The Hersko family is getting out of the homeless shelter business, but not exactly by choice. Starting about a decade ago, Barry Hersko (a.k.a. Barry Hers, a.k.a. Barry Hershko) began converting apartments in eight apartment buildings he owns into homeless shelter units under the city's then-ballooning cluster-site program. The math was obvious: the buildings, rent-stabilized in central Brooklyn neighborhoods, were often bringing in less than a thousand dollars an apartment, and by the time the Department of Homeless Services pulled out this summer, Hersko, a man named Sam Klein who owns two other buildings, and a nonprofit run at one point by his brother Isaac were bringing in rents around $3,000 a month an apartment, even as residents endured mice, roaches, collapsing ceilings, exposed wires, peeling lead paint, and mold. Residents of Hersko's buildings also say they rarely received the social services that were supposed to hasten their trips out of the shelter system.
Extensive renovation is underway in some apartments at 666 Hancock Street, while in others residents languish without electricity or gas. (Scott Heins/Gothamist)
Evelyn Adams glanced at her phone in the middle of a conversation at her kitchen table late on a recent weekday afternoon. "Sorry, I just wanted to check the time," she said. "Pretty soon I'm going to need to get out the candles."
The afternoon light was fading, and Adams was about to begin her second month without electricity. The gas went two weeks before the power. A hot plate sat on the table, now useless like the rest of the appliances.
Adams and her son comprise one of what Legal Aid supervising attorney Sunny Noh says are 27 families, former shelter residents, who have been living without gas and electricity in Hersko's buildings, some for as long as two months. The problems began shortly after DHS stopped using the buildings as shelters and about 60 residents announced their intent to stay on. The residents are suing, arguing that they should be allowed to remain in their apartments, using vouchers and work income to cover their rent. They claim that records show Hersko illegally hiked their registered rents to near or above the rent stabilization cap to cash in upon their departure.
By 2015, the 428 units at Hersko's properties had shed all but 150 rent-stabilized tenants, according to court papers. State investigators looking into the issue have said in court filings that they "uncovered an elaborate and byzantine organizational structure seemingly designed to harass tenants out of their tenancies and replace these tenants with homeless occupants in order to profiteer under the guise of the charity exemptions under Rent Stabilization Code."
A mother of two, Adams moved into the four-story Barry Hersko building at 666 Hancock Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant with her teenage son Malik in the fall of 2014. A college graduate with a degree in social services, she said she had worked much of her adult life as an executive assistant before a layoff and mounting back, leg, and shoulder problems left her unable to work.
"That's what I get for being a tomboy," she said, wistfully recalling childhood broken bones, incurred playing football and jumping between roofs with her brothers while growing up in Baltimore.
Filing for Social Security early was not enough to hold onto her subsidized apartment in a new building in the Bronx, she said.
Evelyn Adams's bathroom ceiling is discolored from mold and water damage. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
The one-bedroom on Hancock Street was trying from the start. The compact living room had to be cordoned off with a sheet to accommodate Malik. Roaches climbed the walls and mice ran over the stove and counters, no matter how much cleaning Adams did. And when a bathroom ceiling collapsed, exposing a mold colony, she says the super slapped a sheet of drywall over the hole and left it, unpainted, mold unchecked.
There were problems outside the apartment, too. Workers from We Always Care, the Hersko-family-affiliated nonprofit, only met with Adams about once a month, she said, despite a requirement in the company's contract with the city that they check in every two weeks. The building also had no mailboxes, so residents had to trek to the We Always Care office in Prospect Lefferts Gardens to pick up important documents like bills, or correspondence about public assistance or housing vouchers.
Without security to shoo them off, Adams said shelter residents and friends from outside made a habit of gathering in the entryway in groups so large she said she could hear them in her second-floor apartment in the back of the building. Neighbors have complained for decades that the building is a hub of drug activity, and in February, a decade after the murder of two building residents, a man visiting his girlfriend was shot dead in the narrow front walk.
