The Legal Aid Society Fights to Keep Residents in Their Homes in Clarkson Street Shelter in Prospect Lefferts Gardens
TUESDAY, JULY 21, 2015
Jeremiah Schlotman, Staff Attorney, addresses tenants outside the 60 Clarkson Avenue Shelter in Brooklyn

Political leaders, tenants and Legal Aid attorneys rallied outside the Clarkson Street Homeless Shelter last week to pressure the City and the landlord to keep residents from being removed from their homes.

The Legal Aid Society maintains that because nearly all of the residents have lived at 60 Clarkson for so long, they qualify as rent stabilized residents, and therefore have the right to sign leases and stay in the building for as many years as they can pay a rent stabilized lease. Jeremiah Schlotman and Kathleen Brennan, Staff Attorneys in the Brooklyn Neighborhood Office are representing the tenants. “We firmly believe that all the residents here at 60 Clarkson are rent-stabilized tenants and they’re deserving of those protections,” Staff Attorney Jeremiah Schlotman said, drawing cheers from the crowd.

The 83-unit building in Prospect Lefferts Gardens was mostly rent-stabilized apartments until around five years ago, when the landlord began moving in homeless families through the cluster site program, and collecting higher monthly fees of around $3,000 per apartment.

Shelter residents received notices two weeks ago that they had less than a day to leave. The shelter Is in terrible condition with mold, mice, roaches, and collapsing ceilings. Since the notice went out, local advocates including the Crown Heights Tenant Union, Picture the Homeless, Tenants & Neighbors and the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association have thrown support behind the tenants of the building, partnering with The Legal Aid Society, which is fully prepared to go to bat for the residents, they said Wednesday.




WPIX
July 15, 2015

PROSPECT LEFFERTS GARDENS, Brooklyn — A major effort to help bring to an end a city program that was designed to help the homeless but instead ended up filling the deep pockets of landlords is now underway. It’s the result of a story first told by PIX11 News.

At the beginning of this month, PIX11 News took a close look at a practice called cluster site homeless housing. Specifically, by looking at the plight of the 370 residents of 60 Clarkson Ave., a large, brick apartment building, a clear problem was exposed. The resident families had been given less than 24 hours to leave their apartments, even though some of them had moved in to them as long as five years ago as an alternative to being on the street.

Their landlord, Barry Hers, was making millions off the city by housing the residents, but in this fast gentrifying neighborhood, he apparently wanted to make even more money by attracting market rate tenants into his building, and moving current residents elsewhere. Some of them were promised apartments in other buildings owned by the landlord, but those apartments proved to be in even worse shape than the ones they were threatened to be forced to leave.

Residents were angry and concerned as the situation unfolded at the beginning of the month, but since the story broke, their outlook has changed.

“So far, everybody’s helping,” said five-year resident Merlinda Fernandez on Wednesday, “and the community’s very strong.” It was a sharp contrast to the sentiment two weeks ago, when the story was first told.

“It’s immensely clear that the tenants appreciate the story you did,” said Jeremiah Schlotman, a staff attorney at the city’s Legal Aid Society. It has become involved in the residents’ case after the housing advocacy groups Crown Heights Tenants Union, Tenants and Neighbors, and the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association saw the PIX11 News story and reached out for legal help for the residents.

“The Legal Aid Society will sue the landlord in order to stop what are his illegal actions,” said Schlotman, the Legal aid attorney.

Those actions to which Schlotman referred date back years ago. Hers, the landlord of 60 Clarkson Avenue, had had a full building of rent regulated tenants for years. He ended up forcing most of them out when the Bloomberg Administration initiated its cluster site housing program at the beginning of the decade.

In exchange for housing homeless families in his formerly rent regulated building, Hers received approximately $3,000 per month per apartment from the city government. That translated into over $400,000 per month from 60 Clarkson Avenue alone.

However, now that the neighborhood is seeing many old properties being renovated, and census figures showing higher income earners moving in, Hers and other landlords are trying to profit even further by moving the current people, who would otherwise be homeless, out and charging even higher, market rate rents from prospective tenants.

This month, PIX11 News has gone to two separate offices for which Hers is listed, seeking comment from him, to no avail. His home address has been difficult to obtain, and a call to a cellphone listed as belonging to Hers had not yielded any results, despite PIX11 News leaving a message.

Hers strongly appears to be avoiding PIX11 News, even as the problem he’s helped to exacerbate is growing.

“Just this morning in housing court,” said Schlotman, the Legal Aid attorney, “a similar thing happened [to the 60 Clarkson Avenue situation].”

“What I’d tell Barry Hers,” said Merlinda Fernandez, 60 Clarkson resident, “is he should put [himself] in our shoes at the end of the day.”

She said that Hers and other landlords are only seeking profit, without their residents’ needs in mind. Her building’s Legal Aid attorney agreed.

“Landlords are using this as another tool in their belt to circumvent rent stabilization laws,” said Schlotman.

