Renters at Sunset Garden Apartments in Ulster are speaking out about numerous maintenance and billing issues they say they’ve had to deal with since the 217-unit complex was purchased by New York City-based E&M Management in March.
During a meeting of the Ulster Town Board on Thursday, Nov. 1, two Sunset Garden residents spoke during the public comment period about some of their concerns. It began as a discussion about how tenants are facing what they believe to be questionable water and sewer charges, but they made it clear there were plenty of other concerns as well.
“This is a much broader issue than just the water and sewer charges,” said Town Supervisor James Quigley III. “It ranges to maintenance issues and so forth.”
E&M Management purchased Sunset Garden at 45 Birch Street and Lakeshore Villas, a 151-unit property in Port Ewen, from Morgan Communities in March for $44 million, expanding a local portfolio which also includes Kingston Waterfront and 30 Black Creek Road in Highland. According to the E&M Management website, most of their other properties are in Nassau County and Far Rockaway, a Queens neighborhood not far from their headquarters in Lawrence. E&M Management did not respond to queries for this article from the Kingston Times.
At the Nov. 1 town board meeting, Barbara Rice said the problems began almost immediately after E&M took over Sunset Garden, saying that most tenants feel they’re in no position to complain for fear of not having their leases renewed.
“Not five minutes from here we have 357 residents who are literally terrified to come here and speak,” said Rice. “We have been intimidated. We have had our leases absolutely violated. Myself, I had no air-conditioning for most of the summer, although I continue to pay my nearly $1,200-a-month [rent] faithfully. I am in what is in my lease called a no-smoking building, and that means not just in common areas, but clearly stated throughout the apartments, etc. … Now they have brought in a lot of cigarette smokers. It’s throughout the building. It comes through all of our ventilation systems. I have asthma. I have not been on medication in six years. Now I’m on a respirator at night. I’ve called them. I’ve tried to get help. They have said there’s nothing they can do.”
Rice and others spoke about two specific representatives of E&M Management: Yitzhak “Yitz” Horowitz, identified on the company’s website as director of property management; and Richard Thompson, who is not listed on the E&M website, but was identified by town officials as the Sunset Garden property manager.
Rice said she’d reached out to Horowitz when her air-conditioned stopped functioning over the summer and said she was told she should get a lawyer. Rice added that after having no air-conditioning during the hottest months of the summer, she had to fight to get her heat fixed when temperatures recently dipped.
“It was 36 degrees outside,” Rice said. “It took me close to two weeks to get heat. I only got it by calling the Ulster County Health Department, who then contacted Richard Thompson. It was 48 hours later that I got heat.”
Another tenant, Juanita Velazquez-Amador, said the problems are widespread, both in apartments and across the common areas as well.
“We have holes in all the walls in every hallway,” said Velazquez-Amador during an interview with the Kingston Times. “Children can step up there, you trip, your hand falls in the hole, you can get electrified. People are living with black mold. We’ve got rats. We’ve had all this going on ever since they took over.”
‘Matters of infestation’
The town’s building inspector, Kathryn Moniz, said there have been so many issues at Sunset Garden since March that she’s had to devote an entire day each week to walking the common areas and, when accessible, apartments.
“I have matters of infestation, both rats and roaches,” said Moniz. “I have floors that are lifting. We’ve had sewer backups that were not taken care of like they’re supposed to be, which led to an issue of sanitation. We have handrails in common halls that serve no purpose because one is attached at the top but not at the return. I have big, gaping holes in the hallways that I’ve asked to be fixed because it’s a fire issue. They’ve taken out a laundry facility, and now I think there’s one for the whole complex. We have lighting issues.”
Moniz added that the property’s owners hadn’t effectively responded to the winter storm which swept across the Hudson Valley last week.
“They did not plow and they did not clear the sidewalks until very, very late in the day,” Moniz said. “We have elderly people that could be visiting a tenant or living there, and that’s not good. We had people who couldn’t get out to go to work.”
Another tenant, Laura Hartmann, has lived at Sunset Garden for 11 years. When her lease ended in July, she was not offered a new lease and has instead been living there on a month-to-month basis. Hartmann and other tenants said they believe this has created an atmosphere where some residents are afraid to complain about maintenance issues in fear of facing reprisals via eviction. That atmosphere, said Hartmann, was not in place when Morgan Communities owned Sunset Garden.
