By Anna Gustafson
State Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) and other politicians threw their support behind hundreds of Queens tenants who rallied last week against Vantage Properties, which residents accuse of harassing and attempting to evict rent-stabilized residents in the borough.
“You can count on me to stand with you to make sure Vantage stops their shenanigans and stops their harassment,” Peralta told the tenants, all of whom are members of the Queens Vantage Tenants’ Council, at a town hall forum at the St. Joan of Arc Church auditorium in Jackson Heights.
Vantage owns about 80 apartment buildings in the borough.
The union, which has more than 1,300 members, held the Dec. 3 forum in an effort to pressure Vantage to accept the demands they first presented to the company in mid-October, when representatives for Vantage and Apollo Real Estate Advisors, a major investor in the corporate landlord, met with renters after more than 200 people protested outside Apollo’s Manhattan office.
The demands, which Vantage has not yet accepted, include appointing an independent third-party monitor to review Vantage’s lawsuits against tenants and an agreement to pay costs and penalties for what residents called “baseless” court proceedings.
Vantage officials, who did not comment on residents’ specific demands, said they were working hard to alleviate tenants’ concerns.
“We are very pleased that some 40,000 of our residents will celebrate the holidays in Vantage buildings that are safe, clean and well-maintained, but we won’t rest on our laurels and [will] take seriously any concerns raised by our residents,” Vantage said in an email sent by spokeswoman Shannon Vander Hook.
According to union members and Robert McCreanor, an attorney from the Catholic Migration Office, who helped the tenants organize, Vantage has evicted many of its low-income tenants in what union leaders said was an effort to get rid of the poorer residents paying for rent-stabilized apartments in order to bring in wealthier tenants who can afford to pay top-dollar for the real estate.
Though union president Teresa Perez of Corona said Vantage has not been evicting residents at the rate it was before the Catholic Migration Office filed a suit on behalf of Queens tenants to stop what it called illegal harassment tactics — including not cashing rent checks and then suing for eviction — she said they still were scaring people into leaving and do not keep up with needed maintenance.
“They prey on people who are vulnerable, on immigrants and people who do not speak English,” said Dania Joaquin, an Elmhurst resident and one of the union’s vice presidents.
Marlene Estevez, a Corona resident, said Vantage has gotten better about making repairs in recent months.
“Nothing was being fixed for a very long time,” Estevez said. “We would call their 1-888 number and no one would ever pick up. There was lead in the building, and there were babies living in two of the apartments. The doorbell still doesn’t work. They did finally meet with us and made repairs about a month ago. There are better conditions now.”
Still, other residents said Vantage has remained unresponsive to their needs.
“On Thanksgiving weekend, our building was without heat, gas and hot water for days,” said East Elmhurst resident Julietta Candell.
Also attending the meeting were Mirna Velasquez, a representative for U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights); James Van Bramer, a candidate for the City Council’s 26th District; Democratic District Leader for the 39th Assembly District Daniel Dromm; and Julissa Ferreras, chief of staff for Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-East Elmhurst) and candidate for the 21st Council District.
Many of the officials condemned Vantage.
“I’m here to fight for the tenants and stand together with them,” Dromm said. “I was a rent-stabilized tenant for many years, so I know first-hand the tactics these companies use.”
Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.