Wednesday evening, Schlotman, Fernandez and dozens of other residents from the building and neighboring buildings held a rally and meeting to discuss methods for keeping people in their apartments for as long as possible. It included an analysis of the work of the city’s Department of Homeless Services. It sent out a letter to tenants late last week calling on them to vacate their apartments before the end of this week to be resettled.

Legal Aid maintains that because nearly all of the residents have lived at 60 Clarkson for so long, they qualify as rent stabilized residents, and therefore have the right to sign leases and stay in the building for as many years as they can pay a rent stabilized lease.




DNAinfo
Formerly Homeless Tenants in Prospect-Lefferts Building Fight Order to Move
by Rachel Holliday Smith
July 16, 2015

Dozens of formerly homeless families whose landlord wants them out of his Clarkson Avenue building are fighting back against the order — as they and their legal advocates say they have every right to stay.

Residents of 60 Clarkson Ave. said they received notice on June 29 that they had one day to leave the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens building where landlord Barry Hershko rents a majority of his 83 units to the Department of Homeless Services, tenants and housing advocates said.

The relocation notice — from “We Always Care Inc.,” the nonprofit registered as the shelter operator that manages the building — warned that 60 Clarkson Ave. was “being phased out,” without further explanation.

Residents who called the city's DHS couldn’t get an explanation for the move, according to Merlinda Fernandez, a tenant and a mother of six who was among those who gathered at a rally outside the building Wednesday night.

“They didn’t know what was going on,” Fernandez said. “My six children and I have been through so many long, stressful challenges due to mold, bugs, chipped paint, lead and grime... I'm not giving up without a fight."

Since the notice went out, local advocates including the Crown Heights Tenant Union, Picture the Homeless, Tenants & Neighbors and the Prospect-Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association have thrown support behind the tenants of the building, partnering with the Legal Aid Society, which is fully prepared to go to bat for the residents, they said Wednesday.

“We firmly believe that all the residents here at 60 Clarkson are rent-stabilized tenants and they’re deserving of those protections,” staff attorney Jeremiah Schlotman said, drawing cheers from the crowd.

The legal group said it believes Hershko cannot claim that any tenants in the building — which was full of rent-stabilized tenants before We Always Care began its contract with DHS, they said — are exempt from rent-stabilization, and hope to prove that in court, though no filings have been made, Schlotman said.

A former tenant of 60 Clarkson, Isis Sapp-Grant, said her mother and aunt lived in the building for 50 years in rent-stabilized apartments, but like many of the tenants there, got pushed out by Hershko.

“This is by design that he’s trying to empty this out so that he can make more money, but on the backs of a lot of people who worked and have been in this building for a very long time,” she said. “If that’s the case, where’s DHS? Why is this allowed to happen?”

Calls for comment to We Always Care, Hershko and the DHS were not immediately returned on Thursday.

Many of the area’s elected officials came out to support the tenants on Wednesday, including Borough President Eric Adams and the area’s state representatives, state Sen. Jesse Hamilton and Assemblywoman Diana Richardson, who said she was homeless for a time as a young woman.

“When you are homeless, it is hard enough that you are without a house," she said. "But it is even more difficult when you have a landlord such as the one here at 60 Clarkson who is going to take advantage of your circumstance.




Gothamist
Residents Fight For Right To Remain In Notorious Brooklyn Homeless Shelter
by Nathan Tempey
Jul 16, 2015

Politicians, activists, and tenants rallied outside of a notorious privately run homeless shelter in Brooklyn on Wednesday night to pressure the city and landlord Isaac "Barry" Hersko to keep residents from being removed to other Hersko-owned shelter buildings they say are in even more dire shape. The 83-unit building in Prospect Lefferts Gardens was mostly rent-stabilized apartments until around five years ago, when Hersko began moving in homeless families through the controversial cluster site program, and collecting higher monthly fees of around $3,000 per apartment.

Now just 6-10 rent-stabilized households remain and a handful of shelter residents, having received notices two weeks ago saying they had less than a day to leave, are in a position that would have been hard to imagine before, given the mold, mice, roaches, collapsing ceilings, and crime that afflict the building. They are demanding to stay.

"It's bad enough we're living in a shelter," said Ashanti Jackson, addressing supporters and journalists. "Now we have to move!"

The city's Department of Homeless Services now says it is closing the shelter because of the conditions there, but has held off on removing people. Two residents said new apartments they were shown at nearby Hersko buildings were in worse shape, with broken doors, windows, and rodent holes at 401 East 21st St., and garbage in the halls and more severe roach infestations at 250 Clarkson, an address with 20 open building code violations.

Officials who turned out to the protest, including Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, state Sen. Jesse Hamilton, Councilman Matthieu Eugene, and Assemblywoman Diana Richardson, expressed their support for tenants and residents in tough terms. Richardson related to their crisis, having been homeless for two years as a teen, and said she was calling on the city to seek a resolution.

