One minute they were all living comfortably in their rent-regulated apartments, and the next, their entire future was in doubt.
This is the reality for six Ridgewood families who are fighting to stay in their homes, but time is not on their side.
The residents of 1819 Cornelia St., a six-family apartment building, were thrust into a complex legal battle in July after the landlord of the building, Ion Stefan, died suddenly, leaving behind no immediate family members to take over control of the building.
The tenants were notified by the Queens County Office of the Public Administrator, which assumes responsibility of a person’s estate if the deceased did not leave a next of kin, that they needed to provide a copy of their lease and pay their monthly rent to the Public Administrator. This concerned the Cornelia Street residents because no one came to explain this to them face to face.
The residents decided not to pay rent to the Public Administrator because after only receiving a letter from the office, they were wary of potential scams and concerned about where their money was going. Since the landlord’s death, the tenants have just been paying the garbage man so that the building continues to run smoothly.
“We only decided to pay the garbage man to make sure on Monday and Thursday our garbage gets taken out and we didn’t want the building to get a ticket,” said Hilda Coll-Valentin, a resident on the first floor of the building.
In an attempt to save their apartments, the tenants want to band together to purchase the building as a co-op. The office informed them that the building would be put up for auction on Wednesday, Sept. 14, and for them to make it a co-op, they would have to be the highest bidder. When a property owner dies without a next of kin, the law requires that the property is sold in a public auction.
A representative from the Public Administrator appraised the house at more than $948,000. The tenants have agreed to pay upwards of $950,000 to become the new owners of the building, yet the Public Administrator is still going to auction.
“They are not paying attention to us,” Coll-Valentin said. “It’s like they don’t care. We want to live here. We offered to pay more than the appraisal.”
According to the residents, there have been problems with the building since before Stefan died, such as electrical issues throughout the apartments, windows that would get jammed and not open, and boiler problems. Stefan was in the process of replacing the boiler but died before the project was completed and paid for, so the residents were forced to live a month without any hot water, they said.
They were also forced to put up with strangers coming to their homes trying to get a look at the property before it hits the auction block. To avoid this problem they have put up signs in their windows saying, “Building not 4 sale.”
Residents are concerned that whoever purchases the house at the auction may look to illegally get them out of their rent-regulated apartments in order to renovate the building and jack up the rent prices, a tactic that is not uncommon as Ridgewood has become more and more gentrified over recent years.
“It has to stop before it gets to auction,” said Javier Maldonado, a resident on the third floor of the building. “Once someone makes a bid on it, it’s over. We are just scared with what is going to happen. If we lose this place, who knows where we will end up.”
The tenants have reached out to their local elected officials to try and get some help to stay in their homes.
Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who has fought against landlords illegally evicting long-term rent-regulated tenants, wrote a letter — co-signed by state Senator Michael Gianaris and Assemblyman Michael Miller — to Lois M. Rosenblatt, Queens County Public Administrator, requesting that she work with the tenants of the building to come to a deal and adjourn the auction.
In the letter Reynoso points out the neighborhood’s recent history of landlords forcing tenants out of their homes, and the city’s need to create and keep affordable housing.
“In light of the city’s pledge to preserve affordable housing in this city and allow for low-income families to remain in the communities they have called home for so many years, we respectfully request that you consider working with local elected officials and the tenants of 1819 Cornelia Street to reach a negotiated sale that would allow the tenants to turn this property into an Article XI HDFC and satisfy your fiduciary duty towards the estate of Ion Stefan,” the letter stated.
A representative from the Public Administrator’s Office said that they are not moving too fast with this auction and are operating under the guidelines required by law. Since auctions are held quarterly, and the last one was held in June, the next auction was set for September no matter when Stefan died.
The representative also stated that the Office is required to get the maximum amount of money for the building for the estate. If the current tenants are the highest bidder, however, the Office will work with them on the closing to try and make it a co-op building.