Update below

On October 31st, 60 Clarkson Avenue in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn ceased to be a homeless shelter. The decrepit, 83-unit apartment building is rent-stabilized, but starting in 2001 as tenants moved out, some say under duress, landlord Barry Hers began moving in homeless families as part of the city's controversial cluster site program. Over the years, 64 homeless families came to live in the building and Hers collected rates of as much as $3,000 a month from the city for apartments with severe leaks, mold, rat, mice, and cockroach infestations, and other hazards caused by neglect.

As the building deteriorated, reporters began to pay visits and Hers, aka Barry Hersko, came to embarrass the city administrators managing the cluster site system, serving as a poster child of a barely regulated profit mill for landlords. The system was drastically expanded under former mayor Michael Bloomberg and is now still straining to contain 3,000 of the 11,900 homeless families in the city's near-record shelter population.

In July, after Hers tried to remove the shelter's residents with less than 24 hours' notice, and apparently without Department of Homeless Services awareness, the agency made the declaration: it was pulling the plug on 60 Clarkson. The city stopped short of ending business with Hers, who owns several other apartment building shelters nearby. In fact, DHS was in the middle of trying to ratify a retroactive $17.4 million 22-month contract with the service provider We Always Care, founded by one Isaac Hersko, to be paid out of an unaccounted-for taxpayer slush fund, when the conflict flared up. But it was clear that 60 Clarkson was a liability.

This summer, as residents and activists worked to try to stave off immediate removal to shelters allegedly owned by Hers and in even worse shape, the Legal Aid Society hit on an idea. Many shelter residents had housing assistance vouchers that they were having trouble finding landlords to accept, and had strong ties to the neighborhood—reasonable work commutes, kids in local schools—and the crumbling apartments the city was spending big bucks to rent had sturdy prewar bones under the layers of grime and peeling linoleum, and were supposed to be rent-stablized in the first place.

Last month, as DHS and We Always Care moved, sometimes alarmingly, towards an October 31st closure date, seven shelter residents and long-term rent-stabilized tenants sued.

The lawsuit accuses Hers of misrepresenting the cost of apartments in his building for over a decade in rent-stabilization filings with the state, as well as drastically raising rents without justification, pushing them toward the $2,700 rent-regulation ceiling in order to charge market rates.

The lawsuit also demands that shelter residents should have tenants' rights and be able to rent their apartments using vouchers, and that long-term tenants should also have their rents reduced to erase the illegal increases.

15110560Clarkson1.jpg
Tyquasia Davis, left, and Ravan Huddleston inspect the building's meters and circuit breakers, which they believe the landlord tampered with to kill their electricity. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)

All of that sounds rosy on paper, but on Wednesday afternoon, four days after the Department of Homeless Services officially washed their hands of the 27 residents who stayed—making them squatters until a judge says otherwise—something happened to the power. "I was in my apartment and the lights just went out," Ravan Huddleston said.

Huddleston is one of 20-odd shelter residents and long-term tenants who have signed onto the lawsuit since it was filed, rolling the dice on the opportunity to inhabit one of the apartments and hoping enough legal pressure can force Hers to fix the place up. So far that prospect is not looking good. Residents we spoke to on Thursday morning said at least five apartments lost power, all of them home to former shelter residents who are plaintiffs on the lawsuit.

Workers were in the building's basement on Wednesday afternoon, along with two men who seemed to be supervising, residents say, and when people complained that they'd lost electricity, they say the men told them Con Edison had shut it off but it would be restored momentarily. It didn't come back. By 7:30 p.m., the workers, who did not appear to work for Con Ed, were gone and lawyers, activists, and police from the neighborhood's 70th Precinct were on site trying to get to the basement, where the circuit breakers are. The elevator that goes to the basement was strangely inoperable, Tenants and Neighbors organizer Jennifer Berkley said, and an employee of Hers's, who refused to identify himself to her, adamantly refused a cop's request for entry over the phone.

"It was nuts; the guy from Hers's office was screaming at the cop," she recalled. "They have some nerve. They're literally screaming at the cop."

Berkley and others who were present recall the man on the phone saying that he didn't care if he was arrested—he wasn't restoring power. The activists left around 9 p.m. without any luck getting Con Edison to come or getting access to the basement.

On Thursday morning, shelter residents, many of them mothers of small children, kept their kids home from school in hopes of a resolution. Nadina Brown, a plaintiff, said that she's all for standing their ground, but Hers's alleged sabotage makes it hard.

