What a way to go

Lengthy renovation forces tenants to share bathroom, forgo cooking


It’s Thanksgiving eve. The late-afternoon sun does its best to cast rays on the drab brick exterior of 3115 Sedgwick Ave. 

Inside, on dirty, cracked tile floors, workers move about the ground level, carrying tools and ladders. Plastic covers apartment doorways. Giant boxes line hallways, as the sound of drills rips through the air. 

Yet, this building is far from empty. For months, Jacqueline Estevez has had to endure more than the construction noise. She was forced to share a single bathroom not only with her neighbors from 10 other apartments, but also with construction workers. At times Estevez wouldn’t even bathe because conditions inside became unbearable, with feces on the ground and water often shut off.

“I used a bucket for number one and number two, as disgusting as it sounds,” she said.

Estevez moved in last May, but said she was told nothing about renovations. The Morgan Group, which owns the building, told her later it had sent certified letters informing tenants about the work. But that was last year — before Estevez moved in.

“They lied to us,” she said. “They never told us anything when we signed the lease.”

The Morgan Group bought the property in 2014 for $7.5 million, applying for building department permits the following year, according to Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz. The abysmal conditions have caught the attention of almost every agency that handles housing complaints, including the city’s health department and the Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force. 

Tenants have learned The Morgan Group intends to apply for a major capital improvement increase with the state homes and community renewal department. If granted, it would permanently raise the rents of rent-regulated tenants by hundreds of dollars a year. 

Some tenant advocates call such tactics “harassment by construction” — using highly intrusive, and maybe even unnecessary, renovation as a way of forcing long-time tenants out of their apartments so owners can raise rent. If current tenants stay, that rent inches up typically no more than 2 percent. But if they move out and new residents move in, rent could jump as much as 20 percent.

Estevez was told it would take 10 days to renovate the kitchen and another 10 for the bathroom. She took time off from work to make sure workers stayed on schedule. But the kitchen ended up taking eight weeks, she said — and it’s still not done.

“They left holes everywhere,” Estevez said. “They don’t clean up after themselves. I had to go after them myself. It took them three days to put a door knob on.”

In the bathroom, grout is coming off the tiles.

“You could see the dust, the smell,” she said. “You could feel it.” 

Even more, Estevez suffers from asthma, and during construction, had to visit her doctor twice when dust exacerbated her condition.

City inspectors didn’t come until “after the fact,” Estevez said, and The Morgan Group “treated us like dirt.”

The Morgan Group refused to comment.

Estevez claims her hardwood floors have been ruined, pointing to nails in warped boards, jaggedly protruding.

She recalled one day walking into her unfinished bathroom, and through a hole, she could see “everything downstairs” in the apartment below hers. For some time, there also was a hole in the ceiling, through which Estevez could look out at the sky. 

Another time, she came home to exposed electrical wires, not knowing whether they were live.

Without a kitchen, Estevez said she was given a small hot plate. With no other option, she spent heavily on takeout and bottled water.

During summer, heat and mosquitoes became unbearable, with temperatures in the apartment reaching 110 degrees, Estevez said. She recalled using a plastic bag to insulate her bathroom just so she could turn on her air conditioner and keep out the bugs.

“It was a nightmare,” Estevez said. 

But the abysmal conditions aren’t the only reason Estevez is outraged. She questions whether the renovations were even necessary.

“If they were going to change the pipes, you didn’t have to do major renovations,” she said. “There are people who won’t even have a kitchen to cook Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow.”

The building’s superintendent Leke Nicaj, however, tells a different story. 

“Everybody has a kitchen tonight to cook,” he sad. “That’s the good news.”

Nicaj led reporters into an apartment where a fridge sat in the hallway. He pointed out new wooden cabinets. In a corner of the living room, a microwave and hot plate lay atop a small table, crammed into a corner. 

Dinowitz has reached out to several agencies that handle housing complaints trying to find relief for the Sedgwick Avenue residents. And he’s hoping an upcoming meeting hosted by the state homes and community renewal department will offer a path toward better conditions.

“Tenants have to be willing to assert and stand up for their rights,” he said.

And while they’re often reluctant to do that for fear of eviction by retaliatory landlords, “the circumstances here are particularly egregious,” Dinowitz said. “They have essentially deprived people for extended periods of time of living in something even halfway decent.”

If no kitchens or bathrooms were not enough, last September the health department discovered four different measurements for lead exceeding acceptable EPA standards, Dinowitz said. 

The state’s Department of Homes and Community Renewal — which focuses on more than 2 million rent-regulated tenants in some 45,000 buildings in New York City — launched an investigation into 3115 Sedgwick last month, a spokeswoman said. As part of that investigation, the department has scheduled a conference with tenants and the owner on Dec. 8.

This isn’t the first time The Morgan Group has done this. The New York Post recently reported similar conditions at another Bronx property owned by the company at 60 E. 196th St.

In some ways, at least recently, things have gotten better — slightly. Estevez pointed out there’s now a representative from the fire department watching for safety at the building, and some of the debris has been cleared.

But at the end of the day, “We’re human beings,” Estevez said. “It doesn’t matter what my rent is. It doesn’t matter if I pay $10 or $10,000. We have rights and shouldn’t be treated this way.”