Liam O'Brien was crashing on his friend's couch last winter when he found a Craigslist post for a single room in a five-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights, for $775. He responded quickly, and set up a viewing through the management company. Later that week, a man named Gary, who said he was the building manager, let O'Brien into 80 New York Avenue #5 to look around. Four of the bedrooms appeared lived in, though no one was home. Gary said O'Brien's credit history wouldn't be an issue so long as he could pay an extra month's security. "I took the first thing I could get, and this was it," he told Gothamist.
O'Brien, a 29-year-old ironworker, still hadn't met his future roommates when he went to property owners Mendel and Chananya Gold's Williamsburg office the next day to sign the lease. A copy of that lease shows his name written in pen over what appears to be whiteout. Instead of giving him a set of keys, someone in the office provided the code to a lock box that's clamped to the railing outside the four-story pre-war building. According to residents, the lockbox holds keys that prospective tenants, and sometimes brokers, use to enter their apartments unannounced.
Forty-five minutes after signing his lease O'Brien was cc'd on an e-mail from Parker Leigh, 27, a bartender at Sweet Brooklyn on Nostrand Avenue and one of his new roommates. He scrolled down to an earlier e-mail, from the management company to the four people he'd be living with. "I hope this finds you well," it read. "The empty room in your apartment is no longer empty a very guy [sic] will be moving in in the next few days. I will give him your contact information and I hope there will be peace and we will all be in good terms [sic]."
Leigh's reply was furious. "In addition to yet again having to receive another male stranger into our home which is predominantly women we also have rats running rampant in the apartment now," she wrote, adding, "I wish I had the benefit of knowing what I was being conned into prior to signing this lease."
"That," O'Brien said, "put a lot of doubt in my heart."
More and more, landlords across gentrifying Brooklyn are renting out individual bedrooms. Rents on these listings are often under $1,000—appealing to young singles who can't afford a one-bedroom or studio and don't have a group of people to go in with. Twenty percent of respondents to a Naked Apartments survey conducted this spring indicated that they would consider the setup.
While it's illegal under the Housing Maintenance Code for a for-profit landlord to establish single-room tenancies within a multi-bedroom apartment, landlords can legally group strangers if they all agree to co-sign a lease. Some realtor websites are transparent about the practice: MySpace, Nooklyn and Lofts and Flats all offer roommate matchmaking services intended to help renters find compatible strangers. In the case of 80 New York Avenue, though, tenants say the group lease is a cover for a living arrangement that looks a lot more like an illegal rooming house.
When the Golds bought 80 New York Avenue in December 2014 for $2.3 million, the eight unit building was entirely rent-stabilized. Most of the tenants had lived there for decades, and had seen their rents—which ranged from about $575 to $1,200 per month—increase incrementally. Fast-forward a year and a half, and only three original apartments remain. The other five have been gutted and rebuilt as five bedrooms, many of which are advertised by the room. The Golds are collecting around $4,000 a month for each apartment.
But not without headaches. Two generations of tenants at 80 New York Avenue, each with their own set of grievances, have found common cause against them.
(Scott Heins / Gothamist)
In 1955, then-New York City mayor Robert Wagner prohibited for-profit landlords from creating new single room occupancies. Also known as SROs, these are typically one-room units with locks on their doors around a common kitchen and bathroom. These tiny living spaces proliferated after World War I, but the city began incentivizing their removal in the decades that followed. "No community should equate [SRO] housing with the acceptable living standards of the 1960s," a Wagner aide told reporters in 1965. There are currently 35,000 or fewer SROs in the city, according to a recent estimate from the CUNY Law Review, down from a mid-century peak of 200,000.
"The tenants at 80 New York would be exactly the sort of tenants to live in SROs," said attorney Brian Sullivan of MFY Legal Services, who's representing them pro-bono in a lawsuit they've filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court alleging illegal deregulation and rent overcharges. "You're working but you're not necessarily making a lot of money. You just need no-frills, cheap accommodations. That whole section of the housing market just got demolished, and it creates conditions where landlords can take advantage."
Sullivan believes that landlords see a big upside in renting to this demographic. "They're dealing with a more precarious population that's sort of moving in and out, whose rights are less clear, who are less likely to try to enforce the rent stabilization code as it applies to them," he said.
Landlords "are essentially gutting apartments and turning them into relatively nice places to live," said Bernard Klein, a realtor with the Blooming Sky group. "Then, to increase their rental yield they get a broker to market it by the room."
Gothamist spoke with brokers at numerous other agencies, including Citi Habitats, Apts and Flats, and Naked Apartments, who were all familiar with this practice. "If you go out to a cool restaurant and you have a younger waiter, they all live in these [Brooklyn] neighborhoods," said David Maundrell III, the executive vice president of Brooklyn and Queens developments for Citi Habitats. "And this is how they do it."
