By Jennifer Smith
The tenants of 553, 545 and 557 46th Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn rally around the credo, “housing is a human right!” Photo taken by the author.
Now that their story has spread throughout the media, it’s a chant that’s become impossible to ignore.
Last year, three tenants from a Sunset Park apartment building, Sara Lopez, Sue Trelles, and Francisca Ixtilico, organized a rent strike in response to a slew of unsafe building conditions, including an unwieldy fuse box that threatened to set the buildings ablaze at any moment.
For years, the tenants of 46th Street watched their homes fall deeper and deeper into disrepair under their neglectful landlord, Orazio Petito, who is listed as number 26 on Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s list of the New York City’s 50 worst landlords – with 253 violations under his company name, 553 46th Street Corp.
“Everything you can think of… mold, vermin, no lights, no heat, no hot water, security… you name it,” says Alex Betance, who’s been living at 553 46th Street for 25 years and joined the rent strike six months ago.
“After awhile you get tired of going to 3-1-1 and telling them the same exact thing, over and over,” he continued. “I even know so many inspectors cause they come out here so often.”
It seemed the tenants’ cries for help fell on deaf ears until they began to organize and strategize. Occupy Sunset Park came to their aid, helping to organize biweekly vigils and mobilization efforts.
“Because we were able to gather support from people like Occupy Sunset Park, we were able to open the door a little bit,” says Krys Mendez of Occupy Sunset Park, translating for Sue Trelles. “We were able to get some electrical repairs now that we got all this media attention. We were able to progress a little bit, but we’re still going forward.”
Vigils take place on Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. On Aug. 3, the tenants dressed in red and flooded the King’s County Supreme Court in downtown Brooklyn for a receivership hearing, where a judge decided on the fate of the dilapidated buildings. At the hearing, Orazio Petito’s lawyer announced that he no longer wanted to represent Petito, and the court decided that the Department of Housing and Preservation Development would become the receiver of the buildings, leaving the fate of the repairs in the hands of the state.
Sue Trelles outside her 46th Street apartment building for a biweekly vigil. Photo taken by the author.
According to Betance, it would be in the best interest of the tenants to take ownership of the buildings themselves.
“We actually have a stake in it because we actually live here,” Betance says. “We’re not just going to let it run down.”
Despite the outcome of the hearing, the tenants didn’t slow down their efforts. On Aug. 4, they organized an art show to showcase their poor living conditions through photographs.
They’ve also been fighting to drop all charges against Dennis Flores, an Occupy Sunset Park organizer who was arrested after an altercation with Israel Espinosa, the superintendent of the 46th street buildings. Allegedly, Espinosa attacked Francisca Ixtilico, and Flores was arrested after coming to her aid.
On Aug. 20, the tenants and Occupy Sunset Park dressed in red again and gathered at the Red Hook Community Court in a show of support for Dennis Flores. They were quite pleased to hear that Israel Espinosa would be removed from their apartment building as per a court order.
Though not all of their problems have yet been resolved, the tenants of 46th Street have found overwhelming support in their community.
“I have a lot of peoples’ support,” Trelles says. “I’m very strong.”
For more on the Sunset Park rent strike, check out today’s episode of BTR’s current events podcast, Third Eye Weekly.