Karen Johnson knew something was wrong when she showed up to move into her new apartment in East New York and nothing had been cleaned up. It was the first of September, 2015. The landlord had shown her the apartment at 385 Warwick Street in August; her first impression was that it was "decent," but a window was broken, it was missing a smoke alarm, and the main bedroom in the basement had "filth everywhere." The owner, Yaniv Erez, had promised to fix the issues in time for Johnson's move-in date.
She had already put money down to hold the apartment, and the veteran's program that was covering her rent had cut checks for three months at $1,250 a month, so when he said again that he would take care of it, she waited. She moved in three weeks later, after he replaced the window and did some painting, she recalled. But when she called to connect the gas, she was told that Erez owed $1,000 and, until he paid it, she could not get the account placed in her name. There was also no hot water. As winter began, this became more of a problem.
The house at 385 Warwick Street has been a lot of trouble for a succession of tenants. (Scott Heins/Gothamist)
Johnson started calling 311 regularly. She bought a hot plate and an electric blanket. To bathe, she heated pots of water.
She started withholding rent after January, when the Department of Housing Preservation and Development took Erez to court for the lack of heat and hot water, she said in an interview this week.
"He started bargaining, saying he would do repairs," she said. "He wouldn’t follow through on anything, forget it. He just wants the green. He wants to see how much he can get away with and you’ll still pay him. It’s his nature."
At the time, Johnson just thought she had a bad landlord. In fact, as a judge would find in a separate case a few months later, Erez is "a serial scam artist who ran a Ponzi scheme with a residential apartment taking funds from tenants who are unsophisticated..." The alleged scam centers around 385 Warwick. It has taken various forms over the past several years, but the rough outline, according to Kenneth Fuller, who has worked for Erez for at least two years, is, "He gives this other man a couple hundred dollars to convince people to move in, gets a couple thousand dollars [from the tenants], and then gets them out." The con only makes some marginal amount of sense if the tenants leave quickly.
The moldy aftermath of a ceiling collapse in Johnson's apartment at 385 Warwick. (Gothamist)
Johnson stuck it out through the winter, and when a young woman moved in upstairs with her two elementary-school-aged kids at the beginning of March, Johnson taught her about electric blankets. Then came the threatening notices left on their doors, Johnson said. Erez and his workers took to paying random visits. "You've gotta get out of here!" Johnson recalled Erez yelling.
One day, as summer was beginning, Johnson and her neighbor lost water. The outage lasted for days. In the basement, Johnson said, they found that a pipe had been bashed in and a lever turned to the off position. At one point, she said, Erez showed her a city vacate order. She pointed out that it was dated May 2015, before she'd moved in. That, a judge found, is when Erez had broken walls, disconnected toilets, removed water and gas pipes and meters, disconnected the boiler, and left feces in a planter and smeared on children's clothing.
In response to Johnson's complaints, HPD inspectors came in July 2016, and in addition to the lack of water and gas, they logged mold, water-damaged ceilings, and rats, and a litany of other problems.
"Towards the end he seemed really nervous, like he knew the vacate was coming and he wanted to get us out before they came," Johnson said.
The other shoe dropped in August, when HPD inspectors came to enforce a new vacate order.
"When HPD came, he was so calm," said Johnson's upstairs neighbor at the time, Melissa Jinaut. "He just went over to the HPD guys and said, 'Take care of this mess right here.'"
She continued, "My boyfriend had to restrain me, I was so angry. When the cops came, he jumped in his car. The cops stopped to ask [the tenants and inspectors] what’s going on, and he drove off a little quicker."
Yaniv Erez, pictured recently at a cigar event in Illinois, is officially on the run. (Facebook)
By this point, Erez was a fugitive, having been found in contempt of court for the 2015 sabotage. When not busy with his unique brand of real estate management, Erez travels the world promoting his cigar business. Now, a year after the contempt finding, he remains at large, the specter of 30 days in jail seemingly doing little to dampen his opulent lifestyle, or even his operations at 385 Warwick. After a temporary retreat from social media following a Gothamist report last March, Erez has returned to public view on the Facebook page of his company, Erez Cigars. There he is pictured setting up a display at a cigar shop in Waukegan, Illinois as part of a weekend-long promotion earlier this month. And a visit to the cursed house in East New York on Tuesday turned up some familiar stories.
Yaniv "Ben" Erez (Erez Cigars/Facebook)
Jovella Brown, a Brooklyn native, returned to the borough from Delaware in December, finding an apartment in 385 Warwick through Kenneth Fuller, who is married to her childhood friend, she said. The Saturday before last, her daughter was visiting with her one-year-old granddaughter when Brown headed out of the house to run an errand.
"I hadn't got to Pennsylvania Avenue when my child called screaming, ‘They’re kicking your door in!'" Brown recalled. "I got home and the doorknob and the deadbolt were gone, and there was a padlock on the door. He broke up all our locks so we couldn’t lock the door."
Brown said her daughter recounted a man yelling, "Who the hell are you, and what are you doing in my house?" He drove a white van with Florida plates, and when police responded, they said the daughter's description matched Erez, and explained that he's wanted for his schemes, according to Brown. This Monday night, Brown and her neighbor summoned police again when they discovered a water pipe in the basement had been damaged, and circuit breakers had been scattered across the floor. One of their space heaters also went missing. The NYPD confirmed the most recent visit, but not the earlier one, and a police spokesperson said the callers were told to handle the issue in landlord-tenant court.
"The pipe is skeeting all over the floor," Brown said on Tuesday of the basement water pipe. Fortunately, police allowed them to climb into their apartment through the window, she said, and they've been able to keep the utilities running for now: "We have low water pressure. My husband was able to put the circuit breakers back."
