Tenants of Fort Greene Brownstone Commune Charge Landlord Harassment
Housing advocates across the city say some building owners are trying to make illegal end-runs around the pandemic-spurred evictions freeze.
Allegations of tenant lockouts. A long-distance landlord. A failed eviction case. And nearly 20 unannounced visits from the owner’s son.
On a leafy block of South Elliott Place in Brooklyn, tenants living in a four-decade-old, quasi-commune in a brownstone say they’ve faced two attempted illegal lockouts since Sept. 2, even with federal and state eviction moratoriums in effect.
Tenants of the Fort Greene building and their lawyer contend this month’s drama followed a stretch of harassment they allege began in the early days of the coronavirus crisis.
Housing lawyers and activists say lockouts are becoming more commonplace during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to landlords trying to make an end run around the evictions freeze.
Less common is the setup at 70 South Elliott Place, where tenants live in a half-dozen bedrooms, paying about $300 a month rent. They said they each put about the same amount into a collective maintenance pool as part of their informal, semi-communal arrangement at the single-room occupancy building.
A Man Called Samuel
The landlord of the four-story brownstone is Judith Grunbaum, who lives in Montreal. She bought the property five years ago sight unseen, according to her testimony in a 2017 deposition from when she went to court to evict the tenants.
A man named Samuel Grunbaum who told tenants he is the landlord’s son has let himself into the building about 20 times since March 16 — mostly unannounced — according to residents, who have kept a log and videos of the encounters.
“I can come whenever I want,” a man tells a tenant in an audio recording from April 2020 shared with THE CITY. After declaring he is the landlord’s son, the man then says, “I’m the owner.”
While residents and their lawyer viewed his driver’s license, there was no son of Judith Grunbaum named “Samuel” in the 2017 deposition in which the landlord listed dozens of family members, so they were wary, tenants said.
“It’s been really confusing that someone who we have never heard of for the last five years regularly barges into our home claiming to be the owner,” said Sonny Singh, a musician and resident of the brownstone for over eight years. “He claims he is the owner’s son, but we have no way of knowing if that is true.”
Attempts by THE CITY to reach Samuel Grunbaum were unsuccessful.
Tenants say that workers installed surveillance cameras in the hallways of the brownstone in June. On Sept. 2, he entered the house unannounced with a couple of men and headed straight to a room on the second floor, tenants said.
After demanding a tenant grab what they needed and leave their room, residents say that Grunbaum’s men installed a lock on the door with a notice stating the “tenant of record has abandoned this unit and the unauthorized occupant moved out on Sep 1 therefore we have secured this unit,” according to a photo shared with THE CITY.
Anyone with belongings in the room was directed to an email and phone number for “YHT Management.”
“It was one of the scariest things I have ever experienced,” said Singh, who added that he witnessed the incident.
A YHT Management representative, contacted at the number and email address on the notice confirmed that the registered managing agent for the building, Moshe Deutsch, works for YHT Management. Deutsch did not respond to requests for comment.
After tenants removed the lock on Sept. 11 with a NYPD officer present, another lockout was attempted unsuccessfully four days later, Singh said. Tenants said they called in police again.
Lockouts on the Rise
Housing lawyers and activists report that tenants have faced increased harassment from landlords in New York City since March.
“We’ve seen a big uptick in illegal lockout proceedings, as landlords are becoming frustrated with the continued eviction moratorium,” said Emily Eaton, an attorney with Legal Aid.
She advises locked-out tenants to call the police, who “generally have a basic understanding of these legal situations” — and to try to get into Housing Court immediately.
“Although the practice is illegal, landlords rarely experience serious consequences,” Eaton added.
The mayor’s office told THE CITY tenants facing lockouts should call cops and visit the city’s Tenant Resource Portal.
Housing attorney Justin La Mort said most lockouts take place when tenants are away.
La Mort, who works with tenants of single-room occupancy apartments like those at South Elliott Place, said that the more typical scenario is “for people to just be out of the apartment and when they come back, it has a new lock and all their stuff is gone.”
He said that Mobilization for Justice, the low-income legal assistance organization he works for, saw a 184% increase in its illegal lockout cases between March and June compared to last year.
Cea Weaver, a housing activist with the group Housing Justice For All, said she’s heard about more lockout stories from tenants her organization works with.
“People are living more precariously,” Weaver said. “Landlords are harassing tenants more to get anything that they can out of them.”
A New Owner
The previous owner of 70 South Elliott Place, Arthur Gasner, passed away and his estate sold the building for $1.15 million in 2015 to Judith Grunbaum, records show.
