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Tenants in collapsed Bronx building are suing landlord over harassment

More than two dozen tenants of a partially collapsed Bronx apartment building are suing their landlord to complete needed repairs and put an end to what they call a long-standing pattern of harassment.

The residents of 1915 Billingsley Terrace in Morris Heights say owner David Kleiner and his associates are using construction, coercion and deplorable conditions to drive them out of their units by making the environment unbearable. The residents also say the owner is pressuring them to sign forms waiving their rights to sue, renouncing rent reductions and falsely swearing to apartment improvements — a practice first reported by Gothamist last month.

Ivan Schoop, 32, grew up in the building and said he and other members of the newly formed tenant association are demanding their right to a safe environment following the collapse in December that displaced dozens of tenants.

“If people are not held accountable, who’s to say this won’t happen again?” said Schoop, whose seventh-floor apartment was destroyed in the collapse and ensuing clean-up. “We’re just there doing what we need to do and paying our rent.”

The lawsuit comes days after the first floor of a home under construction collapsed, killing a 33-year-old construction worker in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Building officials said the work at the home was being done without permits.

At least 26 other tenants in the Bronx complex are signing onto the lawsuit describing rat and roach infestations, broken windows, crumbling ceilings and leaking pipes in their units and building common areas. They’re also accusing the landlord of violating rent-stabilization laws by locking out tenants, as well as a superintendent of “profiteering” by collecting large payments in exchange for letting tenants move in.

Schoop said the problems were mounting for years before the December collapse.

“It wasn’t like everything was dandy and perfect and then the building came down,” Schoop said. “There were definite signs internally and externally. Violations that we saw.”

Kleiner did not respond to requests for comment.

The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development has issued at least 133 violations at the building since 2019. In just the past three months, the city’s issued penalties for 58 “immediately hazardous” conditions, including rat and roach infestations, a broken lock on the entrance and faulty self-closing doors meant to stop the spread of fires.

Following the collapse, city building inspectors also issued violations for illegally partitioned units and ordered the landlord to tear down walls in at least 11 apartments. Several tenants who returned to their apartments in recent weeks found them reconfigured or ransacked.

“A lot of the apartments were looted,” said Legal Aid Society attorney Zoe Kheyman, who is representing the tenants. “They have the right to live in a clean, safe environment for themselves and their families.”

DOB Commissioner James Oddo pinned the blame for the collapse on a structural engineer who he said misdiagnosed a load-bearing facade, leading workers to hammer directly into a structural support column as part of overdue repair work first flagged in 2020.

DOB and the Department of Investigation said they are continuing to investigate the cause of the collapse. The Bronx District Attorney’s also said it was investigating the disaster, but told Gothamist Thursday they did not have any new information to share.

The Dec. 11 disaster did not result in any injuries or deaths, but displaced 174 people, including 44 children, according to the Red Cross, which was assisting residents.

Third-floor tenant Raza Chaudhry said Kleiner and his associates are using the disaster to extract concessions from tenants.

He said Kleiner and his representatives have repeatedly tried to get him and his neighbors to sign documents stating that the deplorable conditions in their apartments have been fixed.

“It’s shady,” Chaudhry said. “The building collapsed under their management and they don’t even feel like they should do anything to make up for this?”

Other residents say the owner instructed them to sign documents renouncing rent reductions ordered by the state and even agreeing to drop a lawsuit as a condition of getting their keys back.

The landlord’s attorney, Lawrence McCourt, immediately sought to use a woman’s signature on one such document to dismiss a separate emergency repairs lawsuit last month, as Gothamist previously reported. A Bronx judge ordered a new hearing for later this month after the woman’s attorney said she thought she had to sign the form to get the keys to her apartment back.

McCourt told Gothamist at the time that Kleiner denies “that the statements signed by the tenants were a quid pro quo in order to receive keys.”

McCourt also said Kleiner denied “erecting any of the partition walls ordered to be removed by DOB and maintains they were not put up by the landlord or done with the landlord’s consent.”

Reached by phone last month, Kleiner blamed the renovations on tenants who he said independently partitioned their apartments in potential violation of their leases, and city and state regulations.

“There were about 20 tenants that had illegal walls in their apartments and the DOB instructed me to take them down,” Kleiner said. “They [the tenants] put up illegal walls.”

Schoop, the long-time tenant whose apartment was destroyed, said that claim doesn’t “make any sense.”

“Again, he’s trying to clean his hands,” Schoop said

He now says he worries Kleiner will refuse to fix the destroyed apartment he shares with his parents and niece.

The family has been staying in a hotel in Manhattan without a kitchen, forcing them to spend money on meals and packaged food, since the collapse nearly two months ago.

He said he grew up in the building and wants to return to a reconstructed apartment.

“At the end of the day, it is my home,” he said. “So it’s hard to want to even live anywhere else.”

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