In late June, DHS sent residents of Hersko's shelters letters saying that the agency was working to find them permanent housing, and that they could remain where they are and seek help from Legal Aid, which DHS is funding, or request a transfer to another shelter. Adams opted to stay.
Soon after she began to receive notices that Hersko had not paid his Con Edison bill, she called Legal Aid. Lawyers for the group are helping residents get utilities transferred into their names, and in some cases, get assistance from the city in paying. An HPD spokeswoman said that the agency is currently paying for 12 electrical accounts, and working to restore another dozen electrical service interruptions. Because the utility companies require proof of residency and the former shelter residents are technically squatters, explaining the situation has been a challenge.
So far, Adams has not had luck with the bill transfer process. She said that repeat visits by Con Ed workers and Department of Housing Preservation and Development inspectors in response to the outages in the building have been stymied, because the super allegedly disappears every time. "Suddenly, miraculously, he's nowhere to be found," Adams said.
HPD inspectors did make it into the basement once, and they reported finding a mess of exposed wires and debris in the basement along with five apartments without electricity and six without gas. The agency also discovered meters missing, Noh said, and was planning to replace them, but because inspectors also found a flea infestation in the basement, they had to address that first. Since then, the city, Legal Aid, exterminators, and the utility companies have been unable to get access to the basement.
Is it a one bedroom or a two-bedroom? Whatever the case, it shows that Barry Hersko is capable of fixing up apartments to rent for rates comparable to what the city was paying for him to house homeless people in squalor. (Streeteasy)
And yet, the lights are on outside Adams's apartment, and she can hear the constant whine of power tools where contractors are gut-renovating nine other apartments.
Adams said that a neighbor across the hall left within a week of losing power. "And now, miraculously, the electricity is back on," and renovation is underway, she said.
Some new tenants have already moved in, and five apartments are currently listed online, with descriptions like, "brand new renovated...super spacious, windows and plenty of closet space!" for a $2,499 one-bedroom, with the location advertised as "Stuyvesant Heights." Spruced-up apartments aside, the 41-unit building has 232 building code violations, 37 of them considered immediately hazardous.
Adams would like to leave, and hopes to return to work after a few planned surgeries, but in the short-term, she fears finding herself in even worse conditions if she reenters the shelter system. She has a Living in Communities housing voucher, good for $1,268 for a one-bedroom, but she is trying to finagle a two-bedroom—she doesn't want to recreate her current cramped living situation with Malik, who is now 19.
Besides, many landlords won't take her voucher—"Y'all don't want to deal with the city, I most definitely understand that," Adams said—and those landlords who will are renting apartments in even worse condition than her current one, she said. "One place I wouldn't even go inside," she said. "It literally looked like an abandoned building."
For now, Adams occupies her time with doctor's appointments, apartment hunting, and trips to the library to charge her phone so that she can read and text into the night. She doesn't get much mail these days, unless the delivery person is feeling generous and leaves everyone's on the lobby radiator. Eating takeout is rapidly consuming her fixed income, and her son's appetite is too voracious for canned food and Cup Noodles, she said. Her perennial optimism has been challenged by the city's inability to access the basement and restore the building to working order.
"Everything they're doing is fraudulent," she said of the Hersko family. "That's why they won't let people in that basement. Nobody's done anything to warrant any of this."
250 and 270 Clarkson take up most of a block in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, and contain 199 apartments. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Residents' circumstances vary, but their conditions are similar at buildings across the Hersko empire. One resident of 250 Clarkson Avenue in Prospect Lefferts Gardens who asked to remain anonymous said that she feels like both DHS and Hersko dropped the ball, leaving residents in limbo.
"I understand that this man wants his building back, but both sides didn't do their part," the resident said.
The postwar seven-story, 200-unit complex of 250 and 270 Clarkson is buzzing with activity. During a recent visit, residents watched angrily as a work crew loaded a new stove into an elevator bound for an apartment under renovation. Thirteen apartments have already rented, online real estate listings show, at rates above the past rent-stabilized rents, but below market for the area.
