ALBANY — Charles Singleton recalls the noise his water heater made when it ruptured in his bathroom ceiling in May 2020. It sounded like a bomb.

The ensuing flood destroyed a collection of memorabilia stored in a nearby closet and soaked her clothes. It left him with a gaping hole in his bathroom ceiling and without the use of a bedroom for months.

“I came around the corner and saw the bathroom light come on,” he said. “Then I realized I was standing in the water and I turned around and ran to the living room and jumped on the couch.”

For more than two years, Singleton fought a battle with his landlord, Asaf Elkayam, over the damage, the resulting mold and the hesitant pace of repairs to his flat inside the Schuyler Apartments building on Trinity Place. . Over a year ago, he became so frustrated that he stopped paying his rent.

“The closet was literally falling apart,” he said. “It was so bad the codes didn’t want to be in the closet taking pictures.”

Singleton is not alone. Other tenants inside the 61-unit building said they withheld rent from Elkayam due to frustrations with issues in their apartments, ranging from small water spots on their flagstones ceiling to years without functional heating – and they are upset by recent rent increases, too. The state attorney general’s office has opened an investigation into the property in response to tenant complaints, and the tenants are working with United Tenants of Albany to organize a tenants’ union.

The building, which was once one of two high schools in the city, was built in the early 1900s and then renovated decades ago into living quarters. At one point it was marketed as possible high-end condominiums, but they failed to sell. Tenants who have lived there for years describe it as a safe and affordable building with nicer apartments than others in the southern part of town.

Elkayam is one of the largest landlords in town and rents mainly to students. A 1998 graduate of SUNY Albany, Elkayam entered the city’s real estate market shortly after graduation. He looked around and realized that for less than $20,000 he could get a mortgage on rental property, he told the Collecting Real Estate podcast in October 2021.

“The return on investment was good, but most important, the barrier to entry, the capital investment, was minimal,” he said. “People think owning is a very sexy business…at the end of the day we’re up at 6 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night busting our asses trying to do the best we can. we can.”

That initial investment in a home on Hamilton Street has multiplied into at least 87 properties, according to a list compiled by United Tenants, including dozens of student rentals in the Pine Hills neighborhood. On the podcast, which is hosted by two other property owners in the Capital Region, Elkayam estimated that between the front door and back door views of his office, he could see more than 30 of his properties. .

The Schuyler Apartments building is one of the largest properties in its real estate portfolio. Unlike the student accommodation it owns, some tenants have lived there for over two decades.

Elkayam purchased the building in 2016. Under previous owners, the Beltrone Group, tenants had access to garbage chutes in their hallways, free off-street parking and other amenities for rents under $1,000. per month. In recent years, these amenities have been removed or asked to pay more for them.

In an interview, Elkayam defended his management of the site, saying he had poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the building and that he and his employees were trying to be responsive to tenant complaints as best they could.

“I’m very proud of my work,” he said.

Recent rent hikes were an effort to get closer to the market value of apartments, he said. Renters were paying around $900 for 1,200 square foot apartments. Rents are now closer to $1,200 per month and Elkayam believes the market rate is closer to $1,500.

He dismissed numerous complaints from tenants, saying he or his staff were trying to address their issues only to be blocked by tenants who wouldn’t let him or his staff into their apartments to make repairs.

“At this point, it’s harassment,” he said. “It’s about 5% ruining it for everyone else.”

Elkayam said he generally doesn’t want to evict tenants. It is a long and expensive process. He estimated he was losing up to $5,000 on a single apartment in the time it takes to evict a tenant and move in a new one.

However, he filed eviction papers against at least four tenants of the Schuyler Apartments, citing the thousands of dollars in back rent owed to him, he said. He is also looking to sell the building, which has been on the market for several months.

Rick LaJoy, director of the Department of Buildings and Regulatory Compliance, said he’s aware of some issues at Schuyler Apartments, but from what he knows, most are relatively minor code violations. He acknowledged that some tenants’ windows do not fully open or stay open and that the city has had discussions with Elkayam about replacing all of these windows.

