Tenant leaders find ways to take landlord to task


When Alycya Miller moved into 1 Marble Hill Ave., a dozen years ago, she never thought she’d have to battle the building’s management company over piles of garbage, roaches in hallways and washing machines, and feral cats.

Frustrated with getting “gaslighted” by the management and owners, Miller — who describes herself as the management and legal liaison for the 1 Marble Hill Ave. Tenants Collective — created a system that allows neighbors to use small claims courts and landlord-tenant laws to get all of that fixed. And, Miller said, it’s working. 

On a recent afternoon, she shows off the space behind the building — located a block West of Broadway and just north of West 225th Street — which seemed relatively neat and well-kept. Not long ago, the area was littered with piles of garbage that attracted an entire community of cockroaches.

“It’s baby steps,” Miller said. “But this is 150 percent better than it was before.”

Miller’s system not only has helped get 1 Marble Hill Ave., cleaned up, it’s also compensated many of the tenants there with monetary damages. And it’s exactly what the building needed, said neighbor, Crystal Hawkins, who’s lived there since 1977.

“I love this neighborhood with a passion,” Hawkins said. “I will work with the devil himself to save it, and will stop at nothing.”

The victories Miller and Hawkins are seeing now, however, haven’t come without a struggle. Last February, the two spearheaded a legal campaign to improve living conditions in 1 Marble Hill Ave., that Miller called “dismal.” 

Lead paint peeled from badly damaged walls that had to be repainted. Garbage and furniture cluttered hallways. Miller likes to show a photo she took of a bucket of filthy mop water building management used to clean floors.

“This is what they were mopping the floors with for seven years, and I tried to let the landlord know,” Miller said. “They were storing it for months at a time in the basement.”

“We brought them to their attention and they did nothing,” she added. “We had to actually take them to court about it.”

The building is run by A.J. Clarke Real Estate Corp., which didn’t return calls for comment late Tuesday. 

Even when the roaches would die, the building did nothing about it, Miller said. In fact, she chronicled how long the remains, well, remained, in her “diary of a deteriorating roach.” She took pictures over several weeks as the roach dried up and shriveled away on stairs inside the building.

Last year, she began monitoring a buildup of pigeon excrement in front of the building.

It wasn’t easy, because Miller works 50-hour weeks as a management consultant in the technology field. But still, she wouldn’t abandon the cause. 

“A couple years ago, I considered moving out,” Miller said. “I was like, ‘Come on, it’s too much.’ But I wanted to be part of the solution, and fix the injustice I saw going on.” 

Many tenants have joined the fight, Miller said, and there are signs of hope. The laundry room, for example, has improved dramatically from its former filthy and poorly maintained condition. What’s left now are the “tail end” of the building’s troubles.

“How exhausting is that?” Miller asked. “Two years just to get them to clean this out — two years to make it so it’s not the Hudson River.”

“We’re not talking about race or culture,” Hawkins added. “We’re talking about class. Do you have any?”

One of the biggest challenges in making change happen, according to Miller, is a lot of tenants speak very little English. Many also lack a good lawyer, and are hesitant to take legal action in the first place for fear the landlord might retaliate.

“At this point, we’re doing everything ourselves,” Hawkins said. “It’s been a hit-and-miss, learning along the way.”

Now, they’re facing off against an aggressive legal team. 

“They’re coming hard, and they’re really trying to weaken us because they know that people work and it’s difficult to get to housing court if you can’t take off during business hours,” Miller said. “It’s difficult, obviously, to go into regular civil court, so we’ve been going to the avenue that’s available to us and it works — small claims.”

One thing Hawkins is certain of, however? She’s not giving up.

“This is my home, and I’m not leaving,” Hawkins said. “I’m a New Yorker. I’m a fighter, I’m a warrior, and I’m not going to let anybody run me from my home.”