For related coverage, read “At Brooklyn Housing Court, the Eviction Flood Gates Open.”
“You are creating a violent situation. This is causing arthritis, pain, struggle, cancer, mentally, emotionally and physically — This has destroyed my family. We are rising no matter what. My mother is 98 years old. She’s still in her body. This is her home. They can come — they’re organized, but we’re organized, too,” said 68-year-old Helen Robinson on Feb. 11 on the steps of the home she was born in. The four-story brownstone at 964 Park Place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn was bought by her parents, Ida and Ephraim Robinson, in 1951. They were the first Black family to own a home on the block.
Robinson was speaking to a crowd of community members and housing activists that had been protecting her home from a hostile takeover at the behest of her family’s self-proclaimed landlord.
On Monday, Feb. 28 Brooklyn Housing Court Judge Jack Stoller decided to “restore legal possession” of the home to Robinson, her mother and her daughter Sherease Torain. This puts a stay on any eviction until further notice. It’s an early step in the battle to fully reclaim ownership of their home that gives the family time to appeal to the New York Supreme Court to review the family’s 2017 claims of deed fraud.
In 2015, Menachem Gurevitch, owner of Netz Capital Management, Netz Group and Mandy Management, swindled then-92-year-old Ida Robinson out of the deed to her home, says her family. The lawyer who represented Ida Robinson for the deed transaction, André Soleil, has since been disbarred for deed fraud. The family says they never asked him to represent their matriarch.
Since the transfer of the deed to his possession, Gurevitch has tried multiple times to evict the family from the home. They say they never signed a lease and that he never supplied heat or hot water, required of landlords by New York State law. The landlord’s harassment subsided with the application of New York’s COVID-19-induced eviction moratorium. Just weeks after the moratorium ended, Gurevitch sent goons over on several occasions to try and retake the house by force. This included one instance in which about 20 young men affiliated with a nearby yeshiva tried to force their way into the home and remove the family. On another occasion, three men sought to gain access to the home by tearing through the roof.
With the help of Crown Heights Tenant Union and Brooklyn Eviction Defense, the women were able to maintain control of their home. Since then, they have not left the premises of their property for fear of the house being ransacked again — or worse.
A communal center where eviction defenders hold political education classes, screen movies and organize neighborhood canvasses to identify other Black homeowners who have been victims of deed theft.
A round-the-clock “stoop watch” has occurred — “a defensive formation where we watch for landlord activity to keep each other and the family at 964 Park Place safe,” says Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED). It is also a space where “we build community and participate in each other’s political education,” they say.
Over the past couple weeks, 964 Park Place has evolved into a community center of sorts. Stoop watchers have organized classes on topics such as eviction defense and door-knocking as a means of organizing, screened movies and even hosted a crocheting event. Both Brooklyn Eviction Defense and Crown Heights Tenants Union have held routine meetings at the residence. They have also led speak outs and know-your-rights canvasses in the neighborhood. During those canvasses, organizers have encountered other Black homeowners who have been victims of deed theft.
Back at the house one evening, Helen Robinson, who is a holistic health expert and wellness coach, led a meditation on communal healing.
“A lot of us are here whenever we’re not at work or sleeping,” said Xavier, a member of BED.
Since the beginning of the eviction defense at 964 Park Pl., around 175 people have signed up to take a shift monitoring the stoop. About 40 of those volunteers have become new members of BED. The group is made up of tenants who assist other tenants facing eviction, harassment and housing insecurity. This can look like filing an application with the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) that puts a 12-month stay on an eviction, physically showing up to someone’s stoop to keep landlords out or repairing damage to homes ransacked by landlords.
Sherease Torain is a member of Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU), a union of tenant associations that includes the residents of over 40 buildings working to cement their rights as tenants. The group has also closely supported Torain in resisting the eviction.
In addition to the support of tenant groups, the Robinson family has seen an outpouring of solidarity from their neighbors. “The people came out! if it weren’t for the people, we wouldn’t still be in our home,” said Queen Afua at a press conference after Monday’s announcement that she can’t legally be evicted from her home while she fights to reclaim the deed.
‘A Society of the Street’
During Thursday’s hearing before Judge Stoller, Gurevitch’s lawyer David Stern argued evicting the Robinson family from its home would uphold the rule of law and the sanctity of private property at a time of increasing resistance to evictions following the expiration of the state’s COVID moratorium.
“Either we’re going to be a society of laws or a society of the street,” Stern said.
For Sarah Lazur of CHTU, the growing resistance is a blessing not a curse.
“This is a moment where homeowners and tenants are talking with each other more, are grasping to a greater extent the way their struggles are connected,” Lazur said.
The stoop watch at 964 Park Pl. will continue indefinitely. “The family wants it to continue! They have been traumatized by the relentless violence of the deed thieves and witnessed the police allow it to happen,” Nicolás Vargas of Brooklyn Eviction Defense told The Indy. “The threat of retaliation from the wannabe slumlord is still there, and we cannot count on the state to keep us safe.”
Note: The Robinsons are just some of thousands of New Yorkers facing evictions and landlord harassment right now. If you are facing eviction, there might be a simple recourse to take in order to keep you in your home. Don’t self-evict! Find your local tenant’s association or if you live in Brooklyn, contact BED via brooklynevictiondefense.org and CHTU via crownheightstenantunion.org. You can also call Met Council on Housing’s tenant hotline at 212-979-0611 or call 311 and ask for the “Tenant Helpline” to access your right to counsel.
Please support independent media today! Now celebrating its 22nd year publishing, The Indypendent is still standing but it’s not easy. Make a recurring or one-time donation today or subscribe to our monthly print edition and get every copy sent straight to your home.