"The baby's crying," she said. "How we gonna stick it out with no lights?"

She worried that the deteriorating conditions could lead her to entanglement with the city's Administration for Children's Services.

"I ain't getting no ACS case," she said.

Several people, though it's not clear precisely how many, have lost gas as well. The cause of the gas shutoff is unclear. A National Grid spokeswoman said inspectors were called to the building on Thursday after someone reported an odor. The inspectors did not detect the presence of gas, but turned off the building's gas entirely to be safe, and were expected to return later that day, the spokeswoman said.

Losing gas a little more than two weeks ago was enough to send plaintiff Frederick Gardner and his two daughters packing. Gardner left on Saturday, the final day before DHS employees would have closed his case, opting to transfer to a traditional shelter in Brownsville rather than continue to subject his kids to the uncertainty of the legal fight.

"It was freezing outside," he remembered of a night two weeks ago. "I called DHS because I had to send my kids to bed fully clothed."

Twenty other families transferred out to other shelters, three exited the system somehow, and another 14 found homes with the help of vouchers, according to a DHS spokeswoman. Many had complained that DHS and We Always Care were failing to help with the voucher process or with finding an apartment, and that other landlords had refused to accept their vouchers, sometimes after months of house hunting, in violation of city law.

Gardner laments giving up, but said he is already getting help finding an apartment with his CITYFEPS voucher. Gardner works selling tickets to tours in Manhattan and said that the tribulations of living in Hers's building are falling on people who for the most part are hardworking.

"It's crazy because we're doing the right thing," he said. "Not everybody in the building is doing the right thing, but most of us is trying to go to work every morning to do what we gotta do."

15110560Clarkson3.jpg
Missing meters and capped wires suggest something strange has happened to the circuit breakers. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)

A trip to the basement of 60 Clarkson on Thursday morning revealed circuit breakers in disarray. Four electric meters were missing completely, corresponding with the apartments of four lawsuit plaintiffs; one apartment's wires appeared to be severed; and circuit breaker switches were flipped up and down seemingly haphazardly. The meter for Huddleston's second-floor apartment was intact, but a flip of the circuit breaker did nothing to restore her power.

Con Edison did not respond to requests for further information, but residents said their workers were at the building on Thursday afternoon along with representatives of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and police. Removal of electrical meters is a crime, as they are Con Edison property, and reduction of building services as retaliation for tenant advocacy is considered landlord harassment. Because the shelter residents aren't formally tenants, it's less clear what legal protections they might have.

Tenants and residents we have spoken to are not undergoing eviction proceedings, and termination of utility services at apartment buildings requires a publicly posted notice at least 15 days prior. Such a notice appeared back in September, but the deadline passed without incident.

Allegations of sabotage got Brooklyn landlords Joel and Aaron Israel arrested back in April. Berkley said that's what needs to happen here.

"This is really clearly out of control," she said. "The landlord's version of following the law is really being compromised. He should really be arrested at this point. It's really just appalling what's going on there."

Lawyers for residents said they are rushing to file for a preliminary injunction to bar Hers from taking any action against tenants until the case is settled.

Hers did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment. We Always Care manager Taofeek Owoade said that he does not answer to Hers or regularly communicate with him, and that he doesn't know what's going on at the building he formerly worked in.

"As of October 31st, We Always Care has nothing to do with 60 Clarkson," he said.

Owoade denied residents claims that he threatened to have them arrested if they didn't leave and that other employees of the nonprofit posed as DHS workers to try to scare residents out, calling the accusations "slander."

"What do I have to benefit in clients moving out of shelter?" he asked. "I work to help homeless people. Sixty Clarkson closing means that I don't have a job—that I have fewer cases to manage."

Owoade said that he wishes the people who transferred out and who stayed "all the best," but suggested that a handful of people lacking work ethic were behind the bad rep We Always Care and Hers have gotten. He seemed to be referring at least in part to two particular mothers of disabled children who had extended stays at 60 Clarkson and became building organizers, one of whom is still there.

"If you're living somewhere for five years and people aren't doing what they need to do, it creates the idea that somehow I'm supposed to be here," he said. "But you're not supposed to be here. The idea is to come to shelter get assistance and move out."

