It was early evening, late July. Sean Thielen-Esparza, a project manager for a tech company, was on a work call in the bedroom of his Bushwick apartment when he heard someone banging on the door. The apartment is railroad style, and his room has its own entrance into the hall.
“No one knocks on that door, so I knew something was up immediately,” Thielen-Esparza recalled. “I had to tell the person on that call, ‘There’s something up and I need to go.’”
The rent was due, and all but one of the apartments in the building had stopped paying that month. The banging continued.
Men’s voices came through the door. Thielen-Esparza: “The words they used are, ‘We need to discuss the rent payment.’”
Bang, bang, bang.
“’Discuss the rent payment.’”
Bang, bang, bang.
Through the peephole, Thielen-Esparza saw two guys in T-shirts, strangers.
“I remember they were tall enough,” he said, ”where I was aware of the fact that if anything were to happen like a physical confrontation, I would not be able to defend myself against both of them.”
This went on for 10 minutes. Thielen-Esparza said nothing, instead checking in with his neighbors over email. They’d all gotten knocks. And when no one opened up, some of the visitors gathered outside. Peeking out their windows, tenants saw their landlord, a teenage boy (more on that later), standing there with another man, on the phone.
The building’s residents started getting calls and texts from a strange number. It was about the rent. The men lingered on the sidewalk. Thielen-Esparza had an acupuncture appointment that evening. He canceled it.
By going on rent strike, the tenants of 1422 Greene Avenue in Bushwick joined the dozens of buildings withholding rent in protest across the state, according to the Housing Justice for All Coalition, and the over a third of New York state residents who census data show are having trouble paying rent right now.
Originally, the Bushwick tenants’ demands were simply that their landlord make repairs and reduce the rent to account for the income losses nearly all of them in the building have suffered since the pandemic tore into New York in mid-March.
Now, entering their third month on strike, these tenants have done more research. They believe that their landlord may have fraudulently lifted their apartments out of rent regulation, and that they may actually be owed thousands of dollars.
The tenants know their landlord as Ari or Al. They describe him as being very hands-on, though not in the way they would like. Most of them are recent arrivals to the building, if not the city. They describe having shown up to move in only to find their apartment still a mess: holes in walls, broken appliances, half-painted rooms, junk left behind by work crews and past tenants.
But Al would show up in person to collect the rent. Several said he would often wander into their apartment for no discernible reason and poke around. He’s been known to peek in the refrigerator.
Then one day last fall, Al Stark disappeared.
“I remember thinking that it was weird he wasn’t around, because he was always around,” tenant Camille Cushman said. “I would see him at the building every day, which was annoying, because it was never clean… I remember telling him ‘This isn’t my job to clean your hallway.’”
Thielen-Esparza and his roommate, TV news producer Ludwig Hurtado, said they would regularly text Al about repair issues, such as windows that regularly fell out of their frames during strong winds. Both have gotten clobbered by falling windows.
Last fall, it was cold out and the heat wasn’t coming on, so Hurtado texted Al. Not long after, Hurtado was coming home from work when he saw a skinny teenager wrestling with a radiator. Feeling bad for the boy, Hurtado offered to help him.
“He said, ‘Oh, you’re the one who texted me about this,’” Hurtado said. “I was like, ‘No, I texted Al. He said, ‘Oh, I’m Al’s son.’”
The scrawny boy who Hurtado took for 15 was actually 17 last year. His name is Dov Stark.
Introductions made, they went to lift the radiator together. As they did, Hurtado asked, “Where’s Al?”
“He said, ‘Oh, Al had to go away for a while.’”
Before all this, most people living in the six-unit building near the Myrtle-Wyckoff stop didn’t lose sleep pondering who their landlord is or how he spends his time. Only one family, having lived in the building for 17 years as rent-stabilized tenants, knew him as Aron Stark, a brother of murdered Williamsburg landlord Menachem Stark, and a current resident of Otisville Federal Correctional Institution in upstate New York, where he is serving a 14-month sentence for welfare fraud.
Stark, who is in his late 30s, got into real estate in the late 2000s, and owns four modest apartment buildings in Bushwick, according to court records. It was Stark’s attempt to evict house cleaner Judith Fringo from her second-floor apartment on Greene Avenue that may have been his undoing. Under rent stabilization, landlords only have a few options to legitimately kick out their tenants. One is claiming you’ll use the apartment to house family members. Stark tried this in the mid-2010s, saying he wanted to move into Fringo’s apartment with his two children.
In the course of fighting the case, Fringo’s lawyer uncovered several things. Stark did not have custody of his children. After Stark’s divorce, Dov was raised by family friends upstate in Monsey, according to court records. Furthermore, all the units but Fringo’s apartment had been vacant and Stark made no move to take any of them. Particularly damning was a judge’s finding that Stark had defrauded the Section 8 low-income housing voucher program, paying federal money to an associate by claiming to be poor while also collecting rent from the buildings he owned.
A subsequent federal investigation confirmed the Section 8 fraud, but found that Stark committed it outside the statute of limitations, according to court documents. Unfortunately for Stark, the FBI also found that he had defrauded the Medicaid and food stamps programs for a total of $173,000 between all three programs. Agents arrested Stark in 2018, and in 2019 he pleaded guilty to one count of stealing government funds.
Aron Stark did not respond to a letter mailed to him in prison. A man who answered Dov and Aron’s phone number said, “Yeah, I’m sorry, I’m really busy now,” and hung up. He did not respond to subsequent calls and texts.
Before the pandemic, the Greene Avenue tenants were mostly focused on getting their individual apartment issues fixed and getting through their days. The repair problems alone are dizzying, according to tenants. Then, as the job losses piled up and people began to fall behind on rent, neighbors started talking to each other.
