Tenants in a Central Harlem building rife with rats and leaks are asking a Manhattan judge to hold their landlord in contempt of court for what they allege is a failure to follow a December court order to repair dozens of housing code violations.

“Basically, everything is not handled,” said Evan Vaughn, a software engineer who’s lived in the building for three years. “And it’s just such a stress — you come home, and it’s just freezing outside but it’s even colder in my apartment. This doesn’t make sense.”

On Dec. 6, Housing Court Judge Michelle Schreiber ordered landlord Joseph Jemal and his company ICER of 160 West 141st Street LLC to address housing code violations on the five-story, 14-unit building, which currently has 149 outstanding violations issued by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development — 36 of them classified as “immediately hazardous.”

The judge ordered that those most dangerous violations be fixed within seven days.

The tenants are represented by Manhattan Legal Services and have a hearing on their case scheduled for March 8. In January, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) itself filed a housing court case against ICER and the building’s operator, Livingston Management Services, demanding restoration of heat and hot water.

Meanwhile, ICER has eviction cases for nonpayment of rent pending against four of the nine tenants who are plaintiffs in the repair suits, including Vaughn — cases that the tenants’ lawyer alleges were filed by the landlord in retaliation for their suit.

In an affidavit filed with the court in the tenant suit, building manager Omri Kedem said that ICER had performed repairs in each of the apartments, and alleged that the tenants’ lawyers made it complicated to get work crews access to apartments by insisting on coordinating the schedule.

Evan Vaughn showed holes and gaps around the edges of a heating unit in his apartment — perfect for rodents to enter, Feb. 17, 2023. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Kedem added: “Any non-payment proceedings … are due to the tenant’s failure to pay rent in accordance with their lease,” and denied what he called “the baseless claim” that the landlord had filed the nonpayment eviction case in retaliation for the lawsuit.

Vaughn acknowledged that crews have done some work on his apartment — just not enough, he said. “The repairs were hastily done and are pretty cosmetic,” he told THE CITY. “I’m still finding holes in my apartment where mice have entered, so it’s not like they do a thorough inspection; they kind of leave it to us to find all the things wrong.”

Rats and Mice

In September, the tenants filed a lawsuit in housing court against ICER, Jemal, and Livingston Management Services, stating they have left the building without heat or hot water and have allowed common areas to become dilapidated, water-damaged, and rodent-infested — and that the owners harassed residents who complained. 

The suit also names HPD, the Department of Buildings (DOB), and the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) as defendants.

“Mice are rampant throughout the building and all tenants must regularly place traps in their apartments because the entry holes into their apartments have not been repaired,” their complaint read.

“Rats are omnipresent in the areas around the building, inside the walls of the building, and have repeatedly entered several Petitioners’ apartments,” with at least one tenant moving out of their rent-stabilized home because of the rodent infestation, the suit claims. 

The tenants’ suit also alleges that the tenant who lives in apartment 3C had agents of the building show up at her door at unscheduled times who “proceeded to knock aggressively, scream obscenities and misogynistic slurs, and demand Petitioner open the door for them to gain access to make repairs.” 

The base of the second-floor stairwell inside 60 W. 141st St. appeared to be deteriorating, Feb. 17, 2023. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The same tenant, it continues, “also had a single security camera installed in the hallway of her floor, pointed directly at the door of her apartment.” An HPD spokesperson told THE CITY that the department’s anti-harassment unit has been engaged in this building and is currently performing inspections.

According to ICER’s website, Joseph Jemal joined ICER Properties, which his father, Lawrence Jemal, founded in 2008. Since then, Jemal has acquired “40 properties totaling 1,000 units and one million square feet in New York City,” mostly in The Bronx and Upper Manhattan.

Record Cold Indoors

During a visit to their walk-up apartments last month, residents showed THE CITY the problems they’re living with.

Tenants talked about finding rats and mice running on stoves, water leaking through light fixtures, pieces of badly plastered walls falling to the ground, exposed electrical wires, and defective radiators, windows, fire detectors and door locks.

The tenants also said that the building is rarely warm enough. Several of them have partnered with Heat Seek, a nonprofit project that provides web-connected devices that track when the temperature inside an apartment falls below the NYC Housing Code minimum of 68 degrees Fahrenheit when it’s 55 degrees outside during the day, and 62 degrees inside at night.

Vaughn showed THE CITY his Heat Seek logs showing that the temperature in his apartment violated the law in more than half of 1,564 readings between Dec. 10 and Feb. 16. 

But Vaughn said the real reason he stopped paying rent last year was because of the vermin.

“I injured myself in February [of 2022] and was on bed rest for two months,” Vaughn told THE CITY. “And that time, there was one night when I saw a rat and a mouse just kind of running around. My leg was in a brace, so I couldn’t do anything about it,” he said, other than place a mirror in the hallway to try and see where they were coming from. 

“I found one hole by the baseboard heater, but as I started ripping off the covers of others, all the baseboard heaters had holes. I actually just found two more,” Vaughn said. “I got to the point where I put a rat trap by my bed and it was just catching mice every month. So I would  wake up at 3, 4 [in the morning] with a buzzer going off and red flashing lights, and that means it caught something.”

‘Just Radio Silence’

Valjean Guerra, who’s lived in the building for 10 years, showed THE CITY the crevice on his stove that mice and rats use to go in and out of his apartment.

He recalled his cousin, who lives in another apartment, frantically calling him a couple of months ago.

“She was like, ‘Yo, my apartment is flooding. Firefighters have to break into my apartment, and it’s water everywhere. Can you clean it for me?’ Ten o’clock at night. I’m exhausted. I’m coming home. Of course, I’m gonna say ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’” 

Guerra said it turned out that a pipe that workers had sealed a week earlier had burst open and flooded the apartment. 

Issues like that, said Rebecca Whedon, staff attorney for the Tenants Rights Coalition of Manhattan Legal Services, demonstrate the need for the lawsuit. 

“We can’t reach anyone. I’m communicating with the lawyer for the landlord, saying, ‘Listen, my client is worried he’s going to get electrocuted. What can you do? Can you put them up in a hotel? Can you do some things to make sure they’re safe?’’ Whedon told THE CITY.

“Just radio silence. Nothing, and of course, they denied they caused the problem.”