In the one-bedroom apartment that the woman shares with her blind grandfather, adult daughter, and one-year-old grandson, it has been dark for two months. "Now I'm 46 and I'm a squatter," the woman said in the light of the doorway, her grandfather sitting at a table, unmoving before a bowl of food, the toddler inching toward one of the two beds crammed into the living room, hungry for her attention. "Because of someone else's shenanigans."
She has two flashlights for her four-person household, and is trying to limit use because, "The money's going quick. It's ridiculous."
At 553 Hinsdale Street in East New York, the gas for the whole building has been shut off since mid-September, when HPD inspectors found ungrounded, branched wires, and gas lines hanging from the ceiling, having been rerouted without meters or permits. Somehow the building passed its biannual shelter inspection in May.
The recent outages and findings of un-permitted gas and electrical work recall similar outages following DHS's withdrawal from another Hersko building, 60 Clarkson Avenue, in 2015.
Isaac Hersko, one of three Hersko family members being investigated for possible rent-roll fraud and tenant harassment. (Tenant Protection Unit/Kings County Supreme Court)
The fight over the fate of the shelter apartments has prompted a flurry of litigation, as Hersko, his brother Isaac, and son Shloimy have fought subpoenas by the state's Division of Housing and Community Renewal, first allegedly by running and hiding when investigators tried to serve them, and subsequently by refusing to hand over any records other than what is publicly available online and refusing to appear for scheduled depositions.
Nativ Winiarsky, a lawyer for the Herskos, said that they skipped the depositions because the state Tenant Protection Unit "made it very clear that they intended to examine them regarding issues that far exceeded the scope of the court's order." The order, from Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Lawrence Knipel, said simply that the Herskos should turn over "only so much of the subpoena that relates to Plaintiff’s ownership [and] control of [the subject buildings]," and both sides hotly contested the meaning of this.
Tashawn Sutherland, a public school paraprofessional who lost her job in an on-duty slip-and-fall, lives in a mold-, roach-, and mice-ridden studio apartment at 250 Clarkson with her two daughters. (Nathan Tempey/Gotahmist)
Winiarsky called the subpoenas, seeking tax returns, construction receipts, lists of employees, and more, as "inquisitional in nature," and said that a September order by Knipel barring DHCR from taking further steps to enforce the subpoenas shows that the Herskos' objections were right. With the scope of the depositions narrowed, Winiarsky said, the Herskos are scheduled to appear later this month.
In the course of the DHCR case, it has been revealed that We Always Care was actually listed as subleasing from another entity called We Care Inc., which though it claimed to be a charity, had never registered as a charitable organization, and in fact was incorporated by a thrift store and soup kitchen in Suffolk County, which never relinquished the name to the Herskos.
In all, Hersko and We Always Care residents have filed three separate lawsuits to stay as rent-stabilized tenants with rents reduced to the rates from before the shelter arrangement went into effect. The plaintiffs also include long-term rent-stabilized tenants who say that their rents were improperly raised over the last 15 or so years.
Hersko has tried to go on the offensive in court, bringing eviction cases against residents, and suing the city, We Care, and 119 shelter residents for tortious interference, legalese for messing with their money. So far, in the latter case, Hersko has succeeded in getting a judge to order residents to stop running extension cords to their apartments, presumably a response to losing power. Hersko's lawyer wrote that the residents had no right to "steal" electricity from the owner, and claimed that two residents were hosting loud parties and threatening building staff.
60 Clarkson residents Tyquasia Davis, left, and Ravan Huddleston inspect the building's meters and circuit breakers, which they believe landlord Barry Hers tampered with to kill their electricity. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Early this year, Mayor de Blasio announced plans to phase out the use of private apartment buildings for so-called cluster site shelters by 2019. The program, a Giuliani creation embraced by Bloomberg, came to make up close to half of all family shelter housing, encompassing more than 3,000 privately owned apartments at an expense of $125 million a year. The cluster units represented the worst-maintained, least-inspected, and least-serviced shelter housing in the city, and following years of mounting bad publicity, Hersko's operation was an early casualty of the phase-out.
