Crown Heights Landlord Harassment, ‘A Living Hell,’ Includes Sewage, Drug Deals: Lawsuit


    Crown Heights Landlord Harassment, ‘A Living Hell,’ Includes Sewage, Drug Deals: Lawsuit

    Over the past six months, 76-year-old Park Place tenant Francis Roberts says he has had sewage bubbling up through his kitchen sink due to broken plumbing and more leaking in front of his bedroom windows from two portable toilets set up outside Full Story

    Over the past six months, 76-year-old Park Place tenant Francis Roberts says he has had sewage bubbling up through his kitchen sink due to broken plumbing and more leaking in front of his bedroom windows from two portable toilets set up outside. He alleges drug deals have taken place in tents set up around his front door where unknown people sleep and that he has woken up to a stranger using his computer at his table. That he has had music blared into his living room 24 hours a day through a hole in the ceiling. All the while, he said, he has seen no action on the increasing deterioration of his garden-floor apartment, which is plagued by mold, leaks, and gas and electricity outages.

    The increasingly dire situation is part of a plan by Roberts’ new landlord to push the rent-stabilized tenant of more than 20 years out of his 972 Park Place apartment, Roberts alleges in a lawsuit filed last week by Brooklyn Legal Services’ Tenant Rights Coalition.

    Roberts, who moved into the building with his family in the ’90s while working as its superintendent, said a good deal of the harassment dates back to 2012 when the city sold what had become a dilapidated building through a 7A sale to his former landlord, listed as Eran Tourgeman. According to the lawsuit, Tourgeman “engaged in near constant, aggressive and illegal harassment, repeatedly pressuring buyout offers…worsening conditions in his unit while refusing repairs, and creating constant disturbances of Mr. Roberts’ life through other means.”

    972 park place exterior

    The exterior of 972 Park Place Tuesday

    972 park place exterior

    Portable toilets in front of the apartment have leaked sewage outside Roberts’ windows

    The house has racked up hundreds of violations including for lead, open sewage, faulty and defective wiring, lack of heat, mold and more, and tenants filed more than two dozen lawsuits for various violations. Aside from Roberts, all the tenants have either left or been bought out. Currently, there are 224 open violations, according to New York City Housing Preservation and Development.

    Following a $1.3 million sale earlier this year to 972 Park Place LLC, fronted by Yehuda Gruenberg and managing agent Menachem Bukchin, “this harassment is 10 times worse,” Roberts said Tuesday morning. “The present owners bought this building a couple of months ago. And it’s been, to put it mildly, a living hell.”

    After the sale

    Roberts told Brownstoner that since the sale not only have conditions in the building seriously deteriorated, but he also fears for his safety due to a new tenant he alleges Gruenberg moved in to increase the harassment.

    Thirty-six-year-old Aaron Akaberi, who has been arrested for drugs and weaponscharges in the past, moved into a unit on the first floor in June (and is the only other lease-holding tenant, according to Roberts’ lawyer Liam McSweeney). Over the following months, Akaberi set up tent encampments and portable toilets outside of Roberts’ unit and allowed a number of people to sleep and gather there, as well as allegedly conduct drug deals, Roberts and neighbors said. When Brownstoner visited Tuesday morning, the tents were no longer standing, but two portable toilets were positioned outside the building.

    exterior of 972 park place

    Tents set up outside Roberts’ front door. Photos via Francis Roberts

    972 park place

    Random people sleep outside Roberts’ apartment and chickens have been let loose, the lawsuit alleges. Photos via Francis Roberts

    The lawsuit alleges Akaberi is known to “run a scheme where he brings in unhoused drug-users to live in and around the building and intentionally harass other tenants in a building with the purpose to push the tenants out.” It further alleges the landlords of 972 Park Place are aware of this, and a lack of action shows their complicity. Prior to the sale, Roberts was the only permanent tenant in the building, and the upstairs units were used as yeshiva dorms, he said. He believes a few rooms on the upper levels are still being used by yeshiva students.

    Roberts has meticulously documented what he alleges has been unfolding at the house since Akaberi moved in, which includes Akaberi setting up the portable toilets, which have leaked raw sewage into the area in front of his unit; installing tents and letting strangers sleep in them; busting the gate doors and hallway doors outside his unit open and off their hinges; constantly filling the hallway with trash; turning off the electricity; allowing for sewage, a mattress and a tent to be put in the cellar; putting a grill right outside his bedroom window so smoke funnels into his apartment; letting a large intimidating dog run through the house and street without a leash; releasing chickens in front of the apartment; blasting music into his apartment at all hours; and more.