"Remember," warned Joe Charet, general manager at Naked Apartments. "When you cosign a lease you are entering a binding contract with roommates. If they fail to hold up their end of the lease, you'll be on the hook for whatever is owed."
The hallway in Leigh and O'Brien's apartment (Emma Whitford / Gothamist).
The newly-renovated apartments at 80 New York Avenue have shiny fixtures, polished floors, and central heat and air. A narrow hallway lined with bedrooms runs off of a living-kitchen space, with a dishwasher.
"The room I was staying in previously had no windows, no ventilation. And I was paying $925 for it," said Scott Kitajima, a 48-year-old valet and bartender who moved into apartment #1 last fall with four strangers. "So to have a room that had a window and central air it was like, you know, get the fuck out of here."
Domenique Gerard, a 21-year-old accounting student at St. Francis College, was also impressed. "My mom didn't want me in any old scummy apartment," she explained.
Gerard was shaken, but not deterred, when she walked into her chosen room to find someone else's bed and suitcases there. She'd paid her deposit a week before, and now all of her things had been moved to a room across the hall, with a much smaller closet. The agent who had shown her the building, who she knew only as Nathan, told her she could move upstairs if she wanted something comparable to the room she'd been booted from.
"I was like, 'I'm in this far and I just want an apartment,'" she recalled.
Though she didn't know it at the time, multiple tenants have since said that the broker is Nathan Smith—an agent who has been accused of Craigslist scams in the past and who's currently under NYPD investigation (they recognized his mugshot in the press). An NYPD detective told Gothamist that Smith has worked for the Golds in the past. The men appear to have an ongoing working relationship. One tenant said Smith approached her on the Golds' behalf in July, and that she'd seen him on trips to their office, where he appears to have a desk. Another saw Smith at 80 New York Avenue in August.
Tenants who responded to Smith's Craigslist ads said they didn't understand that the law prohibited them from having their own individual leases. "We were told that we would pay separately and we were only responsible for our portion of the rent," said Kitajima. "And then they were like, "That's not how the lease is, by signing it you will be responsible for the entire unit."
Klein, the broker, said it's not uncommon for landlords and rental agents to work in concert. "The landlord shoves the contract in your face once you're all settled in," he said. "It's complete collusion."
Adding to their confusion, tenants said, the Golds have violated these contracts by rotating new roommates into their apartments without consultation. "It's almost like whoever they can find to pay, they'll just throw them in the apartment," Gerard said.
For Leigh, it's a constant source of anxiety. "Crown Heights is a pretty safe place, but come on now," she said. "You can't just give out people's house key."
She and O'Brien, the ironworker, get along well enough. Their work schedules are opposite, and they seldom cross paths. Still, Leigh thinks the situation sets an alarming precedent. "You take away the ability to be a judge of character," Leigh added. "It's not an auction. It's an apartment, and I have to live with this person."
Bessie Staton's apartment at 80 New York Avenue, which has avoided the fate of a gut renovation (Scott Heins / Gothamist).
Longtime residents at 80 New York Avenue allege that the Golds harassed them with impunity in an effort to clear the way for young tenants like O'Brien and Leigh.
Last winter, 65-year-old Beverly Thompson, a retired home aide, turned down several buyout offers. One night in February, the building supervisor knocked on her door and told her to disregard any loud banging—a crew was working across the hall.
Soon, she got a frantic call from her cousin, who was standing out in the hallway. "I got to the door and I can't get out," the 65-year-old retired home aide recalled. "A board, what you would use if an apartment was burnt out or abandoned, was up there covering the entire door."
A second lawsuit filed this January states that Thompson was "unlawfully imprisoned" that night. According to the suit, someone from the management company "barred the entry door to plaintiff's apartment while she was inside by screwing or nailing a large piece of wood to the doorway." The fire department responded to aid a tenant who was "locked in." According to Thompson, management later said that it had been a mistake—that the workers had thought her apartment was uninhabited.
Lisa Mathis, 55, and her 76-year-old aunt Bessie Staton—whose spacious apartment has a living room with four windows—also refused buyouts. "They'd come on Sundays, ring the bell, knock on the door," Mathis recalled. "Are you gonna move? Can you move? Can we make a deal?"
Longtime tenants also said that renovations to the building have been disruptive and suspect. The Golds ripped out the building's central boiler, which had provided their heat—a condition of their rent-stabilized leases (altering rent-stabilized tenants' utilities requires state permission; the Division of Housing and Community Renewal is currently investigating). They then installed bulky, individual HVAC systems, which Mathis said produced noxious exhaust and "sounded like an airport." Her lawyer commissioned an independent engineer, who deemed them a health hazard. While new tenants cranked their central heat all winter, the longtime tenants wore jackets and hats inside.
