Residents avoid eviction thanks to PIX11 story, but what’s next, housing advocates ask

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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.