A criminal investigation of a Harlem landlord has prompted his tenants to go on a rent strike.
The residents of 107 West 118th have been withholding their monthly payments to Joseph Makhani, an accused real estate scammer indicted on seven counts of fraud, possession of stolen property and falsifying business records for allegedly swiping ownership of two brownstones, including one the tenants call home.
“It’s morally wrong for this man to profit from this building that he stole, and stole in this horrible way,” said Christina Lo Tempio 32, who was nine months pregnant in July when she and husband Brad Radvansky, 35, moved into their $3,200-a-month, two-bedroom garden apartment at 107 West 118th Street.
The couple’s decision to withhold rent prompted Makhani to quickly sue them for eviction.
Authorities say Makhani allegedly duped owner Veronica Palmer into signing away ownership of the then-dilapidated property about a decade ago, in exchange for $10 — which the state Attorney General says Palmer never even actually got.
The three-story brownstone, built in 1900, is now worth $2.29 million. Palmer, 79, is believed to be homeless and living in a shelter.
Makhani renovated and rented out the four-unit building. He is also accused of stealing 135 West 131st Street. He has pleaded not guilty.
The tenants — who learned about the alleged fraud in July after news broke of the state Attorney General’s indictment — don’t know Palmer but say it feels wrong to continue paying Makhani.
“Of course, the greatest victim here is Veronica. That poor, poor woman. But all the tenants here are also victims,” said Lo Tempio, who works in education technology.
“None of us would have said, ‘Yes’” to renting the apartments if they’d been aware of the allegations, she said. “The complicity is also horrible and something we want to distance ourselves from. I hope there can be justice so he can’t continue to do this in the future.”
The revelations about Makhani left the couple nervous they’d become homeless just as they were welcoming their infant son.
“We just wanted a peaceful place to raise our child,” said Radvansky, a researcher. “We’re happy to pay a normal … landlord for our rent but we cannot justify paying for this person.”
April Tran, who moved into the building’s third-floor, $3,000-a-month, two-bedroom rental in September, said she wasn’t aware of the accusations against Makhani until after she moved in and began chatting with her neighbors.
“I kind of felt like I was paying [the rent] to the wrong person,” she said.
Tran, who works in the mental health technology field, and her roommate are withholding their rent, starting this month.
“I don’t know what justice looks like, but I know that if we’re paying Mr. Makhani now, that’s not justice. We’re trying to bend in the right direction, at least.”
Makhani did not return messages seeking comment. The AG’s office declined to comment on the criminal case against Makhani.