When Richard and Bellamira Solis (far right and far left) were forced out of the illegal basement sublease where they'd been living in Brooklyn, the family ended up seeking refuge with a neighborhood acquaintance. When it turned out the neighbor was also a partner with a Manhattan law firm, it kicked off a nearly decadelong legal saga that came to an end last month as the family struck a $275,000 settlement with their former landlords over their eviction. (Courtesy of Paul Edelstein)
When Richard and Bellamira Solis were unexpectedly evicted from their Brooklyn apartment one cold April night in 2014, they found themselves at the doorstep of neighbor Paul Edelstein. They also found themselves at the start of a nearly decadelong legal fight Edelstein took up against the family's landlords.
As they knocked on Edelstein's door that night with their three young children, it was not in hopes that the third-generation attorney would help them get relief from their former landlords. In fact, the family of Nicaraguan immigrants didn't even know that Edelstein was a lawyer. They simply knew him as a friendly neighbor for whom Richard had handled a few handyman jobs, and who had occasionally hired Bellamira as a babysitter.
But after nine years of litigation by Edelstein and his firm, Manhattan-based Edelstein Faegenburg & Brown LLP, the Solis family finally finalized a $275,000 settlement with their former landlords in March, in the midst of a trial for their case.
The suit, which was brought before New York City's landmark law providing low-income tenants with a right to counsel in housing court matters went into effect in 2017, highlights the difference that legal representation can make in eviction disputes.
"Because of [Edelstein], we got to the point where we are now, nine years later, but a lot of people will just take the hit and deal with it," said Richard Solis Jr., who was 12 years old the night that his family was evicted from their apartment. "Our case is a good template for others that go through a similar situation who think, 'There's nobody to help us, we don't have rights.'"
The family's experience also highlights New York's ongoing affordable housing crisis. Recently released data showed that fewer than one of every 100 apartments priced at less than $1,500 per month was available to potential new tenants in 2021.
"There is a real supply issue," said Emily Goldstein, who serves as director of organizing and advocacy for the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes affordable housing policies in the city. "There's not enough housing for those that need it."
"It's Just Not Right"
That first night was a bit chaotic.
Paul Edelstein, an attorney with Manhattan-based personal injury firm Edelstein Faegenburg & Brown LLP, and his wife, Maritza, outside their home in Brooklyn. The Edelsteins welcomed the Solises into their home after the family's eviction, and Paul went on to spearhead the family's legal case against their former landlords. (Courtesy of Paul Edelstein)
For his part, Edelstein said, that first night, he was focused on making sure the family had a comfortable and warm place to sleep, and assuring them they'd have a place to stay while they searched for a new apartment.
"There wasn't even a moment's hesitation," Edelstein said on deciding to let the Solis family stay in his home, adding that he and his wife even went so far as to lend the family some money to help them get a new place.
But as he learned more about the family's ordeal — including their former landlords' move to cut utilities and begin significant construction work while the Solises were still living in the apartment, and ultimately tossing their belongings to the curb in black garbage bags — Edelstein decided that helping his neighbors find a new home wasn't enough.
"Once I started hearing all of that, I really, really didn't like it, and I said, 'It's just not right, and I'm going to do something about it,'" Edelstein said.
Arriving at Edelstein's doorstep that night in April 2014 was the culmination of months of deteriorating conditions for the Solis family at the hands of their former landlords.
Since 2011 the family had been living in an illegal basement apartment of a multilevel townhome in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. According to Edelstein, the Solises were subtenants to the first-floor tenants, with the knowledge of the landlords. In 2014, however, the family was asked to leave the unit so the landlords could renovate the space for their son to move into. The Solises agreed, and asked for time to find a new place to live.
But as the weeks progressed and the Solises faced issues finding a new home, the landlords — Nora, Francisco and Jose Aguilar, and Vilma Luque — moved ahead with renovations despite knowing that the Solises were still residing in the basement apartment.
According to Arthur Blyakher, an attorney with Edelstein's firm who worked on the family's lawsuit, the work started with removing doors and tearing down walls.
"The first-floor tenants, they left, and the second they left, the [landlords] started demolition," Blyakher told Law360. "They knew that the Solis family was still living downstairs and that they used the bathroom and kitchen on the first floor. They did not give a crap."
Eventually, appliances were removed, and electricity and gas to both the first floor and the basement were turned off, Blyakher said. The situation then escalated further, as the landlords called the police several times claiming the Solis family were squatters. Luckily, the Solises had documentation proving otherwise in the form of a letter they were given when they moved into the building confirming their status as tenants, according to Blyakher.
Finally, one day, the Solis family came home to find their belongings had been stuffed into black trash bags, removed from the apartment without their consent and left on the street.
After taking the family in, Edelstein said, he contacted the landlords and asked that they compensate the Solises for moving expenses — a one-time payment of $2,500. But the landlords refused, claiming that the family had left the apartment voluntarily.
Attorneys for the landlords did not respond to a request for comment from Law360.
For their part, the Solises wanted to move on with their lives without causing any trouble. But then representatives from the Administration for Children's Services showed up at Edelstein's home following a call claiming that the Solis children were being abused and neglected by their parents. According to Blyakher, evidence gathered as they litigated the family's case suggested that the landlords were the ones behind the call.
"I couldn't believe that someone would do that to this family," Edelstein said. "And I said, 'You're going to pay, one way or the other.'"
NYC's Housing Crisis
For many, the idea of living in an apartment without doors, gas or electricity may seem unfeasible, but at the time, the Solis family accepted it as something they'd simply have to adapt to living in a city where affordable housing is an increasingly rare commodity, Edelstein said.
