Community activists staved off an attempted eviction in Crown Heights on Tuesday, following a lengthy stand-off with a landlord who tenants say had illegally harassed them into moving out during the pandemic.
The impromptu action brought close to 100 protesters and sympathetic neighbors to the front steps of 1214 Dean Street. As landlord and self-described "eco builder" Gennaro Brooks-Church stood guard in the four-story building's foyer, tenants detailed a litany of alleged intimidation tactics deployed against them in recent days.
"They came into the house with zero notice. They broke into people’s bedrooms while they were sleeping, started ripping off locks, screaming at people to pay rent," recalled Billy Amber, a 27-year-old tenant. "They clearly didn't want to go through the eviction process...they're trying to scare people by acting like gangsters."
One of the Crown Heights tenants, who asked that her name not be published, said she was recovering from emergency brain surgery when the landlord and maintenance worker barged into her room.
"You're the villain from a Dickens novel," shouted Jeff Strabone, an English professor at Connecticut College, as Brooks-Church silently blocked the doorway.
The confrontation comes as an estimated 50,000 New York City renters are facing the threat of eviction, following the expiration of Governor Andrew Cuomo's moratorium late last month. A narrower version of the evictions ban, which applies to those experiencing financial hardship because of COVID-19, has sowed confusion between landlords and tenants. As New York's housing courts have partially reopened, city marshals have been ordered to cease issuing eviction orders indefinitely, with little clarity on how the state and city will handle the surge in cases going forward.
Tenants in the Crown Heights building say their landlords — Brooks-Church and his ex-wife, Loretta Gendville — are now seeking to force them out extralegally.
Brooks-Church told Gothamist on Tuesday night that he had not personally evicted anyone, but declined to comment further. Multiple attempts to speak with Brooks-Church on Wednesday were unsuccessful. Phone and email inquiries to Gendville were not returned.
The ex-couple — who operate as co-landlords, according to tenants — are prominent members of Brooklyn's business community.
Brooks-Church runs a green building company, installing in-home plant facades, or "living walls," at a cost of $60,000. Gendville owns the retail empire Area Kids, whose fourteen outposts include boutique toy stores, yoga studios, and the vegan eatery, Planted Cafe.
The family is currently listing their Carroll Gardens brownstone, complete with a koi pond and natural swimming pool, on Airbnb for $795 per night.
Those renting rooms in the nine-bedroom Crown Heights building said they were primarily service workers in their 20s and 30s who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. They said they pay roughly $1,000 monthly for single rooms, in apparent violation of the property's zoning status as a single family dwelling. Residents are not on leases, they noted, and are explicitly instructed not to let city inspectors on the property.
Emails show the tenants reached out to the landlord in May requesting a rent reduction — and soon decided to begin withholding monthly payments altogether. They said the decision was reached collectively, citing the movement for a citywide rent strike as inspiration. According to one landlord survey, a quarter of city renters did not pay any rent during the month of May.
On May 22nd, Brooks-Church informed tenants that "within the next month or two we will putting the house on the market." The building's occupants said they heard no further details from the landlord until this past Thursday, when Brooks-Church showed up at the house unannounced and began demanding people leave.
The next day, the tenants reached an agreement with Gendville, who promised they would have until August 1st to vacate. But she became "infuriated" by their request to put the agreement in writing, tenants said. On Monday, her and Brooks-Church, accompanied by their two dogs, maintenance workers, and three children, entered the house and started threatening residents, according to multiple tenants.
"I'm in my room listening to Death Grips. It's loud, and all of a sudden Loretta swings open the door, gets in my face, calls me a trespasser and tells me to 'get the fuck out,'" recalled one 22-year-old tenant, who declined to give their name for fear of being sued by the landlord. "She grabs my wrist to block me from locking the door. I'm scared out of my mind."
"I’ve never seen such a lack of human compassion," they added. "It felt so insidious that people who are affluent in their community could rationalize this."
Similar altercations were repeated throughout the house, tenants said. Brooks-Church then informed them he would be moving in permanently — something tenants viewed as an intimidation tactic. Most of them fled to siblings' or partners' homes, saying they felt unsafe. At least three tenants left with nowhere to go.
(The remaining tenants also accused the landlords of throwing their personal belongings and common area furniture onto the street; though they apparently brought most of it back inside, after a lawyer informed them it was illegal).
"I'm recovering from brain surgery barely able to walk and now I'm afraid to go into my own home after weeks in the hospital," one tenant wrote in a text message to Gendville. "You seem to have no conscious [sic]."
The situation escalated on Tuesday, when tenants reached out to organizers with Equality for Flatbush, who offered to coordinate a direct action. Within hours, dozens of people had gathered outside the house. Their chants for Brooks-Church to "go home" were ultimately successful. A few hours later, a group of locksmiths, who said they were hired by the landlord, began pushing their way up the stairs. The activists managed to block them from changing the locks, and they too drove away.
"This is the definition of a predatory landlord," said Imani Henry, the founder of Equality for Flatbush. "But we were successful, because of love and solidarity. Strangers are literally running up the block to protect each other."
As protesters linked arms to block the landlord, locksmiths, or police officers from entering the property, a young man on a bullhorn told the crowd that they should expect to find themselves in this situation again soon.
"This is going to be a long summer," he said. "We gotta to show up like this every time."