Inside a Brooklyn housing complex, where a third of tenants face eviction

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By Dan Sears

The owner of the sprawling Flatbush Gardens apartment complex has filed to evict more than a third of the nearly 2,500 households there since the start of 2022, fueling a rise in removals in the neighborhood that outpaces any other section of Brooklyn.

City marshals have so far carried out 50 evictions at Flatbush Gardens after a pandemic-inspired moratorium on removals ended 19 months ago, a Gothamist analysis of city eviction data found.

Flatbush Gardens resident Paulette James, 75, is among those in jeopardy. She’s familiar with the hazards common around the complex, and the landlord’s well-practiced strategy of taking tenants to court to reclaim back rent, often for relatively small amounts.

She has lived in her apartment since 2008 but is facing eviction while dealing with a litany of issues, ranging from a door that won’t lock properly to pests roaming the crowded unit. Roaches scurried across the kitchen during a visit by Gothamist on Monday.

James owes the landlord around $5,100 for five months of unpaid rent and said she is struggling to keep up with payments since getting laid off from her job at a daycare.

“I have no income right now and I’m just trying to think of something,” she said. “I never had problems until COVID, otherwise I’m on time with my rent. I want to see my bills with zeroes.”

Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers face similar circumstances, often facing eviction for unpaid rent dating back to earlier in the pandemic. More than 10,000 families and individuals have been removed from their homes across the five boroughs since January 2022, according to city data.

While each eviction represents a specific household’s unique circumstances, taken as a whole, the mounting caseload exposes systemic problems taking a heavy toll on New York City — from unemployment and strained social services to scarce options for New Yorkers at risk of losing their homes amid record-high rents and homelessness.

James received her first eviction notice in August 2022 when she fell less than $2,600 behind and she applied for relief for her landlord through the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program to cover the arrears. She nearly lost the apartment after a Brooklyn judge issued an eviction order when she missed a January court date, records show. An attorney helped halt the eviction until the ERAP money came through.

The state created the fund with money from the federal government to provide billions in direct relief to landlords while sparing many of the financial and social costs associated with evictions and homelessness.

But without a job, James fell behind again. She said returned home one afternoon last month to find another eviction notice taped to her door.

“My biggest problem is just the rent,” she said. “If I could get about $400 a week, I’ll be cool.”

Her predicament has broader implications.

An eviction could force James to enter a homeless shelter and give up the possessions she has purchased over the years. It would take a heavy emotional and physical toll, she said, and remove a longtime resident from a community while potentially costing the city tens of thousands of dollars in services.

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Clipper Equity, which owns the building, and other property owners aren’t in the business of providing free housing either. Landlords need rental income to cover their expenses and earn a profit. Clipper spokesperson James Yolles said the 50 evicted tenants owed $1.5 million in rent.

“Evicting a tenant is never our goal, and we do everything we can to work with our residents, regardless of their situation, to help them receive the assistance they need to pay their rent,” Yolles said. “Under our city’s current system, opening a nonpayment proceeding to secure that assistance is the most effective option.”

Tenant Association President Marietta Small said she agreed with the owner’s assessment.

“Every day I see how hard it is for so many of our residents to pay their rents,” she said. “These are difficult issues without easy answers, but I think the focus really should be on whether there are better ways of getting people rental assistance than forcing owners to open eviction proceedings, which are a last resort and a bad outcome for everyone involved.”

Clipper Equity has long faced complaints from tenants about deteriorating conditions. It d recently reached an agreement with the city to waive nearly $200 million in property taxes in exchange for fixing structural problems and resolving roughly 3,000 housing code violations.

Clipper put the complex up for sale last year, with an asking price of $425 million, but it later took the property off the market.

Solutions to a ‘real problem?’

Evictions are hitting Flatbush Gardens as the rent-stabilized complex and the surrounding neighborhood undergo a significant demographic shift.

In the last decade, the share of Black residents in Flatbush decreased by roughly 8%, according to census data, while the white population increased by 81%. During that same time, median rents in the area have nearly doubled to around $3,000 a month, according to the real estate company StreetEasy.

Eviction hotspots like Flatbush are emerging elsewhere in the five boroughs, city data mapped by Gothamist shows.

But tenant attorneys liken the filings from Flatbush Gardens to an eviction mill. Nearly all of the court papers are signed by the same attorney, Benjamin Epstein, who did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.

Kristie Ortiz, the head of affordable housing preservation at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, called the number of removals and eviction filings “astronomical.”

“They’re filing cases that shouldn’t have been filed in the first place,” Ortiz said. “It creates just a backlog…and causes the train tracks to derail.”

She said housing court is a blunt instrument for compelling repayment, threatening eviction and homelessness for tenants who owe huge amounts, as well as piddling sums they can make up without the threat of removal.

