The City: Bronx Tenant Takes on Ex-Housing Agency Bigwig With Relentless Court Cases Demanding Repairs

By  | This story was originally published on June 9, 2021 by.

Jason Torres in his living room in The Bronx.
Jason Torres in his living room in The Bronx.
 Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

For nearly a decade, Jason Torres said, his disputes with his Bronx landlord followed a similar pattern: He would call up the management company with a complaint, and never hear anything back — forcing him to take his pleas to Housing Court.

But John Warren, the owner of the 30-unit Sedgwick Avenue building, is no ordinary landlord: He’s a former longtime deputy commissioner for the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development who for years oversaw work to reclaim dilapidated buildings.

Earlier this year, the state and city forged a $30 million affordable housing deal to transfer 24 buildings in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and East New York neighborhoods to Warren’s firm.

Torres, 39, said he has taken his landlord to court 10 times since 2014, winning emergency repairs for everything from water damage to faulty bathroom pipes. In many instances, Torres said, he represented himself or paid for attorneys out of his own pocket.

Torres, who was raised in the building Warren’s firm MHR Management took over in 2013, is currently battling the landlord in Bronx Housing Court. He’s demanding immediate repairs after an independent inspector found mold in his bathroom in February.

A court-ordered mold assessor had deemed the issue successfully dealt with a month before, court records signed by Warren show.

“This is just the most recent case. We’re trying to show the judge that there’s been a pattern,” said Torres, who is currently represented by the nonprofit legal group TakeRoot Justice. “I just don’t know what to do anymore. This has turned into a fight of me against our landlord.”

Warren’s attorney John Bianco told THE CITY Warren’s firm is doing what it can — and claimed that Torres has repeatedly refused to let work crews in.

“We have recognized Mr. Torres’ concerns for a long time and made numerous repairs in his apartment. We believe that a substantial renovation is the only way to solve the recurring issues,” he said.

He added that Torres has refused offers to relocate to a nearby apartment managed by the company while the work is being done.

New windows and new sealing on the masonry are all being planned to stop moisture from seeping in, Bianco said.

Numerous Water Leak Complaints

On June 7, Torres’ case was supposed to go to trial in Housing Court — only to be delayed by the judge after Warren’s legal team questioned whether TakeRoot could represent Torres while it also represents Warren’s nonprofit partner, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, on other matters.

Torres and his lawyer, Rajiv Jaswa, argue that the building’s “persistent” problems — and management’s “failure” to make adequate repairs — constitute tenant harassment under city law.

The building currently has 61 “immediately hazardous” housing code violations, HPD’s records show, including mice and roach infestations, as well as multiple water leaks in Torres’ unit.

Warren served as first deputy commissioner at HPD for seven years during the Bloomberg administration and currently chairs UHAB’s board of directors.

Since 2013, Torres has taken Warren, Sedgwick Avenue Dignity Developers and MHR Management Inc. company to court for dozens of other complaints, including water leaks as well as mold and lead paint violations. He has repeatedly won court orders for emergency repairs.

A pile of court documents Torres has amassed over the years of disputing with his landlords.
Housing Court papers accumulated by Jason Torres.
 Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Torres and his aunt, who lives in the apartment below his with Torres’ elderly grandfather, said that tenants did not have gas for an entire year beginning in 2017. Bianco acknowledges the gas outage but says it lasted from March through July of that year.

Torres told THE CITY that over the years, he resorted to filing Housing Court actions against Warren and his management company after calls to the building super and the company went unanswered.

On other occasions, when the management company did send over repair workers, Torres said, they often did not resolve issues to his satisfaction. The water leak in the bathroom, for example, has been the object of more than 20 complaints to HPD since 2014, Torres said, adding that “not once” have Warren or the agency “sent in a professional plumber.”

“The repairs are done all by Housing Court order,” Torres said. “And then [the problems] all come back.”

Bianco, Warren’s attorney, disputed Torres’ account. “Mr. Torres was able to obtain a court order predominantly due to the fact that he will not provide access unless ordered by the court,” he said.

“Both the landlord’s agent and attorneys from our office have met with Mr. Torres on numerous occasions and have always been responsive to his concerns, and sought to have him contact us if he had any issues before going to HPD and the court,” Bianco added.

Torres disputed that, noting that as a DJ, he predominantly works on nights and weekends and is usually home on weekdays.

“There is no evidence that I ever denied access,” he said. “It’s an excuse that they’ve continually used since day one, and it’s b.s.”

Thousands of Pages

He acknowledged that he declined Warren’s March 2019 offer to move to a different nearby apartment, because the unit was “half the size” of his current space, and because housing code violation records showed it had “a lot of the same issues” as his home. Torres also declined the offer because the building is on the border of where the Cross Bronx and Major Deegan expressways intersect.

Through his persistent complaints to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and his numerous Housing Court actions, Torres has amassed an expansive record of the unit and building’s violations altogether thousands of pages long. A stack of documents reviewed by THE CITY was roughly a half-foot thick.

The cache includes a 2018 incident in which a portion of Torres’ bedroom ceiling collapsed after he waited for MHR Management to remediate the water damage on the ceiling. The court ordered HPD’s Code Enforcement Division to do immediate repairs on Sept. 25 that year.

Jason Torres’ bedroom in his Bronx apartment on Aug. 1 2018.
Jason Torres’ bedroom in his Bronx apartment after his ceiling collapsed in 2018. 
Courtesy of Jason Torres

“In each of his cases, he was able to obtain a court order mandating that the landlord make certain repairs within legal deadlines,” Jaswa said.

The lengthy history is the basis for the harassment case they’re now filing against Warren, Jaswa added.

“The landlord has a pattern of doing this, and it’s all documented in these court orders over several years: where Jason repeatedly took his landlord to court, the court found that there were all these violations, and that these problems still persist years later,” he said.

Torres told THE CITY that conditions in the apartment have become “unlivable,” and that the mold often causes his asthma to flare up.

Bianco noted that Warren has entered into a new loan with HPD to complete repairs and that they “expect to start work soon.”

The rent-stabilized building has a tax abatement and underwent a previous renovation of its roof and boiler system, Bianco said, with loans from the city in 2015.

‘My Requests Are Not Outlandish’

Torres has lived in the building since he was four years old. Family photos in his grandfather’s living room downstairs feature family photos through the generations — anniversaries, holidays, birthdays — all in the Sedgwick Avenue building.

He says that his demands, and reliance on the courts to force action, have his landlords and HPD label him as a troublemaker — and not simply someone who wants to live in decent surroundings.

“They’ve told my previous attorneys, people who come into my apartment to do work, that I’m difficult to work with, that I’m a bad tenant, that I’m problematic,” Torres said. “All I’ve ever requested is for the water to stop leaking. My requests are not outlandish.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York. It is republished under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 US License.