Violations and vermin make building nearly unlivable

'Worst landlords' - Part I

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John Cawley has lived at 3971 Gouverneur Ave. for 23 years. He raised his daughter, now an NYPD inspector, there with his wife. 

Mr. Cawley has long considered himself a member of the community but now, with living conditions continuing to worsen over time, he is simply counting down the days for his lease to expire in order to escape what he called a unit run by the worst slumlord in the city.

His apartment features a gaping hole in the living room ceiling that Mr. Cawley said has been there for more than two years. Next to it, a leak sounded as though someone were pouring out a water bottle into the plastic container on the ground. Mr. Cawley said that had been there two days. 

The owner of the building is Harry Silverstein, whose structure at 3971 Gouverneur Ave. has racked up 250 violations with New York City Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and four violations with the Department of Buildings, according to Public Advocate Letitia James’ Worst Landlord Watchlist. 

According to the list, which annually ranks the city’s worst landlords based on the number of HPD and Buildings Department violations, Mr. Silverstein is the worst landlord in New York City. 

Mr. Silverstein owns a total of eight buildings, according to Ms. James’ report, and has a total of 2032 HPD violations and 50 more registered by the Department of Buildings – averaging out at a little more than 260 violations per building. He did not respond to requests for comment.

The second-worst landlord on the list, Allan Goldman, owns 25 buildings – 17 more than Mr. Silverman, or more than three times as many– but has 839 fewer HPD violations and 35 fewer Department of Buildings violations. Violations in Mr. Silverstein’s eight buildings affect 575 units there, while violations in Mr. Goldman’s 25 buildings affect 187 units, according to the list. 

The tenants at 3971 Gouverneur Ave. said most of the residents come from city programs and agencies that help pay for living expenses, although some declined to elaborate. One tenant who did not want his name to be published alleged that Mr. Silverstein often charges those programs at or above market rate for the apartments, despite the squalid living conditions.

Kevin Johnson, whose wife is on a program that helps the couple afford the apartment where they live with their two children, a 9-year-old and a 7-month-old, said he had to put down metal plates around the radiator and other parts of his home to keep rats from coming up to his apartment from the basement. He said there is little to be done about the mice though, except keeping food high above what they can reach. 

“When we first moved to this apartment, we called HPD and they said our apartment was never inspected, so we still don’t know if it’s been inspected,” he said. “We had rats coming out of our floor with a baby, man, what are we supposed to do?”

Mr. Johnson and his family have only lived in the building since May, and have already become fed up with the business practices of their landlord. Although they said the superintendent is helpful, he can only do so much with what little resources he is given. 

On Sunday night the pipes under Mr. Johnson’s kitchen sink burst, he said, rendering it useless, but Mr. Silverstein apparently told the family there was nothing he could do until Wednesday. 

“The landlord sent a text to the super saying the store they usually get supplies from is not open until Wednesday because of the Jewish holiday,” he said. “We’ve got to suffer from Sunday to Wednesday with no running kitchen water, we can’t wash our hands. We have to cook, make baby food.”

Even local politicians have been made aware of the problem: Councilman Andrew Cohen demanded the building be either fixed or sold in a statement on Oct. 14. 

“This type of irresponsible management of residential buildings is despicable and intolerable,” Mr. Cohen said in an Oct. 14 statement. “My district is home to a total of nine buildings owned by six individuals on this infamous list. We cannot look the other way, and tolerate the continued existence of unsafe and inhumane housing units in our neighborhoods.”

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said in a phone interview that he and his office have tried to work with Mr. Silverstein in the past, but to no avail. 

“The thing with the 100 Worst Landlord List is that there are so many bad landlords in that they don’t provide what they are supposed to provide, because they have found ways to – legit and not so legit, in my opinion – to jack up rents,” he said. “You have a lot of landlords that essentially torture their tenants to get them out, particularly in rent-stabilized apartments.”