“I don’t think any landlord is perfect,” she said. “But the really great thing about [Morgan] that we don’t have now is they had a staff of two people that were here six days a week. They helped create the community here. When we had maintenance requests we would just go to the office and they would get them done. They were responsive to us, and it creates a very different dynamic. And we desperately miss that here. This company that is here now has a very different philosophy about addressing maintenance requests in that they don’t like to do it.”
Moniz said her office has seen its focus on issues at Sunset Garden go from zero-to-60 since E&M came to town.
“Before they purchased this complex I never had a complaint from Sunset Garden at all,” she said. “And I’ve been here almost six years.”
And despite the prevalence of orders to remedy composed by her department, Moniz said she hasn’t had a great deal of success in getting the owners of Sunset Garden to comply.
“I devote a whole day each week to going through these things, but I can’t seem to put a stop to any of it or get them to respond quickly,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’m really surprised because I’ll usually gain compliance pretty quickly because I’ll work with you. But it does not seem to me that they’re even attempting to address the issues we have.”
Moniz added that some issues, like dumpsters used for residential trash being overfilled with debris from apartment renovations, have been taken care of. But she said that was only a small fraction of the problems she’s tried to bring to E&M’s attention.
“When I make the phone call to Rich [Thompson], he tells me he’ll take care of it,” Moniz said. “But I’ve seen issues like one apartment where the rain comes through the window that I’ve asked him to take care of, and sent an order to remedy to the owners, and it still has not been addressed.”
Water billing concerns
At the Nov. 1 meeting, tenants said water and sewer fees have begun being added to month-to-month rent bills, but they questioned how they were being calculated with single meters for each building rather than individual meters for each unit.
“What they’re saying to us is that they’re taking their full water bill and they are dividing it up by apartment depending upon how many people are on the lease,” said Hartmann. “Which is not fair, because what about the common areas?”
Councilman Eric Kitchen, a realtor with Win Morrison, said he believed the water billing method being used by E&M is illegal.
“In my real estate and rental experience, this is not allowed,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with incidents like this for many years. You live in an apartment with maybe one other person, and let’s say there’s three or four or five living in a bigger apartment in the same building, how are those costs being broken up? I don’t believe there’s a legal basis in my experience that this is even, should be allowed. I believe it’s illegal. There’s no way they can determine your usage without a meter. I might take two showers a day, you might take one, because I sweat more than you. There’s no way to come up with an exact figure.”
Rice said that she was told by Thompson that Sunset Garden is trying to appeal to younger tenants in the future.
“I was told by Richard that they wanted millennials only,” Rice said. “They had no interest in anyone else being in there. They wanted no one that was home during the day, no one who didn’t have a job.”
Get ’em out
Rice, whose lease expires at the end of December, said that since E&M took over, Sunset Garden has begun losing its appeal to longtime residents, many of whom have simply moved on rather than deal with the issues those who’ve stayed have faced.
“My building sits with four empty units out of 12,” Rice said. “People are moving to Florida, people are moving in with relatives, they’re doing anything to escape what’s going on. There’s no housing for us. We don’t want to leave this area. This was home. And they have taken over.”
Kitchen said the Hudson Valley has recently been experiencing a housing boom brought on by the kind of tenants Rose said E&M is seeking for Sunset Garden.
“There used to be older retirees moving up here or looking for second homes,” Kitchen said. “What I’ve been seeing for the last year going on here is a lot of young people are moving up here from the city, and they’re buying up everything. I’m seeing landlords in Kingston that have given their tenants notice that they have to get out, because they’re putting these houses on the market and they’re selling in 24 hours. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad thing. But there is a downside to that. Now you have a lack of housing for local people that have been a part of this community for years.”
Moniz said that she has recently begun meeting with groups of Sunset Garden tenants to assure them that the building department is on their side. She added that her office is hopeful that the owners of Sunset Garden will rectify the many issues she’s brought to their attention before it becomes a legal matter.
“If something has been taken care of we’ll close out an order to remedy,” she said. “But we’re coming really close to summonses to appear at our local justice court, and at that time there can be a fine imposed.”