Inside Stories

Squatters made our life hell so we're fixing our building and kicking our landlord out

By Emily Myers | September 7, 2022 - 9:30AM

At one point, squatters living in derelict apartments outnumbered renters at 331 East 14th St. in the East Village.

Tenants Association of 331 East 14th St.

Squatters, leaks, collapsed ceilings, destroyed mailboxes, a faulty elevator, and a broken intercom—these are some of the problems that prompted tenants at 331 East 14th St. in the East Village to try and kick out their landlord. This can be possible by filing a 7A complaint and asking the court to appoint an administrator to take the place of the owner. Tenants Jillian Heft and Michael Shanahan spoke to Brick about their experience and their hopes for the future. 

Jillian: I moved into my apartment at the height of the pandemic so got a pretty decent deal. I signed an 18-month lease for $1,600. When I saw the place, I wasn’t aware that the intercom was broken, or how easy it was to break into the front door. We have approximately 24 units in the building and only 11 of them are livable. So even back then, two years ago, there were people I’d pass in the doorway and assume they were my neighbors—turns out they were not, they were people who had broken into the building and staying in the empty units. 


[Editor's Note: Brick Underground's Inside Stories feature first-person accounts of interesting, real-life New York City real estate experiences. Have a story to share? Drop us an email. We respect all requests for anonymity.]


Deteriorating conditions in the building

Michael: I’ve lived in the building for over 30 years and the current owner is the third owner while I've been here. I’m in one of the building’s rent-stabilized apartments. When the laws changed in 2019, making it more difficult to destabilize apartments, my theory is the owner changed their strategy and decided to make the building unlivable. I’d guess 90 percent of the vacant apartments are uninhabitable—the bathrooms and kitchens have been removed, the ceilings are collapsing, and they are filled with mold. [Editor’s note: According to court documents, the building is owned by Liberty Ventures LLC and managed by Keystone Management. Daniel Ohebshalom is the principal member of both these companies. Brick Underground reached out to the management team for comment but did not get a response.]

Many of us think one of the squatters was pimping the building last winter. He was the most aggressive, brazen—he would walk in straight past us—and the most adept at breaking the locks. When the police finally did a sweep of the building, they found tools for breaking locks, as well as lock cylinders, making us believe he actually changed the locks on some of the empty units.

At one point we were outnumbered—there were more squatters than there were tenants in the building. In the meter room right by the hallway as you enter the building, they were defecating in a bucket there. And there were two ceiling collapses from toilets overflowing from having been used by people who were squatting in those apartments. The police told us to have pepper spray in one hand and your phone out on video in the other when climbing the stairs. 

 Deteriorating conditions at the building include leaks and collapsed ceilings. 

Deteriorating conditions at the building include leaks and collapsed ceilings. 

Tenants Association of 331 East 14th St.

Jillian: It’s a very scary feeling. I’m a young female who lives alone. Our elevator is broken. I’m climbing six flights of stairs with pepper spray in my hand, out of breath, hoping that no one has bad intentions.

Intruders also damaged the mailboxes. They were broken open, our mail was stolen, and we haven't had functioning mailboxes for months. New mail boxes are installed but USPS still needs to approve the mailbox, so we still can’t get mail. Also, mailboxes are only provided for the livable apartments suggesting the landlord has no intention of doing anything with the apartments that are rotting. 

 The mailbox unit was badly damaged to the point that mailboxes could no longer close.

The mailbox unit was badly damaged to the point that mailboxes could no longer close.

Tenants Association of 331 East 14th St.

Taking the landlord to court for maintenance issues

Michael: Before we formed a tenants’ association earlier this year, another tenant and I took the landlord to court over maintenance issues. The landlord then had a court order to fix the mailboxes. 

Pro Tip:

Tenants can level the playing field when dealing with a landlord by forming a tenant association. "By forming an association, tenants strengthen themselves legally, politically and financially, and can stop the landlord from utilizing divide and conquer tactics," says Sam Himmelstein, a New York City tenants-rights lawyer (and longtime Brick Underground columnist) with decades of experience organizing and leveraging tenant associations. "No minimum number of tenants is needed—even two or three is enough—but the bigger the group is, the more effective it will be." To schedule a consultation, click here or call 212-349-3000.  

We had already paid out of our own pockets to have a locksmith come and put a metal plate on the front door to reinforce it. We knew we were not legally allowed to change the lock ourselves and the door didn’t close in the door frame. This was part of the broader problem: There was also no lock on the front door. The door also should have been self closing. Even when it was finally repaired, it was broken again within a few weeks and it’s still not working. 

The vestibule—a four feet square space—is commonly used for people to defecate, urinate, to get high, to sleep. Once it gets cold again we will be having to climb over bodies in the vestibule to get into the building. 

 Intruders gain access and sleep where they can—sometimes in the lobby.

Intruders gain access and sleep where they can—sometimes in the lobby.

Tenants Association of 331 East 14th St.

Jillian: My lease should have been up in April but I wasn’t notified that they wanted to terminate my tenancy until the day before my lease ended. Management called me and said, “When you move out, leave the key.” And I said, “I’m not moving out.” 

Finding local tenant advocates

Michael: We don’t have a super on premises. Nothing is ever done—it always has to be court ordered and even then it is done cheaply. 

I would talk about this to anyone who would listen and earlier this year I met a woman at the dog run who told me about Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), a local tenants’ rights organization.  I reached out to them and someone came to look at the building. Through GOLES we got a legal team at TakeRoot Justice to represent us and we began considering our options. 

Jillian: Like several other tenants, I’ve been on rent strike since May and paying my rent into an escrow account with our legal team.

Kicking out a landlord via the 7A administrator route

Michael: The 7A was one path we could take and when the tenants got together, we voted on it. We all felt that as long as this management and this landlord are in place it’s going to be a constant fight. Our hope is that if someone else take over the building, we can finally get some repairs done right. It’s now been two years that we haven’t had a front door buzzer. 

Jillian: My hopes for the 7A is that our rent goes towards repairs and that we all get to stay in our homes. I do have my rent history and my unit was last filed with DHCR in 2013 for $1,100. That’s my other motive. It’s possible I might also be sitting in a rent-stabilized apartment.

My concern with the 7A process would be if they didn’t have money to make the repairs in the time frame we want. But I’m so used to not having an intercom and not getting packages here. I haven't been able to get mail in eight months, so if those things took a while at least in the long run we’d be safer.

Michael: The judge did allude to the fact that not all 7As are created equal. Our lawyers did address this in a meeting early on—it depends on the administrator you get—but they said they would, to the extent that they can, try to get us a benevolent 7A administrator. Our hope is that we get someone who will actually do the repairs and be on our side and be a representative for us. 

 

Emily Myers

Senior Writer/Podcast Producer

Emily Myers is a senior writer, podcast host, and producer at Brick Underground. She studied journalism at the University of the Arts, London, and graduated with a MA Honors degree in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh.

Brick Underground articles occasionally include the expertise of, or information about, advertising partners when relevant to the story. We will never promote an advertiser's product without making the relationship clear to our readers.
topics: