Lynda Engstrom is 73, a widowed daughter of Holocaust survivors who lives in a prewar building at 89th Street and West End Avenue.
Right now, her rent-regulated apartment looks as if a hazmat team gave it the quarantine treatment. The living room furniture — all of it -– is jumbled together in a hulking, shrink-wrapped mass in the middle of her living room; in her painting studio, plastic sheeting covers a wall of old photos and mementos. The guest bedroom in the back of her apartment is similarly shrouded in plastic sheeting.
“I just got my own bedroom in order,” said Engstrom.
Engstrom blames her plight on a campaign by her landlord to force her out — and replace her with tenants paying higher rents. Such stories have become increasingly common throughout the city, as rents have continued to soar. “They’re waiting for us to die,” said Engstrom of rent-regulated tenants, eight of which she said have left her building since 2004 due to harassment.
She believes once her apartment is vacated, and its rent-regulated status discontinued, it will be converted into a co-op and sold at a premium.
The problems for her started in 2011, she said, when one morning she awoke to the sound of incessant and loud banging on her apartment door. Peering through the eyehole, she saw six men who claimed to be from the building’s management company, who told her they needed to upgrade her unit’s electrical system. Instead of opening the door, she called the police, and later hired a lawyer to defend herself against what she is convinced are attempts by her landlord, Samson Management, to illegally evict her through intimidation. Lawsuits were filed on both sides.
“[They] decided to harass me through this electrical upgrade that I did not need,” said Engstrom.
Last year, a State Supreme Court judge granted Samson Management access to the apartment, but said before any work could be done the two sides would have to come to a legally binding and detailed agreement on what work would be performed. It took another year to draw up those plans up, and on April 27, Engstrom vacated the apartment for a week so workers could get the job done, as per the agreement. Before she left, and also in accordance with the agreement, a moving company came in and shrink-wrapped everything to protect it from dust.
Engstrom said she came back to find both her apartment and her belongings damaged. A ceiling fan was removed and sitting on the floor, she said. Built in window-seats that look out onto West 89th Street had cracks in them. As for the work that was done, the only evidence that remained was some dust and a strip of wall in the foyer that had been patched and sanded, and just needed a coat of paint.
Samson Management bought 317 West 89th Street in 2004, and began converting many of the building’s 20 units into co-op apartments.
Since 2011, Engstrom alleges that Samson Management’s superintendent, Gregory Haye, directed service workers in the building to deny her services like trash removal. She said Haye has been in her apartment two dozen times without notifying her. Engstrom said building workers used to be friendly towards her, “and now they treat me like a pariah.” All of these tactics have been employed, she believes, in an effort to make her continued presence in the building not worth the hassle.
But right now, she’s focused on getting her apartment back in order and resurrecting her stock-trading business, which she said was put on hold during her legal troubles. Engstrom said she lives on Social Security and what money she makes selling the odd painting, but needs to make more to cover rent, which she said is between $2,000 and $3,000 per month.
Haye didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Samson Management, through a spokesperson, said the company is not at fault in the case. “The real travesty of this entire incident is that Ms. Engstrom effectively and selfishly delayed Samson for three years from making these legally necessary repairs and upgrades, to the detriment of the safety of the building’s residents,” Samson said.
Engstrom said she’s open to a buyout but isn’t going down without a fight. “The big fear is that people have the authority now to walk into an apartment and do whatever they want.”