Court records for 24 of the 50 evictions recorded so far by marshals show two of the evicted households at Flatbush Gardens owed more than $57,000 each, while two other households were behind by less than $4,000 each at the time the landlord went to court to remove them.

The median arrears for the two dozen evicted tenants at the time of their initial filing was $12,200, according to a review of court documents for each of their cases.

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Former New York City Housing Commissioner Rafael Cestero, who now runs the affordable housing financing firm Community Preservation Corporation, said property owners of all types and sizes are dealing with the issue of unpaid rent, with few tools for recouping the money.

“It’s across everything, not just about a complex like Flatbush Gardens,” he said.

Cestero said the city and state can step in with vouchers and legal help, but urged the federal government to enact a universal rental assistance program akin to food stamps.

“This is a decades-long failure of the federal government to recognize housing is a fundamental right in this country, and just like food stamps it’s a fundamental support for people of lower incomes to succeed,” he said.

The sheer number of filings across the five boroughs is straining the interventions in place to stop evictions and help tenants pay back their landlords. The city is rejecting two-thirds of applicants for emergency loans known as one-shot deals, while about three-quarters of low-income tenants in housing court don’t have a lawyer, despite a measure intended to guarantee them a right to counsel.

At a press conference earlier this month, Mayor Eric Adams called evictions “a real problem” but hedged on state legislation that would limit so-called holdover evictions, in which a landlord can remove a tenant after their lease expires, even if they are making rent payments.

Adams called the measure, known as Good Cause protections, a “smart concept” but wants to hear from landlords, a response he has repeated for months. The measure has failed to gain traction among state legislative leaders.

At least six of the evictions in Flatbush Gardens and the surrounding blocks since the start of 2022 stemmed from holdover cases, records show.

The Legal Aid Society’s top housing attorney, Judith Goldiner, said lawmakers need to take such action to divert more cases from housing court and keep people in apartments

“It’s a combination of many, many bad things happening at the same time as the city is facing this huge homeless crisis and you’d think they’d do anything they could to stem the eviction crisis,” she said.

Despite the rising number of removals, evictions are down significantly relative to the years before the pandemic. Marshals completed around 17,000 evictions in 2019, nearly 20,000 evictions in 2018 and around 21,000 in 2017 — more than double the number of evictions since the freeze ended in January 2022.

But citywide, eviction filings are approaching pre-pandemic levels, with nearly 200,000 current eviction cases in New York City housing courts.

Landlord groups call those filings a misleading measure of the situation because housing court cases can drag on for months or years. They say tenants have many opportunities to reach settlements with their property owners.

“Only a very small percentage of cases filed in housing court end in an eviction, and the numbers thrown around by people…misconstrue and mischaracterize what is happening and what isn’t happening in housing court,” said Michael Tobman, a spokesperson for the landlord group Rent Stabilization Association.

Tobman urged the city and state to direct more money to cover back rent. “What you’re looking at are ever-escalating costs and a choke point for income needed to pay those bills,” he said.

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The state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program has about $438 million in available funds, enough to cover an estimated 70,000 applications filed before Jan. 20, according to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

After that, the program will cease to exist.

‘No place to go’

From their apartment in Flatbush Gardens, Sheila Bellevue and her husband, Clifford Altidor, say they are committed to paying the roughly $15,000 they owe the landlord.

The couple and their attorney say they are able to pay the monthly rent going forward, but the landlord is pursuing the eviction over a misunderstanding: Bellevue’s deceased former husband is still named on the lease.

Altidor, an immigrant from Haiti who has worked in international development, said he is seeking authorization to work legally in the U.S., which would allow the couple to make up the back rent by the end of the year.

“We can add a couple hundred on top of the rent until we sort out this issue,” Altidor said.

Yolles, the Clipper spokesperson, said the company “will continue to do all we can to help secure rental payment assistance” for residents.

Another tenant uses a Section 8 rental subsidy to cover most of her rent, but is nevertheless facing eviction after she lost her job as a fast food restaurant manager and could no longer pay her $847 portion of the rent. She asked to remain anonymous for fear or reprisal from her landlords. She said she has seen five neighbors evicted after making complaints, some to the media.

The government pays the majority of the rent for tenants with Section 8 vouchers, with the tenant contributing 30% of their income. The tenant said she was unable to adjust her Section 8 payment amount to reflect her depleted income for months. By the time she managed to get the adjustment and apply for public assistance, she owed around $9,000.

The tenant said she is now able to pay the rent but can’t cover the arrears without assistance from the city, which twice denied her applications for a “one-shot deal” emergency grant.

“I have no place to go,” the tenant said. “I would have no money to pay for storage for all the stuff I have in my apartment, and the shelters are booked right now. You look at the news, you see all these people sleeping on the streets.”

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