"Just because you are homeless doesn't mean you are second-class citizens," she told the crowd. "You can hear by my tone, we mean business."

Adams called for organized tenants to "destroy this environment" landlords have created, and Hamilton tied the crisis on Clarkson to income inequality and weak rent regulation, adding that laws are needed to "make sure [abusive landlords] are arrested and they pay large fines." But what happens to the residents of 60 Clarkson is ultimately in the hands of Mayor de Blasio and the homeless services agency he controls.

In 2014, de Blasio commissioned an investigation into the cluster site program, which was drastically expanded under former mayor Michael Bloomberg. In March, the Department of Investigation came back with a scathing report saying that the private shelters, which house 3,000 of the 11,900 homeless families in the shelter system, are the worst maintained, least monitored type of shelter housing, with the least adequate social services, and in many cases no social services at all, nor any measures in place to compel landlords to fix dangerous conditions.

DHS agreed to begin overhauling the system and has stopped opening new cluster sites, but a Mayor's Office spokeswoman said the government needs to continue working with Hersko for now, because without him it would have to put people out on the street.

According to DHS, out of 64 families on the building, 36 have been provided with subsidies to help them rent their own apartments, and 28 will be transferred within the shelter system, including to Hersko buildings, according to personal needs such as where their kids are in school. That is news to Marquita Holloway, who said she has no voucher lined up and hopes 250 Clarkson isn't being considered as her next destination. She said the roaches in 60 Clarkson trigger her and her son's asthma, and that the infestation in the apartment she saw down the street is bigger, not to mention the garbage in the halls and urine in the staircase, echoes of 60 Clarkson.

"250 shouldn't be an option," she said. The Hersko buildings still in the running have been deemed possible to improve, according to DHS.

Residents and advocates who spoke agreed the city should keep the residents where they are and force Hersko to fix up the building, but differed on what should happen next. Resident Marlene Fernandez called on the city to give residents 90 days before relocation, while the group Tenants and Neighbors demanded the city end all dealings with Hersko, and restore the building's rent-stabilized status. The Legal Aid Society is making the case for the shelter residents to have status as rent-stabilized tenants, a notion they first have to sell to the residents themselves.

"No, I'm not a tenant, I'm homeless," one woman said to a Legal Aid team during a meeting in the lobby following the rally. "This is a shelter."

Holloway, a seven-month resident who said she is unable to work due to back problems, said she wants to stay for now, but that she wouldn't want to be a tenant, "not if [Hersko is] the landlord."

"Every time we need a repair we'd have to take him to court," she said.

Darlene Fernandez said that an upstairs neighbor trying to break down her door drove her to create this brace out of half a scooter and a board. She fits the scooter piece into place before bed each night. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist) One resident, Frederick Gardner, a father of two, is preoccupied simply trying to finish out the rest of the week at the shelter. He works selling tickets to the Statue of Liberty, but said ever since he got a removal letter more than two weeks ago, the man who usually sits in the lobby with a sign-in sheet has been keeping odd hours. Residents must sign in daily to prove continued residency, and if they go more than 48 hours without signing in, they have to move out and report back to a temporary shelter in the Bronx, he said. He has been leaving work early to try to catch the worker, but he was nowhere to be found on Wednesday at 5 p.m.

"I'm on the verge of losing my job because I'm coming home early," Gardner said.

In an email, Hersko insisted he never forced any rent-stabilized tenants out without the blessing of housing court, and that he is receiving "not even half" the $3,000 per apartment shelter rate that has been reported. A July public assistance report provided by resident Darlene Fernandez showed a shelter payment of $2,737 for a one-bedroom that she shares with her husband and stepson. Hersko also said he stopped using the social service provider CAMBA because it stole $800,000 intended for him. A CAMBA spokeswoman said she wasn't aware of such a claim but would look into it, then deferred to DHS.

Hersko did not respond to a request for elaboration, or the rest of a detailed list of questions.

Fernandez keeps a tidy house, despite the rot and mold underneath her kitchen sink, the cracked tiles and sagging ceiling in her bathroom, and the water trickling from one corner of her bedroom ceiling. She said she has had a $1,550 housing voucher for five months, but has yet to find a livable apartment with a landlord who will accept it.

Discriminating against voucher holders is a crime in New York City, but she said she is too busy pursuing 311 complaints about her shelter apartment to report those who have denied her housing. Her last prospect was in Staten Island, but the landlord upped the rent to $1,950 at the last minute, something she said her family can't afford on the $11 an hour her husband makes as a part-time security guard.

Her stepson is going into second grade at PS 135 in East Flatbush and she has converted a wide spot in the hall into a study area. He's doing well in school and, if someone fixed up 60 Clarkson, she could see staying being a good thing. But for now he's not getting science lessons the way she'd like him to.

"What makes the mildew grow, mom?" he asked from the couch during a reporter's visit.

"Heat and moisture, honey,"