A lawsuit filed more than four years ago against property-management company Valstock Management for its practices in two Chinatown buildings reached an agreement with eight tenants, and Community Tenants Association (CTA), to stop some of its management practices and pay residents $618,000 for damages suffered.
“It was an incredibly long road,” Winnie Kao, senior counsel at the Asian Law Caucus, said on Monday in an interview, “It was only after all these years of contentious litigation and mistrial and other kinds of efforts made that the parties finally were able to have more serious negotiations and the settlement was finally able to be reached.”
Ever since Valstock took over the two buildings, at 1350 Stockton St., and 371 Broadway, tenants have complained that the living environment has felt hostile, as if Valstock were trying to push out the low-income, Chinese-speaking immigrants who live in the single-room-occupancy hotels.
Known as SROs, these rent-controlled buildings have small rooms and shared bathrooms and kitchens. But most of the tenants have lived there for years. When Valstock came in, things began to change.
When Ruizhao Wu received a late notice from Valstock, it was in English. He couldn’t understand a word of it.
When he got a three-day eviction notice shortly afterward, he realized the previous one was probably reminding him to pay his rent. At nearly 70, however, his memory is not what it used to be.
He went to pay the rent. But the management company refused to accept it and wanted him out.
“I’ve been living in this place for nearly five years, and it never happened before,” said Wu, who was a caregiver before retiring.
Wu was not the only resident who experienced such harassment.
In November, 2017, more than 100 tenants showed up to a protest organized by Community Tenants Association. Several community organizations issued Valstock a demand letter, but Valstock failed to respond or change its practices. Half a year later, the tenants sued.
Shao Yan Chen, a 76-year-old resident living with his wife, said their 8-by-10-foot room was what they could afford. The couple has shared bathrooms and a kitchen with 50 other households on their floor for 13 years.
“It has also been important for us to live in Chinatown, where we can go about our lives in a community that understands us, and where we feel more at home,” said Chen.
Instead, tenants began to feel that Valstock was working to drive Chinese immigrants away.
Residents said they found laundry they hung out to dry in dumpsters. The managers installed surveillance cameras in the hallways and kitchens, and started including pictures of tenants in posted notices for supposed rule infractions. Fines began; a tenant who left their shoes outside in the hallway near their room could be fined $200.
Even worse, a 12-minute timer was set up outside of the shower room. Some seniors need their partners to stand outside and press the button to get the water back when it’s cut off suddenly.
The management company refused to explain any of the rules in Chinese. The only line in Chinese was to tell tenants to see a lawyer if they did not understand.
“We were scared we were going to be pushed out. The community showed up to rally with us, but the harassment didn’t stop. I don’t think the landlord thought we would stand up, but we did. I’m proud we spoke out, and that the building practices are being corrected moving forward,” said Chen, who was one of seven original plaintiffs.
Advancing Justice, together with Legal Assistance to the Elderly and Ropes & Gray, said the landmark settlement sends a strong message: That landlords who fail to respect low-income residents will be held accountable.
Valstock Management replied that they have no comment at this time.
I’m glad to hear that the vulnerable folks are being helped. Long time residents should really be protected.