Defining the American Dream

finding a home after landlord dispute

Posted on Monday, November 22, 2010

Last June, Zaida Paris-Mendez was at the beauty salon when a neighbor called to tell her that people were moving things out of her apartment.
She knew immediately that the landlord was trying to evict her, her husband and their two children from their $700-a-month rent-controlled apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It had happened before.
In a recent interview with the Mendez family, Ms. Paris-Mendez, 44, a parent coordinator at Brooklyn Preparatory High School, described how, over a period of two years, her landlord had refused to accept their rent checks or make any repairs on the apartment, and had offered them money to move, saying the building, at 15 Humboldt Street, needed to be gutted and renovated.
The first time their landlord, Martin Ehrenriech, evicted them, in December 2009, they were able to prove in housing court that they had put aside their rent in a bank account, and a judge ordered that they be allowed to return. But in June, a lawyer they depended on to present similar proof did not do so in time.
“Their attorney failed to come to court and stop the eviction proceedings in time and they were evicted,” said Eliezer B. Kraus, a lawyer for Mr. Ehrenriech.
Mr. Kraus said the Mendez family defaulted on the rent and denied that his client had ever refused payments.
Roberto Marrero, the Mendezes’ former lawyer, who had taken the case pro bono, said the family never received a marshal’s notice of eviction proceedings. “I think the judge’s decision was wrong; I followed procedure,” he said.
With their furniture in storage, the family members had to split up for the summer. Albert Mendez, Ms. Paris-Mendez’s husband, went to stay with a friend while she and their son, Brandon, 12, shared an air mattress on the floor of another friend’s living room. Their daughter, Brianna, 15, stayed with her grandmother.
“The house was a big piece of my heart and it felt shattered,” said Brandon, who remembered feeling embarrassed about his family’s situation.
Mr. Mendez, 52, had been earning about $60,000 a year caulking windows for a major construction company, but since the recession and the end of the city’s construction boom, his hours had been drastically reduced. In August, he was laid off.
“I was working 10 hours a day, six days a week, and I had benefits as a member of the iron workers’ union,” said Mr. Mendez, who is originally from the Dominican Republic. “Now I’m not working; many of my friends aren’t working. There are a lot of people like me in unions who are without work.”
The family struggled to find an apartment it could afford, even with the approximately $2,100 a month that Ms. Paris-Mendez takes home from her job and the $405 that Mr. Mendez receives in weekly unemployment benefits. Finally, in September, they moved into a $1,500-a-month, three-bedroom apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
After exhausting their savings on moving and a security deposit, the Mendezes turned to Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven beneficiary agencies of The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, which tapped the fund to give the Mendez family $70 to pay its first gas bill, $225 for new winter coats for the children and $110 for a printer and flash drives to help with the children’s schoolwork.
Brandon is happier now that his family has an apartment again. For the first time he has his own room, which he decorated with baseball cards and wrestling figures.
In Brianna’s room, medals from her dance competitions hang from the wall. Like her brother, she is happy about the move; now she lives closer to one of her best friends. “I guess it worked out,” she said.
The family is scraping by, barely covering the monthly expenses of rent, bills and food. They have cut out many of the small luxuries they enjoyed before, like going to the movies, and, for Ms. Paris-Mendez, trips to the beauty salon.
Mr. Mendez continues to look for work. He is hopeful that as construction progresses at the World Trade Center site, there will be something for him there.
Ms. Paris-Mendez is determined not to let their situation ruin the holidays for her children. “We still have to get a Christmas tree, and I’m thinking about presents,” she said.

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