    “On the night of October 12th, a neighbor reported witnessing the use of dangerous drugs such as crack-cocaine inside of the tents, which Mr. Akaberi claimed were put back up for religious purposes,” the lawsuit alleges. One night, Roberts said he woke up to an intruder in his apartment using his computer. To avoid the stress and constant anxiety brought about by the situation, Roberts said he now spends large parts of the day and night outside the apartment riding his bike.

    police officer at 972 park place

    Police outside the house before the tent encampment and portable toilets were installed. Photo via Park Place 900s Block Association

    tents outside 972 park place

    After the tent encampment was installed. Photo via Park Place 900s Block Association

    The situation is no longer only affecting Roberts. Neighbors have got into conflicts with Akaberi and his visitors (including on Tuesday just after Brownstoner left the house, when an associate of Akaberi allegedly threatened to kill neighbors) and the police and fire department have been called to the building multiple times. According to a spokesperson for New York City’s Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information, Akaberi was arrested for menacing outside the address in August.

    “These conflicts turned violent due to the aggression of Mr. Akaberi and his unauthorized visitors, causing the whole block to live in a constant state of fear and stress that continues today,” the lawsuit alleges.

    Neighbors rally in support

    More than 40 neighbors recently met to discuss the situation and they have relaunched the dormant block association to tackle the issue of Roberts’ alleged harassment and attempted displacement.

    Brownstoner spoke to multiple neighbors who corroborated what has been happening at the property and the effect it has had on the entire block. Park Place resident Hal Drellich said the people in the house were harassing and threatening neighbors and making the house a dangerous “eyesore.”

    “They’re making everybody’s life miserable on the block, and the fact they are making Francis’ life miserable is despicable,” Drellich said. He said he wants Gruenberg to be prosecuted and removed as the building’s owner, and for the building to fall into responsible hands and be fixed up so Roberts can live in peace.

    tenants meet inside 972 park place

    Neighbors are relaunching the block association. Photo via Park Place 900s Block Association

    Maria Florez, who lives next door to Roberts, said following the recent change in ownership things had gone south at the property. She said she and other neighbors have witnessed people doing drugs in the tent encampments and there have been numerous fights between the people hanging out there. She also said she can hear the loud music being blasted 24 hours a day throughout her home, despite its extensive insulation. “If it was bothering us, we could only imagine what Francis was going through.”

    Florez said Gruenberg has an obligation to deal with the issues facing the house. “You can’t buy a property and harass a person to get what you want.”

    Paige Tutt, another neighbor, added many on the block want to see a peaceful end to the conflict, one where Roberts can stay in his apartment and where the tense mood that has taken over dissipates. She said the situation is a “microcosm of a much larger issue of what is happening around this city.”

    “There are many Francises around the city that are being approached to leave the homes they have been in for 10, 20, 30, 40 years.” The most respectful thing is to treat those longstanding residents with deference, she added.

    The block support has boosted Roberts’ resolve and morale. “If it wasn’t for the support of my now legal team and the neighbors, who have some of them have put their lives on the line to support me, if it wasn’t for them, well, I don’t know if I would have made it. I’m a prayerful man so I pray,” he said.

    Through tears he told Brownstoner, “It’s overwhelming, I never thought that people that don’t know me would come out and support me, and it is overwhelming. There are still good people in the world.”

    Despite being told of all the issues multiple times, Roberts and McSweeney told Brownstoner, the landlords have refused to do anything about it. “The landlords have utterly failed to protect the security of the building, or deal with these problems in any way at all,” the lawsuit reads.

    Gruenberg’s attorney, Julius Toonkel, sent Brownstoner a statement via email saying: “My client’s opinion of the situation is as follows: my client has acquired 972 Park Place on or about April of this year and has not been given access to conduct repairs. Mr. Robert’s unit was not accessible for repairs due to hoarding problem of Mr. Roberts and his refusal to allow such repairs. My client denying any harassment and has no control of third parties and Mr. Akberi. Moreover, my client has never received access dates to conduct repairs despite countless conversation with Mr. Roberts and his legal team. Additionally, on behalf of my client I have offered to Mr. Roberts’s legal team to relocate/find substantially better living arrangements for Mr. Roberts and have met with outright refusal. Mr. Roberts is bringing complaints against my client from many years ago claiming that likely HPD 7a administrator has installed faulty gas and electricity lines/service. I respectfully submit that my client had nothing to do with such electricity lines/service because he acquired the building in April 2022. It appears that we need to engage NYS Department of Mental Health and get help Mr. Roberts might need, at least to deal with issues of hoarding.”

    Roberts says the response is “preposterous,” given he has repeatedly tried to organize repairs and not heard back from either Gruenberg or Bukchin, and that he has never denied them, or any contractor, entry. He says that there are no “encumbrance to any necessary repairs, and the agent and his contractor they have never voiced anything before about that.” He added that Tooken did not raise this concern in court at a hearing this week.