Homelessness experts have expressed concern about lengthening stays in the city's shelter system, which some ascribe to Bloomberg's discontinuation of voucher programs, and ongoing increases in rent and home prices. The transformation of the neighborhood around 60 Clarkson with the arrival of waves of affluent, well-educated people (Wet Hot American Summer actor Michael Showalter sold his house on the shelter's block for $1.6 million two weeks ago) is part of why some shelter residents say they want to stay, particularly assuming that neighborhood schools will improve.

"Why should we have to leave just because it's getting a little nice around here?" resident and organizer Hilonka Saldana said at a meeting in September. Saldana is the mother of three, including an autistic 7-year-old son, and has been at 60 Clarkson for two years. She said that taking care of her kids is a full-time job, especially considering her son's needs, which include diaper changing.

"His disability disables me," she said during a recent visit.

Saldana has not lost power, but worries about her neighbors who have, and about what will happen next. Resident Tyquasia Davis is indignant about her lack of electricity.

"They could have at least gave a bitch 48 hours notice," she said, standing with a group of women and children on Thursday in front of the lobby door, which doesn't lock.

Brown, who worried about a possible ACS case, tried to lighten the mood.

"I'm about to go cook all the food in my freezer," she said. "Everybody's stomach gonna be hurting."

An HPD spokeswoman said that the agency is working with Legal Aid to get power restored. Public Advocate Letitia James, who received $350 in campaign donations from someone named Issac Hersko in 2013, is working with Con Edison to restore power as well, a spokeswoman for James said. The NYPD did not respond to requests for information.

A DHS spokeswoman provided a breakdown of how many people left the shelter and how many stayed, but she and a Mayor's Office spokeswoman did not respond to detailed questions posed in several emails over the course of the last month and a half.

Update November 7th:

HPD assumed responsibility for the five households' electrical accounts for the time being, and electricity was restored on Thursday night, according to Legal Aid attorney Kathleen Brennan. Gas service remains spotty, and lawyers are working to give residents the power to pay their own National Grid bills.

Also, Hers's lawyer Meryl Wenig emailed the following statement:

Apparently you have been given misinformation regarding the situation.

DHS rented space at the building for temporary shelter to house the homeless. A few months ago DHS notified these people it was going to walk away from the building. When DHS walked they abandoned the very people; to wit: the homeless, that they were charged with helping.

The Owner never admitted anything regarding the electricity and has nothing to do with it. In fact, it was I who spoke with the NYPD, gave them a copy of the DHS letter regarding abandonment, and referred them to the utility company which had removed the meters for non-payment.

The claim that there has been misrepresentations in the state filings is equally misguided and simply untrue. Sadly, Legal Aid did not do their homework on the facts or the law and the lawsuit they filed is rife with factual and legal inaccuracies.

It is very disconcerting to the Owner that DHS, the Agency responsible for the shelter system, has acted in what can only be characterized as a wholly irresponsible manner.

Wenig declined to respond specifically to the lawsuit's allegations, and claimed that Hers has not been served, meaning the response he was expected to file imminently will probably be a while. She would not answer who was actually paying the utility bills but claimed it was not Hers's responsibility to keep the lights on.

"Why would you think the owner is responsible for the actions of an unrelated utility service?" she wrote.

New York law requires landlords to keep apartments habitable, including by providing heat, gas, and electricity, and for instance, fixing caved-in ceilings. A landlord making conditions markedly worse to gain leverage in a legal battle with tenant is considered constructive eviction and can prompt a judge to step in and force a fix. However, because the residents who lost power lack leases, their rights are less set in stone. Wenig would like the world to believe that keeping their homes livable is completely outside Hers's purview.

"As the owner took no actions in regards to the occupants and the electric service, there can be no constructive eviction," she said. "I have no idea as to how or why the utility service does what it does or whether it complied with the rules. What I do know is that owner had nothing to do with the electric turnoff."

Brennan was surprised to hear Hersko's lawyer's claim he hasn't been served, or that he is represented by Wenig's firm at all. She said she has sworn records showing an investigator served Hers, his real estate company Clark Wilson, and We Always Care on October 8th.

"I didn't even know he had separate representation for this lawsuit," she said, noting that Hers uses different attorneys in housing court. "And he says he hasn't been served, but why would he have retained a new lawyer, if not to address this?"

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Isaac Hersko as an alias of Barry Hers's. This was believed to be the case by residents of 60 Clarkson Avenue and lawyers representing them, and Hers did not refute it in correspondence with Gothamist, but subsequent investigation by the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal's Tenant Protection Unit showed that Isaac and Barry are in fact two different people.