It has been years since Patricia Edwards’s top floor apartment in Brooklyn has felt like an acceptable home. When it rains, water leaks into the kitchen and living room. It also pours through a crack in the bathroom ceiling so big that Ms. Edwards needs an umbrella just to use the toilet.
Still, at around $1,100 a month, the rent-regulated one-bedroom unit in Crown Heights is relatively affordable in a rapidly gentrifying New York City neighborhood where the median rent is more than twice as high. For 20 years, Ms. Edwards, 63, said she had almost never missed a rent payment.
But when the pandemic hit last year, leaving many of her neighbors struggling financially, Ms. Edwards, a retired bank employee, decided to do something she had never done: She refused to pay.
Ms. Edwards became one of a dozen residents — about half the building’s tenants — who are withholding rent until the landlord forgives the debt owed by residents affected by the pandemic and makes repairs to a building they say has been neglected for too long.
The protest at 1616 President Street is in some ways a microcosm of the way the pandemic has pushed many tenants in the nation’s largest city and most expensive housing market to the brink.
Across New York, many tenants who lost their jobs after the city went into lockdown are facing millions of dollars in unpaid rent and have been kept in their homes by government aid programs and a state eviction moratorium that expires in January.
But the pandemic has also mobilized some tenants to take on landlords who have done little to improve their living conditions and pushed them into a new kind of activism.
What has unfolded at the President Street building is perhaps an extreme example. The building’s landlord has been described by officials as one of the most negligent in New York and the city has filed suit against the owner for repeatedly failing to address longstanding problems.
The landlord argues that the property has been properly maintained and that in some cases tenants themselves have blocked access to their apartments and prevented repairs from being made.
Several residents, including Ms. Edwards, have had eviction lawsuits filed against them. With their protest in its 17th month, the tenants owe more than $256,000, including about $18,000 that Ms. Edwards has set aside in a bank account.
“I took good care of the apartment for them,” Ms. Edwards said. “They just refused to take care of it for me.”
In February, the city’s housing department sued the owners and managers of 1616 President Street in Brooklyn housing court, accusing them of not making critical repairs, falsely claiming dozens of violations were addressed and filing “baseless” eviction lawsuits against tenants. The suit seeks to impose financial penalties and force the landlord to correct all the problems at the building.
Jeremy House, a spokesman for the department, said it was “using the full force of its enforcement powers” to support tenants.
“Landlords cannot ignore their responsibilities to maintain safe, quality housing,” he said.
For some residents of the President Street building, it took the pandemic and the housing and financial crisis it set off to persuade them to risk eviction and challenge their landlord.
“Before the pandemic, I don’t think I would do this,” said Vincia Barber, who lives in the building and is helping lead the protest. “I think with the power that this landlord has, it wouldn’t happen if it was just you. It had to take certain numbers.”
Many issues were well known before the pandemic: The landlord tenants had been dealing with, Jason Korn, had been named last year by the city public advocate’s office as the “worst” in the city, based on the hundreds of open violations of the housing code at several of his buildings, including 1616 President Street.
Housing Department records showed that as of the week of Sept. 27, the property had 220 open violations, including 32 considered “immediately hazardous.” The problems included a cockroach and mouse infestation and lead paint peeling off the wall.
Mr. Korn did not respond to messages left at phone numbers listed for him.
Though Mr. Korn had been listed as an officer and managing agent for the building, the actual owner of the building appeared for years to be a limited liability company called 1616 President Street Realty.
Limited liability companies have become a widespread tool used to shield property owners from personal liability while obscuring their identities. In some cases, they have made it harder for city officials and tenants to hold actual owners accountable for poor conditions. It’s not clear if Mr. Korn was also an owner.
Josh Rosenblum, a lawyer for the owners, said he believed that “the building was being maintained” and that the open violations reflected problems that had been corrected but not updated in the city’s database.
“It created the impression that there were more serious conditions than there actually were,” he said.
Records filed with the city also showed that the building had been sold in September for more than $3.1 million to another limited liability company, named 1616 President Street Associates.
Residents said that workers for a Long Island-based company, Gilman Management Corporation, had recently showed up at the building and claimed to be the new owners. City records show the new limited liability company reports having an office at Gilman’s headquarters.
Messages left with Gilman and several officers with the company were not returned.
The protest at 1616 President Street began amid fanfare in May 2020, when tenants at hundreds of buildings nationwide pledged to withhold rent until their rental obligations were erased — under the rallying cry of “cancel rent” — and longstanding maintenance issues were addressed.
It’s unclear how many of those protests were continuing, particularly as landlords, many of whom have also taken a financial hit, have struck deals with tenants over their debt.
Ms. Barber, a nanny, moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the building on President Street in May 2019 — a bigger unit than her previous one-bedroom home, giving her and her 15-year-old daughter more space.
But she soon realized that there was a problem when she found a leak in her bathroom after living there for just a month. She said the apartment was also infested with cockroaches.
When the pandemic hit, Ms. Barber lost her job, and quickly became unable to pay rent. She found a new job earlier this year, but as of September, she said she owes more than $38,000. By withholding rent, she said she wanted to force the landlord to fix problems that were only superficially addressed before.
“I think if I don’t continue doing what I’m doing, this will not change,” she said.
The protest has involved months of high-stakes posturing and negotiation.
For a period of several months last year, tenants in several cases refused to let Mr. Korn or contractors hired by the landlord or property owner into their apartments to make any fixes.
They saw it as a way to pressure the landlord to come up with stronger solutions that permanently fixed problems instead of the quick repairs they said only temporarily addressed leaks or mold.
But for the landlord, Mr. Rosenblum said, the move essentially prevented him from making repairs that tenants were demanding.
“You can’t really have it both ways,” he said. “You can’t claim conditions and then deny access.”
The tenants have also wielded New York’s pandemic rent relief program as a point of leverage. Through the program, lower-income renters can have their rent debt paid by the state, with the money going directly to landlords.
The tenants said they would apply, but only after the landlord agreed to make certain repairs, according to JohnAugust Bridgeford, a tenant organizer with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a nonprofit housing group helping the President Street tenants.
Both Mr. Rosenblum and the tenants said they had been close to an agreement before the building was sold. That agreement would have addressed outstanding repairs and provided some sort of rent relief to tenants, Mr. Rosenblum said.
Now it is not clear what posture the building’s new owners will take. And the prospect of dealing with someone new has left many tenants exasperated.
“I sincerely regret getting involved in it,” Ms. Edwards said. “Now that I’m involved in it, I can’t stop because of treatment that I’m receiving.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.