WNYW Investigates: Tenants Living With No Bathrooms

It’s hard to imagine, but a group of mostly Hispanic tenants living in Washington Heights, an up and coming New York City neighborhood, have been living without bathrooms for more than two years. Fox 5 (WNYW-TV) has been covering the story since the beginning.

In early 2008, the landlord, Dorothea Levine, sent workers into tenants’ apartments to tear out the toilets, sinks, showers, and even the sheetrock. Levine claims she was looking for the source of water leaks, but she had not received any of the required permits to do the work, and the New York City Buildings Department issued a “stop work” order.

But it was too late. The bathrooms were destroyed. Tenants accused the landlord of trying to force them out by making their lives so unbearable. Most are low income families, primarily Dominicans, who’d been living in the building for decades in rent controlled or rent stabilized apartments.

The New York City Buildings Department ordered Levine to immediately repair the bathrooms, but she refused to comply. The department declared the situation an “emergency” and sent it’s own repair crew to the building, but Levine’s building manager ordered the city workers to leave. So the tenants, with the help of City Councilman Robert Jackson’s staff, began a rent strike, hired an attorney, and took Levine to court.

The Buildings Department also undertook legal action against the landlord. At issue were the more than 500 outstanding building code violations, including peeling lead paint in apartments where children were living , ceilings literally caving in, and of course, the lack of bathrooms.

The case dragged on for more than two years, as Levine used every stalling tactic in the books. She changed attorneys, hired and fired several different architects and contractors, claimed the tenants wouldn’t allow her in their apartments to make repairs, claimed to be too sick to come to court, and made many other excuses.

Adding to the delays was the fact that five different Housing Court judges have been assigned to the case. All the while, the tenants, most of them low income, were forced to use the bathrooms in vacant apartments. Those apartments had no heat or electricity.

Fox 5’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” reporter Arnold Diaz has been chronicling the tenants’ struggles over two a half years. He’s done reports confronting Levine, her building manager, and even “shaming” the New York City Housing Court for allowing the case to drag on for far too long.

That persistence has paid off. As you’ll see in this, the sixth report, the tenants finally have their bathrooms back. We are including links to all the reports done.

This is not the only Washington Heights building in which landlords are trying to force out long time tenants, most of them Hispanic, in an effort to renovate and raise the rents or sell the buildings. It’s ironic that one of the reasons that has made this area so appealing, the vibrant Hispanic culture and sense of community, is now being threatened as the area becomes more unaffordable.

But at least in this one case, there is proof that, if organized, tenants can successfully fight back. And Fox5 is proud to have continually shed the spotlight on the degrading conditions the tenants were forced to endure until justice was done.

Arnold Diaz investigates consumer protection issues for a segment called Shame, Shame, Shame for WNYW in NYC. For more of his reports visit myfoxny.com.