Still, the shelter population continues to creep up, recently past a record 60,000, despite a suite of voucher, legal help, and other programs meant to stem the tide, and the placement of homeless people in hotels seems to be recreating many of the cluster program's problems.
Noh said that the Hersko residents' campaign to stay in their former shelter apartments is "unusual" because it's the first time anyone has challenged the cluster site system this way.
Also, "I have not had homeless families that were sued for millions of dollars before. That has not happened to me."
A radiator pokes through an apparent illegal partition in Tashawn Sutherland's studio apartment, right, and one of several sloppy plaster patches is visible beside to the left of her window. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Noh said that she hopes the litigation creates a standard for preserving rent-stabilized housing as the city continues its move away from cluster sites, particularly where the buildings are located in areas subject to rezoning under Mayor de Blasio's affordable housing plan. The plan calls for building 80,000 new below-market apartments in the next decade, and preserving another 120,000 regulated units. Hersko's buildings are located mostly in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Ditmas Park, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens, which have seen rents and property values skyrocket in recent years.
Of eight family shelters in the East New York zip code, Hersko's 553 Hinsdale is the only one that is registered as rent-stabilized. That building is 11 blocks from the area up to be rezoned first, and could see a residual property value boost as the change goes into effect.
"We think that we’re right on the law and we hope that we are because if we aren’t the affordable housing plan has a whole component of it that wasn’t anticipated," Noh said. "If we can set a precedent with this case, it can be helpful with trying to address those things in the future."
She added that colleagues at Legal Aid who are in the market for an apartment have come across listings at Hersko buildings. "They’ve been lucky enough to recognize the addresses and know it’s not what is advertised. But that’s how it happens, right? We’re the first line of gentrification, low-middle income professionals."
Prospect Lefferts Gardens is seeing a development boom as rents in nearby neighborhoods including Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant rise out of reach of middle class tenants. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
In all, 39 apartments in Hersko's former shelter buildings have been rented to private tenants over the past few months, according to records compiled by Streeteasy, and dozens more are listed or under renovation.
Queried outside 60 Clarkson on the evening of Halloween, a new tenant, a woman in her 20s dressed as Link from Legend of Zelda, said she was renting a studio for $1,800, $300 less than the city had been paying to cover some shelter residents in comparable digs.
"It was the cheapest thing I could find in the neighborhood," said the tenant, who asked that her name not be used because she is not sure how involved she wants to get in the conflict. She explained that she is from New Jersey, graduated from Pratt Institute in 2013, and left her roommates in a nearby apartment to find a place with her boyfriend. The new apartment, she said, is "great so far," as is the super.
She said that she did not find out about the building's dark history and ongoing drama—a woman was stabbed to death in her apartment in May—until after she signed the lease. "I accidentally Googled it while I was online," she said. "I was like, 'Woah!' I'm just going to wait a year and see what happens. I'm keeping an eye open."
Barry Hersko's real estate office showed no signs of life during a recent visit. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Our efforts to find Barry Hersko for comment were unsuccessful. He did not respond to an email seeking comment, or a voicemail left at his real estate office number. The shutter was down at the office, a stone's throw from the elevated D train tracks in Borough Park, on Wednesday morning, and no one answered a buzzer there. Upstairs, workers had removed a third-floor apartment window and were throwing broken-up drywall into a dumpster without the use of a chute.
Nearby, at a tidy brick townhouse Hersko owns, a man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a creased forehead answered the door and said, "You've got the wrong address," then slammed the door shut.
At the We Always Care office in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, a prodigious pile of mail was visible on the reception counter behind a locked iron gate. A ring on the buzzer summoned a man in his 20s or 30s from a side door. When I explained the purpose of my visit, the man said, "No one is here," turned heel, and disappeared back inside.