Brownsville tenant Debra King has been waiting for a new owner for her building for years — a change that seemed imminent in October 2019, when a bankruptcy judge ordered a sale.
Today, she and neighbors say they are shivering in the cold, with their building still owned by an affiliate of the nonprofit Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation (NEBHDCo) three years after city housing officials sought to put the property and four others into receivership following missed mortgage payments.
“We shouldn’t have to live like this, with no heat,” said King, 60, who has lived in the Mother Gaston Boulevard building since 1994.
By the time the city intervened in 2018, conditions at the building were so bad the Department of Housing Preservation and Development also put it into its Alternative Enforcement Program — an emergency intervention targeted at the city’s most dilapidated apartment buildings.
In an October 2018 letter demanding repairs to dozens of NEBHDCo-tied properties, an HPD deputy commissioner wrote that deteriorating conditions were “exposing tenants to serious health and safety risks if not addressed immediately.”
Problems from broken radiators to a fractured front-door frame persist, with 209 open “immediately hazardous” violations cited across the five buildings.
King’s building still has three open heating violations. City records show HPD attempted on Dec. 29 to repair the boiler there, but couldn’t get into a locked room.
When temperatures head toward freezing, King said, she layers on clothes, boils water on the stove and cranks up her electric heater to stay warm. She also turns on and opens her oven. But she and neighbors who do the same worry about carbon monoxide poisoning.
“It isn’t really healthy, so I try not to do that as much,” said Latoya Wiggins, who lives one floor below King with a 12-year-old daughter and 23-year-old son.
Their building and three others controlled by NEBHDCo remain in HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program.
‘Major TLC’ Needed
More than a year after Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation agreed to sell the properties to another nonprofit, Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY), the deal has not gone through, leaving tenants in limbo.
Layers of legal cases and needed approvals, complicated by COVID-19-related shutdowns, have come between King and a new landlord who has pledged to make extensive repairs.
Under safeguard procedures that apply to any nonprofit selling real estate, tenants cannot have a new landlord until the transfer gets approval — first from state Attorney General Letitia James and then a State Supreme Court judge.
In an interview with THE CITY in early January, MHANY Executive Director Ismene Speliotis projected that the sale would be complete before February.
“The buildings need some major TLC [tender loving care],” Speliotis said. “They need some major capital improvements.” She promised to quickly intervene with emergency repairs, ensuring that tenants had heat and their basic health and safety needs met.
After that, the full scope of rehabilitation would begin, she said — a process she anticipated would take a year or more.
Yet when asked last week about the status of its review of the sale, the attorney general’s office indicated that it had not yet begun.
HPD told THE CITY that as of Thursday the agency had submitted its letter of consent to the AG’s Charities Bureau.
“HPD has taken every step in its power to move this sale forward and ensure tenants are protected and have safe and secure housing,” Jeremy House, a spokesperson for the housing agency, said in a statement.
A spokesperson for James confirmed that her office received HPD’s letter but still needed documents from a NEBHDCo entity, Park Monroe HDFC, before the review could be completed.
“We are working with the HDFC’s counsel to obtain all information to complete the review of the petition,” said the spokesperson, Morgan Rubin.
Jeffery Dunston, CEO of NEBHDCo, which controls about 1,000 apartments in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville, said that he isn’t aware of any heating problems in King’s building. He is battling an “unfair” system, he said, not tenants.
“They, in fact, do have heat and hot water,” Dunston said. “We do have a staff person that monitors the Mother Gaston buildings.”
He added: “I’ve been committed to my mission, and we’ll continue to deliver services for the best of our ability.”
THE CITY first talked to King and other NEBHDCo tenants in 2019, after Dunston put the five buildings, including King’s and another cluster, into bankruptcy. The nonprofit owed the city more than $4 million, court records showed, with more than 4,000 housing code violations among the properties.
Dunston also sought bankruptcy protection to avoid foreclosure on a landmark Throop Ave. office building he’d hoped to turn into NEBHDCo’s headquarters, THE CITY reported, leaving contractors clamoring to be paid. Records filed in that case showed previously undocumented loans between different NEBHDCo entities.
As New York City’s public advocate, James had placed Dunston on her “worst landlords” watchlist, and as attorney general now oversees all charities registered in the state.
Tenants pointed to Dunston’s long record of neglecting apartments and said they’re done trying to get his nonprofit to make repairs. They said they hoped HPD would take more aggressive action.
“They’re playing Russian Roulette with my life — period,” King said. “Because it’s affecting me emotionally, mentally and physically, and it’s dampening my spirit. I’m tired.”