The upstairs neighbor, who declined to give her name so as not to show up in search results in connection with her troubles, said she's planning to move out, "but I’m doing it when I’m ready."
In Delaware, Brown had a steam cleaning business. She said she suffers from lupus and her husband, a former carpenter, is living on disability checks. They got reduced rent on the apartment in exchange for building walls and a ceiling around their apartment's bathroom, she said. Before all the strange stuff started happening, the place seemed like a great deal.
"It was a blessing. As far as we were concerned, this was a big step up for us," she said. "But now we stepped in a big mess."
"So many painful memories," Jinaut said during a return visit on Tuesday. "Watching my kids go to the hydrant to get water and carry it up so we could flush the toilet and bathe. It was heartbreaking."
Jinaut is attending college and still living in an HPD-run homeless shelter in Brownsville. Johnson moved into a one-bedroom Section 8 apartment last month in Wakefield, a few blocks from the Westchester County line, ending six months in a Red Cross hotel and a shelter. She is working for HELP USA, the same social services contractor that paid her rent with Veterans Affairs money at 385 Warwick, managing a team that places homeless men in jobs and housing.
Karen Johnson's TV and Melissa Jinaut's children's clothes are among the items they lost when the city locked them out of their apartments. Seven months later, the stuff is sitting in the lot next door. (Scott Heins/Gothamist)
Some of the two women's belongings are still in the lot next door, covered in snow.
"Oh, there goes one of my curtains," Jinaut said, looking up into the second-floor windows. "Lovely."
There are a variety of agencies involved in trying to bring Erez to justice, force him to fix the place, and prevent a repeat of the tenants' ordeal, and a variety of obstacles. The grindingly slow pace of housing court means that Johnson's heat and hot water case was only resolved last Friday, with a judge ordering Erez to restore the already-restored utilities and pay a $500 fine, according to HPD. The city Sheriff's Office, which is charged with enforcing Erez's arrest warrant, has limited resources compared to the NYPD, and it only has jurisdiction within New York state, meaning the city couldn't have asked for him to be extradited from Illinois. The agency has made this wanted poster, though.
Department of Homeless Services spokesman David Neustadt said that the agency would not have referred Johnson to 385 Warwick had she been a shelter resident, and that the unit that did refer her has since changed its policies to ensure that workers do more research before recommending apartments. Johnson got the referral after she walked into the agency's office, having spent months couch-surfing after returning to the city from North Carolina with a master's degree in family counseling and nearly two decades of experience in the Army and as a prison guard. She got preference as a veteran.
"I read your article [about Erez] last year and I was dismayed to learn that this was the same individual," said Scott Short, spokesman for the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizen's Council, the HELP subcontractor that handled Johnson's housing. Short said that RBSCC and all other VA contractors running the Supplemental Services for Veteran Families program changed their policies in mid-2016 to ensure that housing case workers research the history of violations at buildings before placing clients.
The NYPD and Brooklyn District Attorney's Office do not officially comment on ongoing investigations, but there is no sign that Erez is being looked at for possible offenses beyond contempt of court.
And finally, though there are several mechanisms by which the city can vacate buildings over safety concerns—the fire department, Buildings Department, and HPD all do this—there is little in place to keep disreputable landlords from continuing to rent apartments. The most aggressive building owners use this imbalance to their advantage, creating extreme code violations to force out otherwise protected tenants. There is a little movement on this issue. An HPD spokeswoman said the agency is working with the City Council to draft legislation that would require building owners to post vacate orders so they remain visible to residents and prospective renters.
In the past, Erez has been shown leniency, according to prosecutors in Miami, where he spends some of his time. In 2013, he was arrested there and charged with six felony counts of grand theft and cashing bogus checks. Prosecutors charged that he wrote checks to himself worth $14,200, drawing money from a woman's account without her permission over the course of a half week. He was ultimately sentenced to diversion, which is like probation, but the charges get thrown out if you complete the program. His case was closed in October 2014, according to prosecutors.
On Twitter, Republican public relations man Arthur Schwartz accused Erez of embezzling $850,000 from a company he once ran. Schwartz did not respond to requests for on-record elaboration.
— Arthur Schwartz (@ArthurSchwartz) September 29, 2016
Erez did not respond to two voicemails left at numbers listed on property records, which redirect to the same phone, nor to an email and a Facebook message. One of his former lawyers did not respond to a request for comment. Long Island attorney Sandra Busell, whose name and address Erez listed on a 2005 mortgage document, wrote in an email, "I have not seen nor represented Mr. Erez for well over 10 years, and I believe my former partner has not seen or worked with him. I have no idea where he is, nor can I, as his former attorney, give you any impressions of him."
Kenneth Fuller, who has done maintenance for Erez at 385 Warwick and other properties offered the most complete view of the elusive man. Fuller claims to have severed ties with Erez.
"I stopped messing with him six months ago," Fuller said in a brief phone conversation. "He’s doing all sorts of foul stuff. He’s a thief."
Fuller claimed that Erez owes him almost $3,000, and "asked me to do some things I wasn't comfortable with."
He continued, "I know everything illegal about this dude. Maybe I should call Housing and tell them about it...He wanted me to put in illegal gas, illegal lights, put people out, break into people’s houses. I told him, 'I’m not breaking into anybody’s house.'"
Fuller said he signed for some of Erez's checks, "like an idiot," then realized, "Who’s going to be the one who ends up in jail? You’ve got me doing all this, and I’m the one whose name is on the checks."
For a while, Fuller explained, he thought he was immune from the landlord's machinations.
"People were always telling me that one day he’s going to do that stuff to me," Fuller said, "and he did."