She grew up in Belgium, but lived in Borough Park, Brooklyn, for 20 years and ran a printing company in New York, then in Canada, according to court documents.
In a 2017 deposition from her attempt to evict the tenants, she said she bought the property with the intention of moving in and hosting her large extended family, listing among them four children and 38 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Her lawyer, she said, had assured her that removing the current occupants wouldn’t pose any difficulty.
“Because once you want to live there — I mean it’s usually people always negotiate, and we don’t have to go through the court,” Grunbaum said in the deposition.
‘The Stages of Harassment’
Stephanie Rudolph, supervising attorney at Communities Resist who represents the South Elliott Place tenants, said that because the property is classified as a single-room occupancy building, the only legal method to remove the residents would be if “all of the tenants were to abandon their property voluntarily, or be bought out.”
When the tenants refused alleged offers of cash buyouts, that’s when “the stages of harassment” began, Rudolph told THE CITY.
First came a lack of repairs and basic maintenance, including eight days without water in April 2018, according to Singh, who said he remembers “filling up garbage cans with snow to flush the toilets.”
The next month, National Grid shut off the building’s gas after a carbon monoxide leak, as described in an email Singh wrote to Councilmember Laurie Cumbo’s office. Cumbo’s office did not reply to requests for comment.
Later the building ended up in the Department of Housing and Development’s Alternative Enforcement Program, which is reserved for the city’s worst landlords. The building also has a tax lien that is currently part of this year’s delayed lien sale.
In the deposition, Rudolph asked Grunbaum if she planned to make repairs.
Grunbaum replied: “No, but I plan to live there, and then remake the whole thing.”
Tenants had received a notice in November 2015, shared with THE CITY, informing them that their leases would not be renewed due to the owner’s intention to inhabit the building, a provision called owner’s use.
Rudolph said Brooklyn Legal Services challenged this in court, leading to the two-day deposition in 2017.
Under New York state law, the owner’s use provision allows a landlord to evict rent-regulated tenants by stating that they or a family member intends to live there.
Last year’s major rent reforms now limit owners to one unit for personal use, and raised the threshold to justify such evictions.
When the law passed, Rudolph said, “I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Oh, my clients have won their case.’”
On June 10, 2020, a judge discontinued the case, citing the new rent laws.
There is no evidence that Gunbaum was committing fraud in trying to pursue an owner’s use claim.
Judith Grunbaum wrote to THE CITY via WhatsApp on Tuesday that she has “monstrueus [sic] tenants,” accusing them of illegally subletting rooms and not paying rent. he confirmed Samuel Grunbaum is her son, but did not respond when asked why he was left out of the 2017 deposition.
“I am suing those horrible tenants in court for their illegal activities in my house,” Grunbaum wrote.
Rudolph said in response that “due to litigation that has lasted for years, the owner has never requested or accepted rent from my clients.” The tenants have saved every rent payment “in escrow or in segregated accounts,” she said.
According to the Rent Stabilization Code, a permanent tenant in a single-room occupancy building is someone who has “continuously resided in the same building as a principal residence for a period of at least six months” and can only be evicted through a court order.
Rudolph contends that her clients have the right to live in their rooms, and that they view the recent lockout attempts as “illegal,” she wrote to THE CITY in a statement, “plain and simple.”
‘I Hide Now’
On March 16, the city was entering the first day of the pandemic-driven lockdown. On the same day, Rudolph and her clients said, Samuel Grunbaum first entered 70 South Elliott Place.
He “started screaming at the tenants,” Rudolph told THE CITY, shouting that he can come by whenever he wants and that he “doesn’t want random people on his property.”
He made 18 more visits, tenants said, before the first alleged lockout occurred on Sept. 2.
Lili Salmeron, a resident of the communal home for two and a half years, said Samuel Grunbaum once burst into the house unannounced, demanding to meet with her. “That’s why I hide now,” said Salmeron, a 38-year-old writer.
Jessica Turner, 36, a gardener and herbalist who has lived in the home for nine months, said he has tried similar tactics with her, too.
One time when she was alone in her room, “he started banging on my door, shouting, ‘Hello, hello! Can I talk?’ and he tried to open the door to come in,” Turner said. “He kept banging on the door and then said he was contacting his lawyer.”
On the evening of Sept. 15, Grunbaum and two associates returned, said Singh, who added that tenants called the police.
“We barely slept,” Singh said.
Lucas Shapiro, who has lived in the home for 12 years, is a 40-year-old social justice activist and recently started working with colleagues on building an eviction prevention network.
“I never thought the first project would end up being my own home,” he said.