“These are gigantic, gigantic windows,” LaJoy said.

In some cases, the city was not notified of the issues, he said. Several tenants had scheduled inspections, only to have them canceled, or never called to tell the city about the problems with their apartments to begin with. City inspectors are unable to fix problems unless they know about them and can document problems themselves, he added.

Two tenants said they faced COVID-19 and other health issues when city inspectors tried to enter their apartments.

LaJoy said inspectors routinely find problems with Elkayam properties, but that’s partly because he has so many rentals, he said. Generally, Elkayam acts quickly to correct these quotes, LaJoy said. However, he noted that the city has two lawsuits pending against Elkayam for failing to fix the Schuyler Apartments’ issues, including a case involving Second Ward Councilman Derek Johnson for failing to fix the windows in Schuyler’s apartment. Johnson.

Tenants say code issues in the building go beyond minor violations and have expressed frustration that the codes department hasn’t been more aggressive in pushing Elkayam to make repairs.

Jasmine Whittingham, one of the tenants leading the organizing efforts, said her flat had deteriorated to the point of being unlivable.

Since last month, she was without hot water. And during the recent heatwave, the air conditioning in her apartment didn’t work, forcing her to stay with friends when her apartment got too hot. Whittingham worked with building management and city codes in their attempts to resolve the issues.

Elkayam and Whittingham are bound by eviction proceedings and Whittingham said she is considering taking legal action.

She rejected Elkayam’s suggestion that disgruntled tenants should just move out.

“If I could afford to move, I would,” she said.

Canyon Ryan, executive director of United Tenants, said it’s a common refrain he hears from landlords who are unaware of the limited affordable housing available in the city.

Ryan said the tenants he works with will meet in the coming week to create a tenant association to try to identify and resolve issues in the building.

Whittingham isn’t the only tenant with HVAC issues. Singleton’s air conditioning also died recently, and another tenant’s HVAC issues go back even further.

Travis Brew said he had been battling with building management for years to fix his HVAC unit.

He moved into the building eight years ago, and in 2018 his HVAC unit stopped blowing cold air. Then the heat started to fail. He had to crank the thermostat all the way up to keep the flat warm and his National Grid bill jumped to nearly $400 a month. His solution was to heat the apartment, then bundle up and turn off the heat. In 2020, the heat completely failed.

“From then on, no more heating, no more air conditioning, mold dripping down the walls,” he said.

Brew, who has respiratory issues that require him to use an oxygen tank, says he thinks the mold is affecting his breathing.

Rather than fixing the HVAC, the building management gave him a heater for his living room and bedroom, he said. Brew only left his room in the winter if he had to, because it was so cold in his apartment. Meanwhile, rents have steadily increased.

But Brew never filed a complaint with the city or the United Tenants of Albany. He didn’t want to ruffle any feathers and thought building management would keep their word to fix the problem, he said. He shared repeated messages he left for building management complaining that his issues were marked as resolved in their system, but nothing was actually done.

“I just got to the point where I’m fed up,” he said. “It’s not like it’s been a week or two. It’s been about three or four years.

After the third rent increase in two years, Brew finally had enough and asked to speak to Elkayam. He said he received a call after telling the building manager that he had spoken with Councilman Derek Johnson, who was working with the tenants. Johnson and Elkayam also recently reached a settlement in Housing Court after Elkayam decided to evict Johnson over a rent dispute.

After Brew spoke to Alkayam, the mold in his apartment has been repainted. But he still lacks a working central air, instead relying on a unit he bought himself.

Brew said he was beyond frustrated but didn’t want to leave. His apartment is close to his work, has plenty of space for his electronics, and elevators, which means he doesn’t have to carry groceries up the stairs.

“But there are a lot of nights where I’m up, looking at to see what my options are,” he said.