Writing on the wall

Rats, trash, broken elevators plague nabe’s ‘worst’ building

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When a typical New York City apartment dweller has something that needs fixing — a water leak, or the heater isn’t working — it’s normally addressed with a quick call to the superintendent or landlord.

That’s not the case for handyman Nelson Talavera. There’s no calling anybody. If he needs something in his apartment fixed, he fixes it himself.

“I take care of that — anything it needs, liquid or other things I take care of it,” Talavera said in Spanish. “Right now, I remodeled the bathroom because there was a leak. I had to remodel it from top to bottom to fix the leak and prevent another one from happening.”

Talavera does his own repairs because he knows he can’t rely on his building’s superintendent or landlord to come by and fix the problem in a reasonable amount of time. At last check, Talavera’s superintendent lives in Westchester County.

“If you want anything fixed inside your apartment, you’re going to have to do it yourself,” Talavera said. “If there’s a leak or something like that you, can call (the superintendent). But he won’t come.”

Talavera has lived at 99 Marble Hill Ave., for the past four years. The 55-unit building sits at the corner of West 228th Street across from St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church, and is owned by Richard Nussbaum through a limited liability corporation.

Repeat honors

Nussbaum has his own notoriety. He’s No. 18 among Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ worst landlords. His Marble Hill building has racked up nearly 350 violations with the city’s housing preservation and development department — and 10 violations with the city’s buildings department — over the last year.

Nussbaum is no stranger to the public watchlist, appearing last year at No. 6. He also made appearances in 2014 and 2016 when Letitia James — the current state attorney general — was in Williams’ role.

The building has numerous problems, Talavera said. The heat rarely works, and the elevator breaks down frequently. A 27-year-old who’s lived in the building most of her life — who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation — agreed the elevator is a big issue, but there are also issues with mold and lead paint as well.

The “elevator is down — out of 12 months of the year, I would say 11 months,” she said. “So, we would have the elevator working one month out of the year.”

Having no elevator is especially a problem for the building’s senior citizens living on the upper floors, she said. It’s not easy walking up and down six flights of steps.

But those residents have good neighbors, she said, who pull together to help those seniors get from the upper floors down to the street.

“They’re up there using walkers to get around,” Talavera said. “It’s not fair to them — that they have to get down using the stairs like that” with their walkers.

Several of the building’s residents took Nussbaum to court over many of these issues last year. The court forced Nussbaum to make some repairs, they said, but they didn’t think he would pay attention to the building for long. A year later, Talavera says he hasn’t seen any improvements.

Nussbaum didn’t return multiple requests for comment.

Are they counting these violations right?

Kenny Nasab, the landlord of a nearby building at 2707 Sedgwick Ave., joined Nussbaum on the public advocate’s list. His Kingsbridge Heights building has just 69 units, but more than 200 city violations over the past year. And like Nussbaum, this is hardly Nasab first time popping up on the public advocate’s list.

One of Nasab’s tenants, former handyman Juan Peña, says he also puts his old career skills to work inside his apartment instead of wasting time trying to involve the building’s management. Peña, whose apartment also sits next to a trash storage area, added 2702 Sedgwick is regularly cited for allowing garbage on the street to pile up. That has led to a rat problem.

“Oh, there’s rats,” Peña said, in Spanish. “When I open the front door, I see them running.”

Another tenant, who chose to only give his initials JT out of fear of retaliation, said he’s noticed the trash and rat problems, too.

“There was a rat on the first floor on the third step, dying, bleeding, bubbles of blood coming out of its face,” JT said. “It was there for God knows how long.”

Nasab told The Riverdale Press he didn’t realize Jumaane Williams included him on the worst landlords list again this year. Nasab owns several properties, and he said the more properties one owns, the more violations they’ll have.

The public advocate’s office doesn’t “understand, they only look at number of violations, they don’t look at the whole story,” Nasab said. “It is what it is, you know.”

 Other ways to hurt tenants

Nasab wouldn’t share what other factors Williams was missing when putting him on the list, which included three properties Nasab owns in the Bronx, covering 134 units and 417 city violations. 

Many landlords rack up these violations year after year, said Samuel Stein, a housing policy analyst with the Community Service Society. That’s because it’s less expensive than improving their properties. They weigh the cost of repairing their buildings against the cost of letting them fall into disrepair and paying some fines — meaning maintaining slum-like conditions simply becomes a cost of doing business.

“So, having the worst landlords list is a way of changing that a little bit,” Stein said. “Because it might make it harder for them to do business with the city in the future, (and) it might make it harder for them to expand their business portfolio in general, if they're seen as a pariah”

Something the public advocate’s list misses, Stein said, is a landlord who uses the screening process to deny tenants with Section 8 or rental assistance vouchers. These don’t show up as city violations, and thus are hard to find.

The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t made living at 99 Marble Hill any easier. Talavera has been out of work for a while and hasn’t received any financial assistance. So far, the landlord hasn’t threatened eviction, but Talavera worries it could be coming.

“It’s been two or three months, and so far we haven’t been summoned to court,” he said. “But if it keeps growing, I’m sure he’ll come around to screw us.”

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