affirmative suit seeking to compel the owners to restore livability to the units and cease harassing tenants. The case is to be heard Thursday morning.
A bathroom floor
“We want the court to ensure completion of work so that our clients are in premises that are livable,” says Torres. “They seek to be afforded a decent quality of life like every other resident of this city.”
Adds Tayyaba Khokhar of Goddard Riverside Law Project, “They’ve been harassed by the landlord with repeated buyout demands even after they’ve made it clear that they intend to stay in the building.” Goddard Riverside calls the conditions “intolerable.”
Pitts says he’s heard rumors of other tenants being offered and accepting $10,000 to move out. It wouldn’t tempt him, he says, noting that sum would only cover the cost of acquiring a different apartment and moving. An apartment with a rent likely far above $450.
No mailboxes in the hallway
WSR made several attempts to contact Lasala. A publicly posted phone number is no longer in service. There’s no attorney contact listed on Morningside 116 Associates LLC filing with the Secretary of State’s office. There was no indication of Lasala’s or the LLC’s name when WSR visited 59 W 119th Street, the address on the court papers. A text to an unconfirmed cell number has not yet garnered a reply.
Pitts says he’s met Lasala a few times and has heard mentions of upcoming repairs, but hasn’t seen much action yet. “John [Lasala] seems like a nice guy, but nice guys can screw you, too.”