NEW YORK — When a judge sentenced landlord Morris Gross to spend 15 days in a Brooklyn apartment building among irate rent-striking tenants he had severely neglected, law enforcement officials and better-housing advocates called it perfect punishment.
Angry bed sheet banners hanging from fire escapes dotted the outside of the red brick building when the 76-year-old delinquent landlord arrived to serve his sentence in a flurry of publicity.
"Management are blood suckers," one bed sheet proclaimed. In the lobby, a giant sign read, "Welcome you reptile."
Tenants Still Angry
But, on Tuesday, more than four days into his incarceration, still-angry tenants were complaining that Gross really is spending an enforced vacation.
"I don't see he is getting punished," said Ludie Mills, a tenant of the building near the old site of Ebbets Field, where the Brooklyn Dodgers once played. "His apartment is one of the better apartments. . . . He has security guards at all times. They work 8 to 8. He has a mini 5-inch television."
Gross was confined to his building and ordered to apply $137,900 in fines for repairs after he failed to correct 400 violations there, including roach and mice infestations, broken doors, windows and locks, bad toilets, cracked tiles, defective smoke detectors, missing stair railings and defective refrigerators, among other deficiencies.
But tenants say that his temporary quarters were renovated before he moved in; a door frame was fixed, the walls were replastered and painted, fresh flooring was put down and furniture, food and a hot plate were installed. The tenants charge that, behind a freshly painted brown door with two new locks, Gross is living in comfortable isolation.
"We don't see him at all," complained Anita Smith, as she stood guard with other residents in the lobby of the building. "We can't live in the lobby. I need my ceiling scraped and bathroom fixed. There is a broken door. The windows are coming off. It's horrible."
New York City courts are clogged with complaints that building owners are neglecting property, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, while often charging hefty rents. Rents in Gross' building run from $295 to $725 a month.
Studies show that since 1970 more than 420,000 units of housing have simply been abandoned by owners unwilling to pay taxes or make repairs. As a result, city officials are stuck with a huge stock of rundown buildings at a time when federal housing policy discourages low- and middle-income construction. The practice of abandoning buildings puts added pressure on both tenants and municipal resources.
Gross is wearing a small electronic transmitter strapped to his ankle to assure that he remains in the apartment. If he moves more than 100 feet from it, a signal will be sent to monitors, who will notify the New York City Housing Authority. As a backup, the apartment has been equipped with a video-screen phone. When monitors call, the landlord must answer, and his televised picture is transmitted. The devices are typical of numerous low-cost innovations being used across the country as alternatives to incarceration in overcrowded prisons.
Although it is confining to Gross, the electronic gadgetry is of small comfort to his tenants, who are worried about more fundamental things. Some residents complain that repairs have been done to only 12 or 13 apartments in the 113-apartment building and that those repairs were cosmetic.
"It looks like a nice apartment house on the outside," said Mills, before beginning her litany of deficiencies. "Apart from the insects, the mice and the roaches and no heat and hot water . . . " she said, her voice trailing off as she moved through the lobby toward the graffiti-scarred elevator.
Since the landlord was forced to move into the building on Friday, residents said, the heat and hot water have come back on. Some even complained that the heat remained on all night and they had to open their windows.
But they fear that, once Gross' forced stay is over and he departs, he will take two things with him: the heat and hot water.