Christopher Kimbrough lives in the East End of Newburgh, an especially dangerous part of the city. When considering his family’s current apartment, on the third floor of the building, he and his wife judged its height to be a benefit, despite the walk up with their five children—the chances of a stray bullet flying through such a high window are remote. But what the 26-year-old Newburgh native is now more concerned about is the apartment’s lack of fire escapes. (Fire escapes are not legally mandated in Newburgh.) Neighbors have told Kimbrough that there was a fire caused by the building’s faulty wiring a few years back, and he figures that, should a conflagration block access to the building’s lone stairwell, the family would be left with only one option: jumping three feet to the neighbor’s roof.
“Through my bedroom window, there’s another apartment building where they have a landing,” says Kimbrough. “Worst case scenario, that would be what we would have to try to get to—the building next door.”
Kimbrough is a tenant of John Boubaris, one of the biggest landlords in Newburgh. As the owner of nearly three dozen local properties with a track record of problems, Boubaris is also known to some as the biggest slumlord in town.
This Old City
Newburgh is home to almost 29,000 residents, 70 percent of whom rent. With fewer than 5,500 residential properties in the city, demand is swollen for housing that is often both old and neglected.
“There’s a variety of housing stock throughout the city, but the bulk of where we see our biggest challenges are in the East End, with houses that are typically pushing 130, 140 years old,” explains William Horton, Newburgh’s building inspector. “We see a lot of issues with the plumbing, we see issues with the roofs leaking, problems with the mechanicals, particularly the boilers, furnaces. People sometimes struggle with leaky pipes, no heat. Even the electrical in some instances is quite old, and they might lose a circuit occasionally because something burns out.
“Some landlords move pretty quickly” to address these issues, Horton adds. “Other ones, it takes months and months.”
According to Orange County public records, Boubaris owns at least 30 properties in Newburgh, which are registered to a post office box in neighboring New Windsor. An article from the Times Herald-Record in 2005 suggests that he purchased most of them that year. The properties range from single-family homes to mixed-use buildings with ground-level retail and walk-up apartments. Additionally, documents obtained from the Newburgh Building Inspectors Office through a Freedom of Information Law request reveal that Boubaris’s properties have amassed hundreds of complaints, from lack of heat to unpermitted construction, collapsed ceilings to unlawful rental of individual rooms. Boubaris previously told the Times Herald-Record that the tenants themselves are responsible for such conditions.
(Contacted for this article, Boubaris declined to comment, referring queries to Orange County Landlord Association President Michael Acevedo, who failed to respond to multiple interview requests.)
Although Horton refuses to comment on Boubaris in particular, he notes that “the landlord business is a booming business in the City of Newburgh. People for a long time have made a lot of money in Newburgh without putting a lot of money into it.”
A Lack of Choices
Kimbrough and his wife moved into their current apartment in one of Boubaris’ buildings after being forced from their previous rental by a flea infestation that threatened the health of their newborn son. As Kimbrough describes it, their only other option was moving back into his mother’s one-bedroom, so the couple decided to swallow their doubts about Boubaris’s apartment. The condition of the building, with its broken front door, uneven floors, and haphazardly installed fixtures and appliances, was far from ideal but manageable, Kimbrough thought. They signed a one-year lease on the apartment, which Kimbrough believes was converted from a one-bedroom into a three-bedroom.
“We came here, saw it, and immediately had doubts,” he says. “But in our situation, we didn’t have many other options to go for, so we gave him the rent money.”
The couple was soon planning their next move, as nearly every aspect of their housing revealed itself to be faulty. The oven, which turned out to be the only thing that Boubaris repaired, at first wouldn’t light but now works, albeit with the suggestive scent of a gas leak according to Kimbrough. The electricity along one end of the apartment regularly cuts off when a large appliance is turned on, requiring the circuit breakers in the basement to be reset. A rodent infestation in the roof has led to animals chewing holes through the drop ceiling tiles. “At night, it scares my kids,” says Kimbrough. “They’re like, ‘What is that?’ And I have to tell them, ‘Oh, don’t worry, it’s something on the roof,’ when I know it’s something inside of the roof.”
The issues with the apartment have proven not only troublesome, but costly. In addition to $1,300 in rent, Kimbrough and his wife must cover electricity and water bills, which exceed expectations due to the condition of the building. Kimbrough, who has done contractor work and grew up with a grandfather who worked in construction, insists that the entire building’s electrical system is both antiquated and incorrectly wired. He insists that the setup leads to outsized charges for small necessities, such as an additional $200 a month if the light in the otherwise dark hallway is kept on. Tenants are also charged inconsistent amounts for water: Someone Boubaris hires to read the water meters installed in apartments writes the charges by hand on a bill from the city that is actually addressed to Boubaris (and which has the original amounts and other information redacted with white-out).
“When we got our first bill, it was like $13 and we thought, ‘That’s fine for a month, it should probably be about that,’” says Kimbrough. “Then, as the months went on, it kept rising to a $180 bill, almost $200 a couple of times. I know we’re using water, but not that much.”
Kimbrough’s greatest concern, however, is lead paint. He recently had his children tested and his infant son’s results came back nearly four times higher than the county’s threshold for lead poisoning. The child is now on medication to treat the elevated levels of lead. “Now I’m looking at all the small details that I overlooked before,” Kimbrough says of the apartment.
