Developer Adam Mermelstein is an enterprising fellow. By age 21, he had acquired 600 rental units in New Jersey. This year, he expects to make more than $50 million in revenue from his business ventures. Of late, however, Mermelstein has achieved less-welcome notoriety: He was dubbed New York City’s “most abusive landlord” by a convention of hundreds of tenants from 12 neighborhoods.

Jessica Boullion
Devadatta Gandhi

In 2005, Mermelstein started TreeTop Development LLC with partner Azi Mandel. “The strength of TreeTop Development has been our progressive approach to residential development,” Mandel told The Real Estate Weekly. Mermelstein added, “In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, we’re currently renovating two buildings which will introduce more than 70 upscale rental homes to the market.”

Contrary to Mandel’s proclamation, the tenants at 188 S. 3rd St., Brooklyn found TreeTop’s tactics to be far from progressive. Residents of the 41-unit building say that Mermelstein has been illegally denying them heat and hot water and delaying necessary repairs, forcing them out and replacing them with tenants willing to pay much more. Condominiums on the block are listed for more than $1 million, while the rent-stabilized apartments on S. 3rd can cost less than a $1,000 a month, The New York Daily News reported.

A previous landlord scared off or bought out several tenants, explains tenants’ attorney Martin Needelman of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, where I am interning this summer. Needelman adds that this scenario is typical of what happens in gentrifying areas; market forces cause massive displacement pressures, forcing lower income people from their homes. He believes it’s particularly galling that this is happening with laws in place to protect long-term residents from being forced out of their homes. However, he points out, without adequate law enforcement these laws are ineffective, and this case is an example of the critical role of both legal advocacy and organizing as tools against injustice.

The legal case against Mermelstein is being heard in Brooklyn Housing Court. The tenants seek to hold Mermelstein in contempt for non-compliance with a court order to correct hazardous violations. According to New York state law, neither substantial compliance nor a good-faith effort is a defense for civil contempt. The tenants are trying to show that there is an ongoing and unabated pattern of neglect and abuse, while the landlord’s lawyer is attempting to demonstrate that sufficient repairs are taking place.

Mermelstein recently told the Daily News that tenants are welcome to stay, and that the major violations have been corrected and tenant complaints were “fabrications.” The facts, however, weigh heavily against him. Although now he wisely claims that he doesn’t wish to get rid of the tenants, his intent has always been clear. Before the litigation proceedings, he freely proclaimed to news sources and in real-estate listings that all apartments in the building would be available to new renters at significantly higher rates than the current low-income residents could afford.

Furthermore, the New York housing department website lists numerous uncorrected violations – and many remain that are not yet listed. The Daily News interviewed tenants who said that vacant apartments cause problems as potential places for squatters and as dangerous areas for children. Mermelstein countered that they “have not been left unlocked unless they’re being worked in.” The Daily News found six apartments unlocked.

Unfortunately, this negligence and harassment is but one example. At the convention where he was dubbed most abusive landlord, The Columbia Journalist reports that many tenants accused their landlords of abusing undocumented immigrants, telling them that if they didn’t leave, immigration authorities would be called. A Hispanic tenant in the Bushwick neighborhood said she once heard her landlord storming down the hallways, yelling, “I wish I had a machine gun to get rid of all these immigrants!”

Devadatta Gandhi can be reached at debu@umich.edu.

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