Ericka Johnson was at work two weeks ago when she received a FaceTime call from her 15-year-old son, who was agitated about the dire state of their apartment on Brighton Avenue in Syracuse.
“He said, ‘Mom the ceiling fell down and there is water everywhere,’” said Johnson, who lives at the apartment complex on 508 W. Brighton Ave. “I came to the house and I couldn’t even open the door because I knew how bad it was. I was just thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god there goes all the furniture, the TV, my kids electronics, everything. I opened the door and it just was horrific.”
Johnson’s two-bedroom apartment at the complex tenants and property management refer to as “Brighton Place” was suddenly rendered uninhabitable on Sept. 21. The stench of mildew and sewage, and the sight of water damage, she said, make the apartment dispiriting to even approach.
Added to the ceiling’s collapse, Johnson said her family has weathered severe mice and cockroach infestations, ill-fitting windows, no heat, and busted doors.
“When the ceiling came down there were dead mice, mice droppings, it smelled like urine, and there were insects all over,” she said, “All of that came down on our clothes and furniture. I just felt shocked.”
The family has been staying at her mother’s apartment at the same complex since last Wednesday, with no signs of being able to return home any time soon. As of Sept. 30, Johnson said she received a note from management company Bigger Picture Developments saying repairs to her apartment would begin that day.
Johnson, a member of the complex’s tenants association, said she warned property manager Gage Harnacker about plumbing issues in her building, which she says she believes ultimately led to her ceiling collapsing. Harnacker and other building management officials did not respond to calls and emails from Central Current.
“My toilet overflows for no reason,” she said. “One day my kids and I were home and my son told me there was water leaking everywhere. It started going into the kitchen and down into my living room and you could see the tile breaking apart.”
Employees from Bigger Picture Development in charge of repairs did not address the ceiling at the time, Johnson said. Other issues, like a lack of heating have gone on for the last year and a half.
Tenants said one of the biggest issues they have is a lack of communication from the management company and property owners. Johnson said Harnacker sometimes doesn’t contact tenants for months at a time. Tenants do not know or have contact information for the property owners, she said.
Local tax records show the complex was purchased by Brighton Your Day LLC, a company based out of Tennessee, in February last year, along with two other parcels in Syracuse for a total of $1.75 million.
City of Syracuse Chief Policy Officer Greg Loh said Tuesday the city’s Division of Code Enforcement have been in contact with the complex’s property manager regarding five open code violations spotted at Johnson’s apartment.
According to a city memo, Brighton Your Day LLC must make all the following repairs by Oct. 12:
- Repair all damaged ceilings and walls in the living room kitchen and stairway areas.
- Fix the structure’s basement door.
- Address a bathroom window that cannot be opened.
- Seal the window in the apartment’s master bedroom so it is weather-tight.
- Repair the thermostat.
“Code Enforcement will ensure the violations are addressed,” Loh said.
Katie Mott, a fair housing organizer with the Syracuse Tenants Organizing for Power (STOP!) Coalition said her group has been in touch with tenants from Brighton Place since April. Mott said tenants all around the complex are mostly unable to reach management, let alone having repair work completed at their apartments. A lack of communication, she said, pushed tenants to organize the Brighton Place Tenants Association.
“They’ve chosen to work outside of the systems that we do have in place that are not working and are not effective,” Mott said
The organizing group received support from 25 tenants from the 38 apartments at Brighton Place. They are currently on a rent strike. Johnson said she has withheld rent since the start of spring after being unable to reach management representatives.
Monica King, a member of the Brighton Place Tenants Association who has been striking since January, said sewage water flows into her basement at least once every two weeks. Her apartment also has broken light fixtures, a leaky ceiling, and ill-fitting windows and floorboards.
“My windows are going to be a problem with the winter coming up. I am letting out a lot of heat because my windows aren’t sealed tight,” she said. “If the wind blows strongly, they fall over.”
In August, the tenants association delivered 20 demands to Harnacker’s office, asking for management to fix the plumbing system, address pest infestations and leaky walls and roofs, as well as replacing ill-fitting windows, doors, and floorboards, and also replacing light fixtures furnaces and thermostats.
“Tenants have decided that they are stronger together and they have decided that they want to see change,” Mott said. “There is a huge sense of community and people really feel like they want to stay there.”
With the state of disrepair at the complex, Johnson said she is trying to move. But attempting to move to another complex on the South Side could prove costly for some.
“Anecdotally, I’m seeing a huge surge in evictions. I am seeing rents rising by 30 to 50 percent on the South Side, so people truly have no place to go,” said Mary Traynor, an attorney with Legal Services of Central New York. “Also, what I’m seeing is there is no increased maintenance along with increased rent. There is the same chronic neglect, mold, leaks, and mice, only it costs more now.”
Johnson said she would like to stay in the area because of the proximity to her family, but the prospect of paying for two months of rent and a security deposit upfront is dreary.
“It’s just been hard trying to find something decent in the South Side,” Johnson said. “None of the remodeling work is getting done. All we have here are old houses with old windows and old appliances.”
For King, moving would be ideal, but ultimately too expensive.
“Rents have spiked since the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “I would rather stay if management fixed up the apartments.”
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