One of the most pressing housing issues currently facing the five boroughs is the mismatch between unit prices and resident incomes, said Goldstein, of the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development.
According to the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey published by the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development last year, the vacancy rate for apartments priced at less than $1,500 per month ranged from 0.86% to 0.93% in 2021.
Meanwhile, the overall number of rental units priced at less than $1,500 per month in inflation-adjusted dollars has fallen from just under 1.6 million in 1991 to about 991,000 in 2021.
NYC's Affordable Housing Supply Dwindles as Pricier Units Come Online
According to data from a city housing survey, the number of rental units in New York City priced at less than $1,500 per month in inflation-adjusted dollars shrank by 38% between 1991 and 2021, falling from just under 1.6 million to 990,800. At the same time, the number of units priced at or above $2,300 per month has increased more than fivefold.
"The problem is that the supply solutions that have often been proposed and implemented are not creating the type of supply that is actually what's needed," Goldstein said.
She said that most new housing being built in the city — even some projects that may fall under affordable housing programs — is priced at levels that would be affordable only to people making 60% or more of the area median income.
At the same time, she added, in 2021, just over half of all "rent-burdened" households in New York City — or households that pay 30% or more of their total income toward housing costs — had incomes that were at or below 30% of the area median income for a family of three.
Therefore, based on the calculation that households should pay no more than 30% of their total income toward rent, affordable monthly rent for a family or individual with an annual income of $36,000 would be $900.
"What's often getting built by folks that are really focused on just expanding the pot of supply are apartments that are for those making upward of $150,000 a year," she said. "We absolutely need more affordable housing, but that's not the same thing as saying, 'We need more of whatever kind of housing the market wants to build.'"
Many Vacant Units Out of Reach for Low-Income Families
Families with higher incomes had a far greater number of housing options in 2021, according to data collected by the city. For those with yearly incomes of $100,000 or more, there were a reported 57,522 units available. For those below that threshold, the data showed only 45,665.
The mismatch between income and housing prices has only exacerbated the city's eviction and homelessness crises, Goldstein said, adding that these issues disproportionately affect people of color.
Edelstein pointed out the additional obstacle of the general lack of knowledge of resources available to assist tenants.
"The housing problems that face the city are exacerbated for ... low-income immigrants who don't speak the language, or who don't have access to someone like me, or who don't know how to access the court system at any level or fight a wrongful eviction," he said. "They're afraid to go to court, they don't know how to go to court, they don't think they're going to be treated fairly, they need to show up at their jobs instead of going to court. There are very practical problems with someone fighting something like this."
A major boon for low-income renters has been New York City's Right-to-Counsel Law, which went into effect in 2017 and provides tenants earning less than 200% of the federal poverty line with access to counsel in housing court.
According to Goldstein, fewer than 10% of tenants had counsel in housing court before the law's implementation. However, in 2021, the New York City Office of Civil Justice reported that the percentage of tenants with representation in eviction cases had risen to 74%.
But Edelstein said he still worries about what would have happened to the Solis family had he not learned of their situation, and hopes their story will help others to learn their rights as tenants when it comes to eviction cases.
At first, the Solises never sought a lawsuit against their former landlords, let alone a big-dollar settlement.
"Richard Solis Sr. was like, 'I'm going to work tomorrow, there's no case.' These kids were thinking about going to school, the mother was thinking about caring for her 5-year-old," Edelstein said.
For Edelstein, though, the landlords' actions had been so egregious that he felt strongly that the family deserved justice in some form or another.
The case was initially filed in July 2014 in the Supreme Court of New York, Kings County, asserting claims of wrongful eviction, constructive eviction and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, among other things. Libel and slander claims were added to the case later on as evidence emerged related to the false police reports and Administration for Children's Services call.
According to Edelstein, the wrongful eviction claim was premised on the fact that the Solises never received an official eviction notice from the landlords.
Instead, he said, the family received a 10-day notice to quit — normally a precursor to an eviction proceeding — but an official eviction proceeding was never instigated. According to the state, a notice to quit is typically targeted at occupants such as squatters or licensees — that is, someone the tenant invited to live in the home without the landlord's permission.
The case dragged on for years, including a trip to the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, which upheld a decision denying the landlords' motion for summary judgment in the case.
According to Edelstein, he asked the landlords for a $25,000 settlement at this stage of the litigation, representing $5,000 for each family member. But again, they refused.
"The defendants' attorneys looked at us and said, 'Read my lips: There will never be a penny offered on this case,'" Edelstein said.
When the case finally went to trial in January, Edelstein said they made sure to come at the landlords with everything they had.
"We sued for libel, slander, defamation, everything ... I said, 'I'm going to bring up everything in front of a jury, because everything [the landlords] did is actionable, and it all relates to the eviction,'" Edelstein said.
It was also at this point in the litigation that Edelstein turned the case over to Blyakher to ensure that no conflicts of interest could arise.
After opening arguments, Edelstein said, it was clear the jury was on their side, and the landlords finally agreed to settlement negotiations, resulting in the $275,000 deal.
Over the many years that the legal fight dragged on, the Solis children all grew up, got jobs, started families and moved to different parts of the city. But the settlement now offers them the opportunity to be together under one permanent roof, like they used to.
"It's like a new beginning for all of us," said Richard Solis Jr. "Now we're actually coming together as a family and thinking about buying a property together and staying closer to each other. I feel like the settlement has given us a second chance for a better life as a family."
--Editing by Alanna Weissman. Graphics by Ben Jay.
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