Early in the morning hours of Tuesday, Elizabeth Thompson boarded a bus destined to Albany.
Now retired, Thompson spends her time fighting for the rights of apartment tenants she says are being taken advantage of by their landlords. It’s what took Thompson to the state capital this week, and a sidewalk outside Bronx Housing Civil Court the week before.
Thompson joined her fellow members from the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition to rally outside the State Capitol building with housing rights activists from across the state. Lawmakers are mulling over myriad rent reforms right now, designed to protect tenants like Thompson by attempting to close loopholes they say are used by predatory landlords.
“I’m just a statistic,” Thompson said by phone as her bus made its way through Columbia County. She lives in a Kingsbridge Heights building owned by Moshe Piller, a frequent source of ire for tenants’ rights advocates.
“I’m just money to him.”
Thompson isn’t afraid to express her thoughts, whether it’s in Albany, or on the Grand Concourse, where she was last week protesting two of the Bronx’s “worst evictors” in a rally organized by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition. That group, known for advocating for laws expanding access to attorneys for tenants in housing court, published a list with JustFix.nyc and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project of what they described as the worst evictors in New York City on May 6.
Piller was not one of the seven Bronx landlords dubbed “worst evictors,” but he was one of five Brooklyn landlords listed. In 2018, he evicted three families from Thompson’s building on Claflin Avenue, and eight families from four buildings he owns in Marble Hill, according to city marshal data.
Piller could not be reached for comment, but a woman, who would only identify herself as Mindy, answered the phone at his management company’s office in Brooklyn and vehemently denied unjust evictions.
“Tenants that are evicted obviously deserve to be evicted, otherwise the court wouldn’t let us evict them,” Mindy said.
“Nobody’s helping me,” Thompson said at the May 9 protest. Her Claflin Avenue building is in a zone guaranteeing tenants a right to counsel, but Thompson says her pension and Social Security income make her personally ineligible.
“I work in the city. I live in the city all my life. What am I supposed to do?” she said. “I’m not qualified for a lawyer. The court is not helping me out.”
The city council passed the right to counsel law in 2017, guaranteeing all income-eligible tenants the right to legal representation when facing eviction in housing court by 2022. The law is being phased in a few ZIP codes at a time, with Bronx ZIP codes 10457, 10467, 10468 and 10462 currently eligible.
In April, May and June of last year, 56 percent of tenants facing eviction had an attorney in right to counsel ZIP codes, according to Right to Counsel NYC. The citywide rate is 30 percent, which is still high compared to 2013 when just 1 percent of tenants facing eviction had an attorney.
An attorney can mean the difference between keeping a home and ending up on the streets. The city’s civil justice office, which is responsible for funding legal services for needy tenants facing eviction, said of the 22,000 tenants represented by city-funded attorneys in 2018, some 84 percent kept their homes.
Unlike the public advocate’s annual landlord watchlist, the worst evictors list focuses on evictions in right to counsel ZIP codes, not on city agency violations. Despite the difference in methodology, 2015 worst landlord Ved Parkash — who owns five buildings in Kingsbridge — was also 2018’s worst Bronx evictor.
At the housing court protest, tenants chanted in English and Spanish, and recounted their struggles with abusive landlords, punctuating each declaration with “That ain’t right!” The protest targeted two of the Bronx’s worst landlords, Steven Finkelstein and The Morgan Group, who each own three buildings in Kingsbridge.
“People are being forced out of their apartments because of the greed,” said Omar Owens, who lives in a Finkelstein-owned building in Highbridge and works with Community Action for Safe Apartments to help his fellow tenants.
“You find them in the middle of the night, moving out, because they don’t want to have to go through the embarrassment of being evicted in broad daylight.”
The protest culminated in tenants pinning eviction orders of their own to a piece of cardboard that read “Bronx Worst Evictors.” Then a few of the protesters entered the Grand Concourse housing court, presenting the attorneys for The Morgan Group and Finkelstein with “eviction notices.” Their lawyers are at housing court every day, according to Susanna Blankley, Right to Counsel NYC’s coalition coordinator.
The biggest burden protesters repeatedly identified were the costs associated with the major capital improvement program, better known as MCIs. The program allows landlords to raise rents 6 percent a year to pay for “major improvements,” like window replacements or kitchen renovations.
Currently, Albany lawmakers are considering a proposal that would eliminate MCIs.
“They up the ante to the point where people who are already rent burdened can no longer afford to pay their rents,” Owens said of predatory landlords. “The Bronx is under attack. They’re burning it with MCIs.”
The push for housing reform will continue Sunday, May 19 with a housing justice forum at Christ Church Riverdale, 5030 Henry Hudson Parkway, beginning at 3 p.m. Sponsored by Northwest Bronx Indivisible, the forum will feature speakers from the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, tenant attorney Kenneth Schaefer, and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz.