Tenants in a 36-unit Crown Heights building have banded together to organize a rent strike in their building, saying they have been without gas in their apartments for more than 100 days following a basement fire.
On Sunday, May 21, around 25 people — including New York City Councilmember Chi Ossé — rallied on the stoop of 170 New York Ave. to demand tenants' gas be reinstated; assurance on future fire safety and that all open complaints about building infrastructure is resolved.
Approximately two-thirds of the tenants have been withholding rent since March 1, and will continue withholding rent until the issues are resolved, they said.
The tenants are organizing with Brooklyn Eviction Defense Tenants Union, a borough-wide tenant union with more than 50 local tenant associations.
At the rally, tenant Colin Jakubczyk said he'd lived in the building for seven years and said it was sad they had to fight for the basics.
"We're not demanding luxury. Like, we want to not die in a fire; we want to cook dinner properly," Jakubczyk said.
According to the tenants, the gas has been off since Feb. 7, when a fire started in a basement apartment due to cooking overloading the electrical system. The tenants said there were no working alarms in the building to alert them to the fire and they awoke to the smell of smoke, with some units damaged. The gas went off on that date and had not been turned back on by the time of publication, 15 weeks later.
Living without gas for so long was taking its toll financially and physically, especially for older tenants, longtime resident Virginia Simmonds said.
"It is very difficult for the seniors and the disabled and people who live in the building who have no fixed income, and who have to use their little savings to go out and purchase food," she said.
Simmonds said the tenants had been offered a small two-burner stove to cook on, but every time they plug them in, they have to unplug everything else in the kitchen. The tenants had no assurance of their safety after the fire, in terms of building rewiring or installation of working fire alarms.
Simmonds said the only communication they had with the building owner post-fire was a physical letter from management company Hager Management seeking entry to their apartments to replace the gas stoves with electric stoves, which they were being asked to pay for, she said. Some tenants were not allowing management entry to their apartments to do the replacement, she added.
Tenant Marie Preske said, since the rally, she received a letter from Hager Management threatening to send her to collections. A number of tenants said they did not want to have to withhold rent, but they felt it was their only option. Councilmember Ossé echoed this sentiment.
"I'm not a fan of rent strikes, only in the fact that at the point someone has to go and organize a rent strike it means that so many other conditions have been set for you to be pushed to the limit where you have to come out here on a Sunday and fight against a landlord regime that is brutalizing your livelihood," Ossé said at the rally.
Ossé said the incident was part of a wider issue in which landlords were not being made to take accountability for poor living conditions in New York City. He called on landlord Jacob Hager to meet with the tenants and address their concerns.
"If you do not do that — because I see this as a criminal act to make people live in these conditions — we need to call on the Brooklyn District Attorney to open up a criminal investigation on the conditions of this building. I think this man deserves to go to jail," he said.
The property is registered to Jacob Hager at 170 N.Y. Properties LLC, and is managed by Hager Management Inc., according to NYC Housing Preservation and Development.
Many of the apartments in the building are rent-regulated, but some newer tenants said they pay market rate. Brooklyn Eviction Defense said they were dealing with the landlord regarding complaints at other buildings, and that the company owned about 50 properties.
Hager Management Inc. did not respond to multiple requests for comment on tenants' claims about the fire, their months without gas and the lack of communication over the past months.
HPD was contacted for comment on the open complaints and violations relating to the lack of gas and a roach infestation in parts of the building but did not provide a statement by the time of publication. Check back for updates.