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Neighbors join forces vs. landlord

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With some help from a neighbor who spearheaded a similar movement in his own building, the multi-ethnic residents of 41-45 52nd St. formed a tenants' association that took the landlord to task on the 164 violations on record with the city's Housing Preservation and Development Department.

They won a consent decree in March from Queens Housing Court Judge James Grayshaw that required the landlord, Flushing-based NH Realty, to clean up the building, and the situation already is starting to improve, said Bruce Jung, a tenant who helped organize the more-than-30-member group.

A quick tour of the building Monday started with a walk through a modern, glassed-in entryway that replaced the old wood-framed door that residents said remained constantly ajar, providing a hangout for street drinkers and graffiti artists. A fully operational intercom offers access to the building. And inside, it is clear that garbage no longer lines the floor outside the trash chutes, where Jung said he was inspired to organize the building's residents.

About a year ago, Jung said, he became trapped in the trash chute closet in the hallway adjacent to his fourth-floor apartment.

"I was so scared," the 59-year-old resident recalled. The superintendent, who lives on the same floor, eventually responded to Jung's calls, he said. But that was the last straw.

Jung and Bill Killick, a lifelong resident of the circa-1940s six-story, red-brick apartment building, turned to City Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside). Killick, whose parents lived in the building before he did, had already circulated petitions to protest the conditions. In fact, Jung said, Killick is the hero of the building.

Gioia's office put the pair in touch with Rob McCreanor, a part-time tenants' advocate and full-time lawyer in Manhattan.

McCreanor had put together a tenants' association in his own building at 41-15 50th Ave., just a few blocks from where Jung and Killick live.

"He did everything," Jung said of McCreanor, who modestly shot back, "Nah, we did this as a group."

McCreanor, Killick and Jung called for a first meeting in November 2003. And much to McCreanor's surprise, a majority of the building's tenants turned out.

"The first time I was astonished," said McCreanor, whose own tenants' association took a little longer to build up steam. He attributed the massive response to pent-up concerns about the building's condition.

Breaking down the communication barrier between the diverse residents at the 52nd Street building was difficult at first, Jung and McCreanor said. Most are Hispanic. But about 30 percent of the tenants are Korean, said Jung, who translated for many of them.

"Definitely, a whole lot of funny stories," McCreanor said of the group's first interaction.

The assembled residents, who met in the building's lobby under the supervision of police officers from the 108th Police Precinct, organized their grievances and filed suit in Queens Housing Court.

As of Monday, the Housing Preservation and Development Department had 164 complaints on record, including 38 class C violations, which by law must be fixed within 24 hours. Class C complaints include failure to provide hot water, inaccessibility to boiler room, peeling lead paint and mold.

Eventually they arrived at an agreement with the landlord to clean up the building, using some of the most serious violations to secure more wide-ranging solutions, McCreanor said.

NH Realty, the landlord, could not be reached for comment, but McCreanor said most of the repairs have been made.

"I'm very happy and content," said 64-year-old Esthervina Gampat, who had two cracked windows replaced and one of the rooms in her apartment painted. The native of the Dominican Republic, who has lived in the building since 1983, said things are much better now, although she would still like a new stove and kitchen sink cabinet to replace the one that is rusting out at the bottom.

In a building that is unlikely to become a co-op given its proximity to the subway - the No. 7 rumbles by the south side of the building about every few minutes - a tenants' association is the next-best thing to ensure the upkeep of the building that is a mix of rent-controlled, rent-stabilized and market-rate housing, McCreanor said.

The tenants' association has met about five times and participation has remained high, McCreanor said.

Their next activity, however, should be a lot more fun. McCreanor's building will host a Fourth of July party to which both buildings are invited. The idea, he said, is to "generate some sort of cross-building communication," McCreanor said.

It forms part of McCreanor's plan to extend the model, which he said helps foster a sense of community and keeps down crime by making people more aware of one another, to other parts of the neighborhood.

McCreanor, who walking down the street between the two buildings is saluted by just about everybody, hopes to parlay the tenant association model into a full-time pursuit. He said he has reached out to some immigrant organizations in the area and is applying for grants to set up a dedicated service for area renters.

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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