When her mother died in 1970, Martha Taveras, then 20 years old, decided to leave Colombia. She flew across the Caribbean and arrived in New York City on a student visa. There were few job opportunities in her country, and she, the oldest of 10 children, needed to support her family.
Arriving in Greenpoint alone, she met Antonio, who would become her husband of more than four decades. In 1978, they eventually settled down in a red-brick building at 917 Manhattan Ave, where the smell of Antonio’s Dominican Republic-inspired cooking would waft through the apartment complex.
Now 71 years old, with streaks of gray in her once black hair and lingering grief from her husband’s death in 2011, Martha faces the possibility of leaving an apartment that has been her home for more than four decades. After an approximately seven-year dispute with Elizabeth Tapper—the owner of both 917 Manhattan Ave and 156 Kent St—Martha and other longterm tenants in both buildings fear eviction.
Their fears of displacement come amid an ongoing pandemic and outcry over the slow disappearance of working-class communities in Greenpoint and Williamsburg.
The dispute between Tapper and her tenants also reflects the difficulties of both owning and renting property in an increasingly trendy neighborhood where rising property taxes and rents push out longtime residents.
“I was dealing with a dead husband, that they wanted to evict me from my apartment, that my children were all married, that I was alone,” said Martha in Spanish, her voice brimming with emotion. “I was going crazy.”
Simon Honig, the prior owner of the red-brick apartments on the corner of Manhattan Ave and Kent St, was “just a good person,” according to Emlyn Taveras, one of Martha’s daughters.
He and his family had owned the properties on 917-921 Manhattan Ave and 156-158 Kent St, since at least 1966, per the city’s property records. And he rarely, if ever, raised the rents on any of the tenants living in his buildings, said Gloria Taveras, another daughter of Martha’s. The daughters say this informal form of rent stabilization was a mutual agreement.
Honig rented out the apartments on 917 Manhattan Ave to Martha and Martha’s sister-in-laws. The building housed an extended family, and hence, a community.
Her niece, Yisela Valdes, remembers being able to smell Martha’s Antonio’s cooking, from the apartment below.
“I knew when he was cooking pork shoulder, or I knew when he was frying chicken chicharrones. I knew when he was doing his soups,” said Valdes, who still lives in the building.
And when the parents of the families living in the building went to work, the oldest cousin would escort all of the children to school.
“We were all able to go school in the morning, holding hands literally,” said Emlyn.
After Antonio died in 2011, Honig passed away in 2013, and then “everything changed,” said Martha.
Honig’s brother quickly sold the apartment to Elizabeth Tapper, who works at and owns the building where Manhattan Medical, a subsidiary of N.Y.U. Langone, is located.
She also owns, or is on the mortgage for, eight other buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn, according to city property records. The total value of the properties to which she is connected exceeds $19 million, per the city’s most recent estimates.
In a statement from her lawyer, Tapper, who said that she is Greenpoint born and bred, wrote that she originally acquired the property in 2013 in part to save her brother’s grocery, The Garden, which was located on the first floor of 917-921 Manhattan Ave. It eventually went out of business in 2019, despite her efforts.
When Tapper bought that collection of 15 apartments and retail space on the corner of Manhattan Ave and Kent St, she decided to raise rents. Some tenants were paying between $220 to $250 per month, according to court documents. The property tax the city charged her between 2014 and 2015 was about $26,000.
“During the past seven years it has been a struggle to maintain the buildings as costs and taxes rise each year,” Tapper added in her statement.
Without prior notice, according to tenants, she asked that they pay $1,600 a month, below what N.Y.U.’s Furman Center estimates as the median rent between 2014 and 2018 in that part of Greenpoint.
However, a more than 500% increase in monthly rent is simply unfeasible for Martha. “For a retired senior citizen living on a fixed income under the poverty line—the proposed increase is not realistic,” said Emlyn, her daughter.
By and large low-income as well, the tenants balked and took their case to the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which determines whether properties should be rent-stabilized, among other responsibilities.
“The tenants were well within their rights to seek guidance, but they also chose not to negotiate,” said Tapper in her statement.
For the next seven years, Tapper and her tenants went back and forth over her buildings’ eligibility for rent stabilization, a legal classification that prevents landlords from exorbitantly increasing an apartment’s rent.
New York State’s law appears to be clear. Any building constructed before 1974 with six or more units should have strict limits on the amount that landlords can increase a tenant’s rent per year. However, the devil is in the details, and the seven-year dispute centered on whether the four “buildings” on the corner of Manhattan Ave and Kent St should be considered one “building.”
If considered separate from the other two buildings, 917 Manhattan Ave and 156 Kent St would not be rent-stabilized. (Both addresses have three apartments each.) If considered one continuous complex, Tapper’s properties would be.
“Given the state of the law, this wasn’t a slam dunk case,” said Adam Meyers, the lawyer who represented Martha and her fellow tenants, in an interview.
To prove that Tapper’s collection of property was one complex, Meyers, for example, argued that the buildings shared a first-floor commercial space and had a similar facade. Tapper’s lawyer, on the other hand, argued that the buildings had separate entrances and addresses, among other points.
The tenants’ case wound its way through the state’s administrative system, where tenants in 917 Manhattan Ave, not 156 Kent St, first won rent-stabilization status. Tapper appealed and won the next administrative review. Finally, Meyers took the case to a New York State court. Martha and other longtime tenants lost, and the state’s higher courts declined to hear their appeal.
“There’s no clear list about what are the factors you should consider and what you shouldn’t,” Meyers pointed out as he talked about how the state determines what is and isn’t a contiguous building.
Now, Martha is staring down a potential eviction date of May 1. Governor Cuomo extended the state’s eviction moratorium this past December when COVID-19 cases were at their highest since last spring. However, it remains to be seen whether the moratorium will extend again, especially as the state accelerates vaccine administration.
“I sympathize as to the effects of the pandemic on my tenants, but our dispute has been ongoing for more than seven years without any attempts to compromise on their part along the way,” Tapper wrote. “It was unfortunate it came to this, but the tenants chose their path to never negotiate.”
The tenants, however, are not taking the court’s verdict as a final answer. With the help of St. Nicks Alliance, a local nonprofit, they recently released a petition to garner support in the neighborhood for proposed negotiations with Tapper.
St. Nicks Alliance is also pushing for legislation introduced by State Senator Julia Salazar in 2020 that would prohibit the eviction of tenants in non-rent-stabilized apartments without good cause. More broadly, the suite of laws would extend the rights of rent stabilization to all tenants in the state, said Rolando Guzman, a deputy director at St. Nicks Alliance that oversees tenant organizing for the nonprofit, among other responsibilities.
“This has been legislation we’ve been advocating for decades,” Guzman said. “I think these two buildings are perfect examples of what North Brooklyn residents in unregulated apartments go through on almost a daily basis.”
Meanwhile, as Martha and her fellow tenants’ court case has dragged on for years, she has been biding her time in her home of over four decades. In addition to caring for her grandchildren, she’s been organizing photos of the past and packing up Antonio’s things—all out of fear that she may have to move.
A former seamstress and artist, Martha still has the same sewing machine she bought in 1978, the year she first moved into 917 Manhattan Ave.
Her daughters hope that her sewing machine—and their mother—will remain in the apartment.
“We’re still in it,” said Gloria. “Greenpoint is a special place because of the history, and to strip that away, it’s hurtful to everybody.”