“Lead paint is a widespread problem in Newburgh because we have old housing stock,” says Heidi Meehan, a senior public health educator with the Orange County Department of Health. “When you have a city like this, with lots of old housing that has been deteriorating over the years, you’re going to have lead hazard.”
The Department of Health conducts lead inspections of properties where children have been found to exceed the threshold for exposure. Inspection results are shared with landlords, along with a deadline to implement fixes, such as containment or removal. Should landlords fail to comply, the department is also able to fine them.
Like Building Inspector Horton, Meehan would not comment on specific landlords or properties. “We have landlords who don’t love us,” she admits.
Documents obtained from the Orange County Department of Health via a FOIL request show that lead paint hazards were found in Kimbrough’s building four times since Boubaris took ownership in 2013. In every instance, the department mandated remediation in the form of cleaning dust and removing paint chips. Boubaris complied, albeit consistently late, and each complaint was eventually closed. It is unclear from the documents if the lead poisoning of Kimbrough’s son will result in another inspection or any further remediation.
Kimbrough is not the only tenant who has had to contend with the state of Boubaris’ rental properties. “Alex” has long been a Boubaris tenant, renting more than one apartment from him over the years. (Fearing retaliation, Alex declined to share their real name.) Like Kimbrough, Alex is a Newburgh native and has faced many similar housing issues, such as broken hardware, malfunctioning appliances, and disruptions to their utilities. But unlike Kimbrough, Alex’s rent is paid directly to Boubaris by the Orange County Social Services Department through the Temporary Assistance program. In order for Alex to move into their current apartment, Social Services needed to first sign off on its condition—which Alex insists the department should not have done.
“When I walked into this place, there were no batteries in the fire alarms,” says Alex. “It was not up to code, and he still got accepted.”
Both Alex and Kimbrough have complained about the issues with their housing directly to Boubaris and received similar responses: empty promises of future fixes or, at best, repairs that they claim are superficial and performed by unqualified individuals. With his prior experience in contracting, Kimbrough describes the repairs as inadequate, and Alex, who’s personally familiar with many of the workers, insists that they are unlicensed. Kimbrough cites the work done to address his power outages as representatives of Boubaris’s quick fixes.
“The electrical issue, he tried to accommodate by updating the breakers,” says Kimbrough. “They were like 15-watt and 10-watt amps, and he put in 20-watt amps. But that really didn’t fix the problem because things aren’t wired correctly.”
Although their complaints to Boubaris continue to fall on deaf ears, neither Kimbrough nor Alex have brought their issues to Newburgh’s building or health departments. While tenants who file grievances are legally protected from retaliation, including eviction, both Alex and Kimbrough feel they have too much to lose. It’s a power imbalance that Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV), a regional non-profit law firm, believes landlords factor into their business.
“It is noticeable that, despite increased publicity around the poor housing conditions in the city, a number of landlords continue to offer housing that fails to meet minimum habitability standards,” says Rachel Simons, an attorney with LSHV. “In our opinion, these landlords are offering substandard housing at affordable rates with the expectation that these tenants are going to be too afraid to complain.”
Simons points out that recent housing legislation passed in Albany may help tenants better defend themselves from vindictive landlords. Under the The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, tenants in New York State are now protected from both eviction and rent increases within the year following a complaint to their landlord, an agent of their landlord, or a government agency. Neither Kimbrough nor Alex are familiar with the new law.
As a model for further improving tenant protections in Newburgh, Simons points to New York City Housing Court. In the five boroughs, tenants are able to bring “housing part proceedings,” through which they can compel landlords to make repairs. Tenants file their complaint with the court and request an inspection by the city. If the housing conditions are found to be unsatisfactory, the landlord will be issued violations for correction within 24 hours to 90 days, depending on the degree of hazard. Furthermore, the complaint triggers court proceedings, which involve the landlord and the city itself, which must mediate a settlement, including a timetable for repairs. The process allows landlords to be held in contempt and, importantly, tenants are protected from retaliatory harassment, including unwarranted eviction. Simons is not familiar with any such efforts afoot in Newburgh.
The housing efforts that do exist in Newburgh focus less on empowering tenants to hold their landlords accountable and more on recovering abandoned properties, as with the Newburgh Community Land Bank, or on constructing new affordable housing, such as Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh. Community Voices Heard, a New York City-based community organizing nonprofit, has been hosting local tenants’ rights trainings around the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, but if Kimbrough or Alex are any indication, it will be a stretch to reach the people most in need.
At the moment, fear has resigned both Kimbrough and Alex to renting from Boubaris. Kimbrough and his family are currently on a waiting list for a rent-controlled apartment, and he fears that, if they were evicted or if the building was condemned, they may not be able to find another home in the meantime. Alex is in a tighter bind because, as they describe it, Boubaris is one of the few landlords in Newburgh who will rent to someone like them—that is, someone with poor credit whose rent is paid by Social Services.
Both Kimbrough and Alex describe Boubaris as preying on tenants who have no other option but to comply—to hand over their paychecks or public assistance in exchange for housing that they know to be substandard, that they suspect even the city knows is substandard. But the situation persists in a vicious cycle. Kimbrough was referred to Boubaris by a friend of his wife, who also rents from him. And, all of their misgivings aside, Alex finds themselves still referring friends to Boubaris as well.
“I try really hard not to refer anybody to him,” says Alex. “But when I do, it’s purely out of desperation—purely out of the fact that they’re desperate and there are no other options.”
This article was published in the December 2019 issue of Chronogram.
Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere.