He Says His Landlord Is Harassing Him to Leave a $450-a-Month Apartment

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NEW YORK -- For months, an unknown green liquid was seeping through cracks in the kitchen ceiling in Francis Robert's basement apartment. Music -- sometimes over 100 decibels, about as loud as a jackhammer -- still blares out of an upstairs apartment at all times of the day.
Roberts, 77, who has lived in the Crown Heights building for more than 20 years, is certain the noise and strange green substance are coming from his new neighbor's apartment. Shortly after the new neighbor moved in, squatters began camping in makeshift tents set up near the entrance to his apartment. Chickens roamed the front yard, and trash and drug paraphernalia littered the narrow walkway to his door. Up until last week, two portable toilets clogged with frequent use were set up outside Robert's bedroom windows.
"It's been hell," Roberts said on a recent morning in his cold apartment, where he said the heating hadn't worked until recently since the building changed hands in April. Roberts said the landlord did little to stop the squatters and the noise or make much-needed repairs. And he thinks he knows why: his rare rent-stabilized apartment for $450 a month.
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Crown Heights is one of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the city. The average asking rent in the neighborhood was $3,000 a month in October, according to listing website StreetEasy.
The landlord recently made offers - to move him to a new rent-controlled apartment rent-free while repairs are made. But Roberts, who is retired from an office job at a Manhattan law firm, declined. He is convinced that converting his apartment into a market rent is a plan that would deter him from ever returning.
According to a lawsuit filed this month by Brooklyn Legal Services' tenant rights coalition on Roberts' behalf, the landlord went to great lengths to evict him from the apartment, working with Aaron Akaberi, his new neighbor, in the process. Akaberi, 36, has encouraged drug use and squatting on the property, according to the lawsuit and neighbor affidavits.
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"They took the harassment to another level," said Liam McSweeney, a member of Brooklyn Legal Services working on the case. The suit was first reported by Brownstoner.
Reached by phone, Akaberi said he "absolutely does not" bother Roberts and denied working with the landlord to evict him. He did not respond to questions he attempted to email.
Yehuda Gruenberg, chief executive of the company that owns the property, said in a statement from his attorney that no harassment is taking place on the property. The attorney, Julius Toonkel, said his client believed the abuse Roberts described was likely a "dispute between tenants" and that the landlord had "no control over third parties and other tenants on the premises."
Events have roiled Roberts' block. On November 20, dozens of neighbors and members of the Crown Heights CARE Collective, a community group, stood outside his home in the cold with Roberts to shout "shame" at the landlord and make calls to "stand up, fight back." ”
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A neighbor, Brian Villaroel, said in a court statement that Akaberi threatened residents who tried to remove the tent camp. He said one of Akaberi's associates told him he was there to harass Roberts and called him a racist epithet. Neighbors photographed what appeared to be a noose hanging from a tree outside the building.
Another neighbor, Maria Florez, who lives next door to the building, said in a statement that Akaberi plays music "24/7" and it feels like a "torture method" aimed at Roberts.
More than a decade ago, the building felt very different, said Curen Sutherland-Goddard, who once lived there.
The landlord was Bajan and welcomed a mix of Guyanese, Vincentians and other tenants. Sutherland-Goddard and Roberts are originally from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. “We all felt like family,” she says. "We would all have breakfast together," Sutherland-Goddard said.
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But Sutherland-Goddard and many other tenants, including her daughter Amanda Sutherland, Roberts' niece, left the building as the building changed hands and fell into disrepair.
After years of building demolitions and being forced to share a single bathroom with renters two floors above their unit because their bathroom was vandalized, the Sutherland-Goddards agreed to a $150,000 takeover from a previous landlord of what \Sutherland said she regrets it now. The family gave up their $380-a-month unit and moved to a $2,000 apartment in east New York, with far fewer transit options and pest problems.
Other longtime tenants have also made buyouts or left because of poor conditions, Roberts said.
But Roberts has always made the decision to fight.
He has served as the building's caretaker and has come to love the nearby parks, numerous transit options, and neighborhood bike paths. (He's an avid cyclist.) "I want to make my apartment easy to live in and live in peace," he said. "That's all I want."
He complained to the previous landlord about heating, gas and electrical problems, but the property was sold before most of the problems were resolved. The 1903 building includes his one-bedroom apartment and nine one-bedroom units on the upper floors, most of which are now occupied by short-term students.
With the help of Brooklyn Legal Services, he is now suing a company called 972 Park Place LLC, which bought the four-story brownstone for $1.3 million, a reduced price after years of neglect from previous landlords and a brief court order Managed under a city program for buildings in poor condition.
He is suing the company, its agents and the city's Department of Housing and Housing to correct 240 open violations, more than a quarter of which are considered imminently dangerous: mold, lead-containing paint chips, lack of heating and cooking gas, sewage backflow, and broken doors that have allowed dozens of vagrants to enter the basement and common areas. He is also seeking civil sanctions against the landlord.
Eleven complaints have been filed with police since the new owner bought the property in April, including allegations of burglary, assault and harassment, according to a police department spokesman.
In September, Roberts said he woke from a nap to find a stranger sitting at his computer desk before the man fled. The next day, Akaberi lit a grill in the entryway, which drove smoke into the basement apartment.
Menachem Bukchin, the estate manager, blamed Akaberi for the disruption and said complaints from neighbors were "outside my control".
A spokesman for the Department for Housing Preservation and Development said the agency has "taken legal action against the owner" and repair staff are trying to address the most serious issues. The agency last week issued an eviction order for the basement under Robert's apartment.
Last week, the tents and portable bathrooms were removed, giving Roberts some relief.
But on November 20, the hallway leading to Robert's apartment was pitch black because the electrical wiring was faulty and wires were dangling from a hole in the ceiling. Shoes, cigarettes, and a paperback by J.D. Salingers were scattered on the floor near a gaping hole where a plumbing problem was only partially fixed.
Last week, according to neighbors and a police report, a man was seen trying to jump from a roof in front of Akaberi's window onto the balcony of a neighboring property. He retired to Akaberi's apartment.
On Monday night, despite the installation of new security doors, Roberts was approached by an incoherent man in the hallway outside his apartment.
The landlord's recent offer to move Roberts to a rent-controlled apartment in the neighborhood to better accommodate repairs in his unit still stands, according to attorney Toonkel.
But Roberts isn't interested.
"If I get out of here, I'm not coming back in," he said. "I know that."
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