After five years of fighting a landlord accused of bullying Black and Brown tenants out of their homes, only one original occupant is left in this Bed-Stuy apartment building.
But Ava Pennie is not giving up.
The West Indian grandmother, who lives at 693 Madison Street with grandkids, last week had the latest piece of paperwork filed in her battle against her landlord, JIH Builders.
Addrana Montgomery, Housing Justice Attorney at Take Root Justice, said she had been working on the case to keep Pennie in her home since 2017, and they were going to keep fighting.
“Ms. Pennie is still hanging on. But it’s caused a lot of stress to her,” Montgomery said. “You know how we’re having conversations about how racism causes Black people to be sick and even kills us? That’s what this is.”
Montgomery said Isaac Hirsch and JIH Builders bought 693 Madison Street around 2016, and immediately began an “eviction and harassment campaign” to get the mostly Black and Brown tenants out of the building.
“The plan was to flip it and to make it more suitable for higher-end tenants,” she said, pointing to a trend seen perpetuated by many developers in Bed-Stuy in the latest wave of displacement.
However, in 2017, the tenants’ situation was uncovered by grassroots activism group Equality for Flatbush. The group contacted Take Root Justice, and legal proceedings began.
“They came in the neighborhood thinking it was slam dunk to get rid of the long-term tenants.,” Montgomery said. “No, the hell we’re moving. We’re fighting to keep our homes.”
On Saturday, that community will gather at the property at 1 p.m. for a rally to share next steps in their advocacy for Pennie, and put pressure on the landlord.
Pennie’s case is currently progressing ahead of the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR). A separate eviction case is on hold.
With the DHCR, Pennie’s lawyers argue they have strong evidence to show the building is in fact rent stabilized, as it was built before 1974 and has more than six units. If the building is rent stabilized, Pennie cannot be evicted, because rent-stabilized tenants are entitled to a lease renewal.
JIH Builders argue that the building is exempt from rent-stabilization due to its previous renovations. If at least 75% of a building’s systems have been replaced or renovated, it can be eligible for exemption from rent-control.
However, Montgomery says it’s highly unlikely that 75% of the building was renovated. Also, under New York law, proof of tenant harassment bars owners from claiming exemption from the rent laws. Over the past five years, she says JIH Builders have repeatedly intimated tenants in an effort to get them to move.
According to Equality for Flatbush, the landlord used tactics such as breaking into apartments, changing the locks and illegally locking out tenants, 24-hour construction on empty apartments, daily calls telling tenants they must move and refusal to issue new leases or do repairs.
At one point, Pennie was rushed to hospital after industrial paint was used inside with fumes so toxic an ambulance had to be called for her and her grandchildren, Equality for Flatbush said.
Despite the harrassment, Montgomery said Bed-Stuy Pennie’s home, and there’s no alternative place she can afford to move in the neighborhood, now.
As she looks forward to the latest decision from the DHCR, she said she hoped Saturday’s event raises awareness about the landlord and the issues at hand.
“During this time when our country is looking deeper into systemic racial and economic inequities, the audacity and violence in which this landlord has intruded on this historically Black and Brown neighborhood is unpalatable and enraging, quite frankly. ,” she said.
Isaac Hirsch and JIH Builders did not respond to multiple requests for comment over phone and email.