Cushman, a DJ and publicist, saw her main income vanish overnight when the city shut down nightlife. Alexandra Kayhart, a comedian, saw her hours dwindle at an office temp job until June, when the position ended early. She used the extra hours in the day to organize a tenant union.
“People were scared, but most people were already not paying fully,” Kayhart said. “We were just trying to tell people that if we came together, we would be stronger together.”
On June 30th, the newly formed union sent a letter to Dov Stark announcing their strike, and demanding rent forgiveness and repairs. Hurtado and Thielen-Esparza joined in, even though unlike their neighbors, they still had their full salaries.
Since then, the group has continued digging. They have found that at least four of the six apartments stopped being registered as rent-stabilized with the state in 2014. Prior to last year’s rent reforms, to deregulate a rent-stabilized apartment, landlords would have to reach a certain rent cap amount through some combination of increases from vacancies and the claimed costs of apartment renovations. These maneuvers would show up in rent histories like those the Greene tenants obtained.
But on these rent histories, the last listed rents were well below the cap—Hurtado and Thielen-Esparza’s apartment, for example, was last listed at $1,632 in 2014, when the cap was $2,500, and the two are now paying $2,550. No explanation is given for how the rents skyrocketed out of regulation.
In normal times, the small staff of the state’s Division of Homes and Community Renewal, which is supposed to enforce rent regulations, struggles to keep up with overcharge claims, and delinquent landlords can seem impervious to the fines the city’s housing inspectors hand out, with some appearing year after year on the city’s annual list of the worst offenders. Now, the city’s housing needs are exponentially more dire.
Tenant activists and state legislators are pushing a bill that would cancel rent and homeowner mortgage obligations during the pandemic state of emergency, and provide relief only to landlords who can show they would go under without it. Rent strikes, tenant organizers say, are the way to push this through.
“We’re trying to create a political crisis,” said Esteban Giron of the Crown Heights Tenant Union. “Because if landlords aren’t getting money, they’re going to go to Albany, to Cuomo, and say, ‘You need to do something.’ If that’s where the leverage is, that’s where we’re going to push.”
Spokespeople for the landlord lobby agree that there’s no way to avoid a massive crisis without a government bailout. But they are arguing for an emergency rent voucher program not unlike the Section 8 program, to ensure that even those landlords who can’t show need get help. Where money for any relief program would come from as city and state governments face multi-billion dollar deficits is yet another burning question.
Jay Martin of the rent-stabilized landlord group Community Housing Improvement Program condemned the basic outlines of Stark’s behavior, but argued that he’s not representative of New York landlords.
“It sounds like the guy’s a huge asshole and he should be in jail,” Martin said. “Those tenants probably have not been getting the service they deserve. They probably should be on rent strike.”
He continued, “There’s a huge distinction between people trying to exert political pressure and go on rent strike and those with bad landlords who have legitimate grievances.”
CHIP represents owners of more than 400,000 rent-regulated apartments in the city. A recent member survey showed that 17 percent of tenants hadn’t paid rent by mid-August, in line with the rate for July, but far above the 8-10 percent nonpayment rate Martin said is normal for his group. What’s more, apartment vacancies for CHIP members are now at over 10 percent, compared with 3.4 percent in February, as New Yorkers have fled the city since the pandemic began, and many of those who remain have grappled with job loss.
The call to cancel rent, Martin and another landlord group spokesman argued, unfairly singles out landlords who are already scrambling just to keep apartments occupied and paid for.
“What would the position of the supermarket be if you didn’t have to pay for food?” asked Rent Stabilization Association spokesman Mitch Posilkin. “You could simply go in, fill up your wagon and walk out. What would the position of the pharmacy be if you could just go in and get your medicine and walk out? The list goes on and on.”
As it happens, Aron Stark has been arrested twice for shoplifting, including once for felony grand larceny while his federal welfare fraud case was pending, according to court papers. In both shoplifting incidents, Stark pleaded guilty and prosecutors reduced his charges to disorderly conduct, a violation.
In asking the judge for a lenient sentence, Stark’s lawyers wrote that Stark suffered abuse as a child at the hands of his parents, themselves the children of Holocaust survivors. Convinced that they needed to live below their means, Stark’s parents pinched pennies to the point that Stark was forced to eat spoiled food his father picked from the garbage, and attend his own bar mitzvah wearing a ripped shirt handed down from one of his 10 siblings. This, the lawyers argued, caused Stark “psychological damage” and led him to have an “inordinate fear of not having enough money or basic necessities.”
“[A]nything to do with spending money is something very hard for me and I struggle with it,” Stark wrote to the judge. “For supper, I often eat at a soup kitchen because I do not want to buy food.”
Whatever drove his behavior, Stark’s tenants are more interested in getting their rent reduced and their apartments fixed. Four on Greene Avenue have filed overcharge complaints with the state, which, if decided in their favor, could result in them being given rent-stabilized leases and owed thousands of dollars in back rent. A tenant from another Stark building has joined the strike. And the renters recently retained a lawyer from the nonprofit Mobilization for Justice to help figure out their next move.
No one has heard much from Dov Stark since the fight got more legalistic. Letters recently appeared in the building notifying tenants that a new management company is in charge.
A man who answered the phone at the company, YHT Management, said, “Yeah, everything is back to normal already. But I can’t talk to you right now.” He then hung up.
Even if the Starks prevailed in housing court, evictions are on hold in New York City until October.
As for Thielen-Esparza, this is his first apartment after graduating college and moving to New York from Los Angeles. And, honestly, this whole thing is stressing him out.
“I didn’t think I’d have to be dealing with harassment from a landlord who is in prison for fraud and his 17-year-old son is managing the building,” he said. “It’s just absurd on its face and not something I ever thought I’d have to be dealing with.”