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'A Question Of Human Decency': Handyman's Eviction Divides Gentrifying Clinton Hill Co-op Community

Residents at a Clinton Hill co-op complex are protesting their board over the eviction of a longtime handyman.
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Residents at a Clinton Hill co-op complex are protesting their board over the eviction of a longtime handyman. Photo by D. Cornick

In 2010, Merle McGee stumbled across Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill Cooperatives, a sprawling complex of 12 buildings built during World War II. Spurred by a co-op conversion in the early 1980s, the more than 1,200-units had over the years become home to a middle class and racially integrated mix of homeowners and rent-stabilized tenants.

For McGee and her partner, who are black, it was reminiscent of their own childhood experiences; they grew up in Long Branch, New Jersey and Berkeley, California respectively. “It just felt comfortable,” she recalled recently. The couple bought an apartment, which they share with their daughter.

In 2015, Helen Yentus and her husband also moved into the complex for similar reasons. Yentus, who is white and has two young children, holds no illusions about her place there. “I’m one of the gentrifiers,” she said sardonically. But like other newcomers, she was struck by the warmth of her older neighbors. Her family, she said, have "gotten nothing but welcome."

The community has the trappings of a small village. During warmer months, a close-knit group of elderly women hunker down on benches in the courtyard and watch over the comings and goings. “It’s a magical place,” Yentus said.

For residents like McGee and Yentus, Clinton Hill Cooperatives has been a progressive enclave, where self-selecting co-op owners ensure a community of politically aligned dwellers with common values. Or so they thought. In January, the buildings’ co-op board issued a letter to evict Hector Caballero, a longtime handyman who lives in one of the co-op-owned apartments, as part of an effort to trim maintenance costs. He is not losing his job, but he must vacate the one-bedroom unit he has shared with his wife and two children in 90 days. Of the 16 handymen who work in the buildings, five had been granted free-rent apartments years ago—in Caballero's case 19 years—part of an understanding, residents said, that their on-call services were needed for an aging and large complex.

The decision to evict Caballero upset many residents, resulting in petitions, a protest that drew a visit from the NYPD, and heated meetings that have drawn out long simmering concerns about gentrification, the city's growing economic divide, and lack of affordable housing. In 2018, one-bedroom units at the Clinton Hill Co-ops fetched around $700,000, according to Streeteasy.

“What is apparent is that as a community, our values are beyond the values of our actual property,” McGee said. “[The board] did not calculate that and that’s a shortcoming.”

Latisha Stewart-Roberts, who has lived in the buildings as a renter for more than 20 years, called it “a question of human decency.” She wondered why, for instance, the board did not even consider asking Caballero if he could pay rent for his unit, and said it was unfair to give him only 90 days to move. “If you give somebody one deal, and that deal changes, they need adequate warning,” she said.

Caballero, who is 55 years old and has worked for the complex for nearly three decades, was originally one of two handymen asked to leave. The other left quietly.

Caballero, however, stunned and angry, decided to tell some of the residents after being handed a letter on January 15th.

“After 19 years, you’re gonna give me 90 days?” he said he recalled thinking after reading the letter.

The evening he received the notice, Caballero ran into Neil Donnelly, a resident on his way home from work. Donnelly and his wife Iben Falconer, who had been part of an anti-eviction group that formed a few years ago to help tenants in the building, rallied his neighbors. Soon dozens of residents began a petition campaign. They did not canvass all of the buildings, but to date, they have collected signatures from 700 individuals, across 600 units. “There are people who care about Hector and who recognize that he provides a longtime service,” Falconer said.

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Last Thursday, around 75 residents staged a protest outside one of the buildings during a closed-door board meeting. According to Donnelly and others, there were security personnel and police positioned in front of the building when they arrived. Over the course of the evening, more police and security staff arrived. Chanting and holding signs that read "Hector Stays" and "Worker Justice," the protesters had unsuccessfully lobbied the board to allow some of them to attend the meeting. At one point, Caballero, along with a police officer, came outside and informed residents that it was “a done deal.” The officer also addressed the crowd: “The eviction is a done deal and we came out here to inform you guys that it's a done deal, there's nothing that you guys can do,” she said.

The moment, which was captured on video, angered residents who said the board lacked the courage to face themselves, and subsequently forced Caballero into a humiliating situation. Among those watching in the crowd was his teenage daughter.

In a letter to residents dated February 22nd, the board denied calling the police and said they were advised by the officers not to address the protesters directly. In an attached memo, the board delineated its reasons for the decision, citing the presence of two live-in superintendents and the management company’s recommendation that having so many handymen had proven unnecessary and that having a handful of them live at the buildings for free was unfair to others who did not have the same arrangement. “It would not be properly exercising its fiduciary responsibility to unnecessarily maintain handymen in rent-free apartments,” the memo said.

The board also said it had first consulted with Caballero’s union, 32BJ SEIU.

In a statement to Gothamist, Carolina Gonzalez, a spokesperson for the union, confirmed the board's account. She added: “The union engaged with the Co-op and building manager and we were able to keep two apartments, for two out of the four handymen, that have been previously at the disposal of building staff. Two supers are remaining as resident supers in apartments in the Co-op, as per the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. All six workers — 2 supers and 4 handymen — will remain at their jobs.”

Timo Lipping, the president of the co-op board, declined to comment about the controversy on the record, except to say that it was a personnel matter and that there were issues the board could not disclose to the residents. He later added: "I work tirelessly for the best interest of my community, and it profoundly disturbed me to be hostilely attacked at the meetings."

The secrecy surrounding the decision has also inflamed residents and triggered another bigger question, which McGee recently voiced: “Who is running this co-op?”

The answer is complicated due to the buildings' history. Originally built to house Navy Yard workers during World War II, the Clinton Hill complex began its life as rental apartments. The buildings were purchased in the early 1980s by Time Equities, a company helmed by developer Francis Greenberger, who specialized in converting rental property to shareholder-owned property, earning him the nickname “King of Co-ops,”

In 1984, the apartments were converted under a non-eviction plan. This meant that Greenberger needed only 15 percent of the tenants to purchase their units in order for a building to convert to co-op. Those who did not buy could continue to take advantage of rent control or rent stabilization laws. Prices started at $20,000 for a one-bedroom unit, according to a New York Times story. One longtime resident said individuals could pay several thousand less if they paid in cash. The units began appreciating quickly and over the years, Time Equities offered tenants the opportunity to buy units at a discount. The result was that Clinton Hill became a bastion of middle-class black homeowners, many of whom were teachers and civil servants.

Still, many of the occupants elected to remain renters. Unlike co-op owners, who own shares in the building, shares of the rental apartments were owned by their landlord, Time Equities, who could sell them to outside investors.

Over the years, a range of investors cycled through the Clinton Hill Cooperatives, many of them unknown to the residents. During early to mid-1990s, Greenberger ran into financial trouble and had to give 150 units that he had borrowed against to his lender Citibank. In an incredible turn of events that he recounted in his 2016 autobiography, Citibank ultimately decided it didn’t want to be associated with a failing building that was housed by predominately black working-class residents, and ultimately returned the units back to Time Equities at no cost.

As shareholders, these various investors, who have an incentive to make investments that add value to the units, have had a say on the board. But over the years, as renters moved out and new co-op buyers began coming in, residents began to argue that the sponsors had too much power. Prior to 2016, sponsors at Clinton Hill had eight representatives on the 14-member co-op board, meaning that if they could flip one resident member, they could maintain control of the building.

In 2016, nine new resident members took over the board in a sweep election. One of their first decisions was to reduce the number of board seats appointed by outside investors from eight to five. The two outside investors, or sponsors, are currently Time Equities and Newmont Properties. Together, they own about 200 units, according to one source.

That same year, some residents noticed a report from ProPublica that mapped evictions in New York City between January 2013 and June 2016. To their surprise, their building was one of the hot spots. According to the City’s Public Advocate office, which produced a report on the data, there were a total of 176 housing court cases brought against residents, both shareholders and renters, in the Clinton Hill Coop buildings.

A group of residents at Clinton Hill decided to form an anti-eviction committee, and began urging the board to install some protections for both renters and owners, such as establishing a protocol of written warnings for late rent or maintenance payments.

After that, things went quiet until Caballero's eviction, Falconer said.

In New York and elsewhere, clashes between residents and co-op boards are both common and inevitable as the makeup of their communities changes. Over the years, older residents at Clinton Hill have bristled at the rising cost of parking spaces and the incorporation of bike racks. One longtime resident recently said he wondered why the board had decided to spend so much money on landscaping when in the past, the courtyard’s planting were taken care of by a volunteer residents garden group.

Boards may have a lot of power, but like any democracy, elections are the way to change them. Under the co-ops bylaws, shareholders can vote to elect new members either at the end of the year or call a special election. In both cases, they need a quorum.

Despite convening a meeting on Saturday to listen to residents' concerns, the board did not give any indication that it plans to change its decision. Packed into a room, the proceedings were heated, with residents screaming at and pleading with board members to reconsider. "Something is bubbling over. Can't you feel it?" one man said.

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