The Department of Buildings issued a partial stop-work order on 80 New York Avenue last December; there was a gas leak around Thanksgiving, and another this May.
"There's poisoned air and there's explosion risk," said attorney Roger Levy, who's representing the longtime tenants on the second suit.
The Golds' attorney Arun Perinbasekar countered in court papers that 80 New York Avenue was "severely" run down when his clients purchased it, justifying extensive renovations. The building had 123 HPD violations in January 2013; that number has since been reduced to 29.
Ben Wolcott (Scott Heins / Gothamist).
The gas leaks drew firefighters and inspectors to 80 New York Avenue, and old and new tenants started talking.
Ben Wolcott, 26, lives with four friends in #8, one of the renovated apartments. He's a union organizer, and all of his roommates were involved in activism on their college campuses. "When long-term residents talk about the issues they are facing, for progressive folks like us it really forces a question," he told us recently. "Are you going to live up to your values or are you not?"
In January the residents of 80 New York Avenue formed a tenant association and, with help from the Crown Heights Tenant Union, retained Sullivan as their attorney. They've rallied outside Brooklyn Supreme Court, and in front of their building. In June, they hung bright green and orange signs in most of the street-facing windows that broadcast an eye-catching message: "S-L-U-M-L-O-R-D: D-O-N-'T R-E-N-T H-E-R-E."
"We have the age difference and all that, I'm dealing with that, but they have been respectful and decent towards me," Thompson said, of her younger neighbors. "We have the understanding that they're being overcharged, and they were realizing some of the things Gold was doing to us to get us out."
The Golds "categorically deny" that 80 New York Avenue is "being run like a boarding house," according to a counter affidavit filed in court. "Prospective tenants contact a broker and all tenants sign leases for a term wherein they are jointly and severally liable for the whole rent."
(Scott Heins / Gothamist)
The Golds rent multiple properties by the room, using more than one rental agent, according to tenants and associates. An agent with Lofts and Flats said that his company has a contract with them, and has filled single rooms at his buildings, including 80 New York Avenue, as recently as this month. (The agent said his company is transparent about tenant liability, and denied any association with Smith, the notorious scammer.) Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) that trace to the Golds' office, 164 Clymer Street in Williamsburg, own 20 Brooklyn buildings and lots, primarily in Crown Heights, Bushwick and Bed-Stuy.
Cyndy Small, a 30-year-old hairdresser, lives in a Gold-owned brownstone at 274 Van Buren Street in Bed-Stuy. Like the tenants at 80 New York Avenue, she responded to one of Smith's Craigslist posts for an individual room. The Golds chopped up each floor of that building in such a way that the residents only have one means of egress, through the basement. "They don't care as long as they get paid," Small said. DOB issued a vacate order in March. Small sued Mendel Gold last month, demanding all of the rent he's collected from her since.
Presented with a detailed list of allegations outlined in this piece, Perinbasekar said that Gold "denies all material allegations made by the tenants." Smith also did not respond to numerous phone calls.
Old and new tenants stand together outside 80 New York Avenue in July (Scott Heins / Gothamist).
The 'slumlord' signs at 80 New York Avenue have gotten under the Golds' skin. In court papers, Perinbasekar writes that the tenants have "chosen to take this petty action to defame and harm the Defendants."
In June, the tenants won a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Golds from engaging in tenant harassment. All of them are being treated like rent stabilized tenants for the duration of the court case, meaning management won't be able to deny them lease renewals.
But prospective tenants are continuing to pass by the signs to view rooms. "People have still stopped me and asked me the number for the landlord," Mathis told us last month. "I was standing on the stoop just Friday and this woman insisted she wanted the number. I said, 'Don't you see the signs?' And she was like, 'Well I'll let my friend figure out for herself.' So I think the housing market is so bad that people are just desperate for someplace to live."
One tenant—who spoke anonymously, fearful that being associated with this piece could hurt his relationship with the Golds—said that while he appreciates the plight of the longtime tenants, his needs are different. He pays on time, the room is affordable, and he likes the neighborhood. Management has even sent him a list of potential roommates to vet. For now, he said, "it works for me."
Leigh, on the other hand, wants to leave 80 New York and find a studio, if she can afford it. But she's staying put until the lawsuit is resolved.
"If I found out that my grandmother's landlord was harassing her—you know what I mean?" she said. "It just doesn't sit well. All winter long I was talking to my mother, like, 'I don't know what to do. There's a woman underneath me and she doesn't have heat and it's three degrees outside.'"
"It's not about kicking those tenants out," she said. "It's about keeping their respect, and getting our own."