    “Bearing the facts in mind, it is amazing that they could concoct such a response,” Roberts said.

    Attempts to reach Akaberi, HPD and Gruenberg were unsuccessful.

    Issues with the apartment

    Akaberi and his associates aside, Roberts continues to be subjected to an apartment where there is mold, holes in the wall, crumbling plaster on the floor, a constant steady leak in the bath, tiles hanging from the shower walls, a suspicious green liquid coming through the kitchen ceiling when it’s not raining, no heat, no gas, frequent electrical shut offs, little lighting, and defective door locks and often totally open doors into the building that together create an immediate threat to Roberts safety, both Roberts and McSweeney allege.

    “There is absolutely no building security so I have vagrants and itinerants, everybody, coming into the hallway,” Roberts told Brownstoner. “I put up my door camera because the apartment was actually broken into and someone was sitting at my computer and now there’s constant traffic all through the morning.”

    sewage filled sink in 972 park place

    Sewage in the kitchen sink. Photo via Park Place 900s Block Association

    On one particularly bad week in October, the plumbing in the unit broke and sewage bubbled up from the kitchen sink and bathtub, filling the unit with a strong odor of feces, Roberts said. According to the lawsuit, Roberts contacted his landlords for emergency repairs and called for an HPD inspector, but the kitchen sink, toilet and bathtub remained filled with feces until a full week later when a plumber was able to fix the issue.

    “It’s been just miserable,” Roberts said. “I’ve had to adjust my mind to all the horrors that are going on.”

    McSweeney told Brownstoner every issue Roberts has faced has been communicated to the landlord’s attorney since Legal Services came onto the case in early September, and the attorney has continued to claim the landlord has no control over what’s happening in the building.

    Since the lawyers got involved, there has been talk of repairs but with no date or details provided for when they may be, McSweeney said, adding the “attempts to repair” have been part of the pattern of harassment. “Despite the lack of information, Mr. Roberts made several attempts to confirm a time for the contractors to make repairs; these attempts were ignored and/or cynically twisted to allege that Mr. Roberts refused access to his unit. In truth, Mr. Roberts is eager to arrange a time for contractors to repair his unit,” the lawsuit alleges.

    972 park place interior conditions

    Mold and crumbling plaster in Roberts’ bedroom

    972 park place interior conditions

    The bathroom faucet leaks and tiles are falling off the walls

    In the past, Roberts alleges, “half-repairs” have been made to different parts of the house, but none that actually solve underlying issues (such as painting over mold or routing electrical lines to the wrong breakers).

    Roberts has secured rent reductions in the past from the Department of Housing and Community Renewal due to the conditions in the apartment, but even with the HPD violations, the lack of enforcement leaves him with little hope in the city agencies.

    “Francis is incredibly sophisticated. With his knowledge of the legal system, his options for redress. He’d already filed a suit before, he’s won multiple rent reductions in the past. He has HPD out here all the time. Before we got involved, he was doing all the right things,” McSweeney said. But still, he added, it hadn’t resulted in the apartment being repaired or put a stop to the harassment. He blamed a failure in the court and city agencies’ enforcement systems for allowing landlords to push rent stabilized tenants out of apartments.

    The legal fight

    Roberts said the backdrop to his battle is a neighborhood experiencing very high gentrification and “as an offshoot of this gentrification you have tenants that landlords are trying to push them out of the buildings,” he said. “As you know, the city has a tremendous housing problem and they have no sympathy towards that, especially buildings like these that are SROs.” 972 Park Place has nine SROs and one Class A unit, which Francis lives in.

    He and McSweeney said too often landlord-tenant disputes like this end in a settlement where the landlord pays for the tenant to relocate and they cover a month’s rent or so, ultimately getting what they wanted in the tenant’s displacement. However, Roberts said he was determined to continue the legal fight to stay in his apartment: “I’m not going anywhere.”

    “I told them quite clearly all I want to do is to live in peace as any tenant has the right to do under the law and not only in peace, but in relative comfort. They have decided that they don’t want to acquiesce to my reasonable human needs, so in opposition that they have decided to do this continued harassment,” Robert said.

    “And obviously, I mean, there must be some kind of financial consequence for all this. I don’t know what is the precedent but I’m taking it as far as we can go legally in that regard.”

    972 park place interior conditions

    Water damage on the kitchen ceiling

    [Photos by Anna Bradley-Smith unless noted otherwise]


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    Crown Heights Landlord Harassment, ‘A Living Hell,’ Includes Sewage, Drug Deals: Lawsuit