On what may be one of the hottest nights of the year, dozens of rent strikers and their families, members of Occupy Sunset Park and supporters will gather for a vigil at 6 p.m. tomorrow in front of 553-46th Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to protest the inhumane, unsafe, illegal and deplorable living conditions in the three adjacent buildings owned by one of the city’s worst landlords. The group will then hold a sleep-in on the sidewalk starting at 9 p.m. in front of their sweltering, decrepit buildings, in which the electricity sputters out every 15 minutes.
The following morning, tenants will conduct a people’s inspection of the buildings. Residents have been told by the the Department of Housing and Preservation Deputy Commissioner Vito Mustaciuolo that their landlord, Orazio Petito of Peto Management, has until Thursday to start critical electrical repairs.
For years residents at three adjacent buildings in Sunset Park have been living in fear of fires and electrical blackouts. “No one sleeps much in these three buildings,” Laura Gottesdiener reported on Waging Nonviolence. “In the winter there’s no heat, in the summer there’s no electricity, and all year there are rats and cockroaches scurrying in the walls.” Despite numerous complaints made to city agencies and politicians’ offices, documented housing violations — including unsafe electrical wiring, a broken boiler and disease-triggering agents like mold, vermin and bed bugs — continue to threaten the lives of dozens of residents.
“I’m living in a nightmare,” Sara Lopez, 64, who lives at 553 46th Street, told the Daily News, adding that she saw sparks shooting out of the fuse box last week. “This building is about to catch fire,” she said.
While many of these violations have persisted for years, the situation became more dire in recent months as the buildings underwent foreclosure. Petito has refused to complete necessary repairs and continues to insist that tenants pay their rent. In the meantime, a cheap plastic fan is being used to keep the basement’s electrical box — which looks like a middle-school science fair project gone horribly wrong — from overheating and catching fire.
In apartments that include a pregnant woman with two children, disabled tenants and individuals with chronic conditions, residents went without heat and hot water during the winter months. Today they face the threat of more blackouts and fear an electrical fire if they use much-needed air conditioning during this season of record-breaking heat. For many residents, waiting weeks for a court order poses an intolerable risk to their lives.
“Do we have to wait for a tragedy before we see action?” Lopez said.
On July 5, the affected tenants and various community members and allies, including members of Occupy Sunset Park and Occupy Wall Street, held a rally to stress the urgency of the repairs. The rally was immediately followed by a march to New York State assemblyman Felix Ortiz’s office. Ortiz was elected by Sunset Park residents and personally promised Sara and other tenants that he would work to resolve their unsafe housing dilemma. After weeks of no action, the tenants occupied his office and demanded a meeting last Monday. An inspection was promised, but repairs have yet to be made.
Tenants have made it clear that if their demands for immediate repairs are not made, they will consider taking matters into their own hands, utilizing the support from groups like Take Back the Land and Occupy Wall Street to take on the emergency repairs. Such a step would mark the first such tenant mobilization effort in Brooklyn in recent memory.