On Feb. 11, Helen Robinson stood on the steps outside the four-story Brooklyn brownstone that had been her family’s home for decades and looked out at a crowd of supporters.
For seven years, the Robinson family had fought a running battle with the unscrupulous landlord who was trying to swindle Robinson’s mother out of her deed to the property. He won an eviction order in early 2020, but was unable to execute it when the state declared a moratorium on evictions because of the pandemic. When the moratorium expired on Jan. 15, the landlord moved to throw the family out once and for all, but ran into a wall of opposition he hadn’t expected —longtime neighbors and younger anti-eviction activists banding together to physically defend the home.
“You are creating a violent situation,” Helen Robinson said, as if addressing the landlord. “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.”
Helen’s parents, Ida and Ephraim Robinson, bought the home at 964 Park Place in Crown Heights in 1951. They were the first Black family to own a home on the block.
On Feb. 28, Brooklyn Housing Court Judge Jack Stoller decided to “restore legal possession” of the home to Helen Robinson, her mother and her daughter, Sherease Torain. That phrase can be misleading — what the decision did was put a stay on any eviction until further notice. But it was an early victory in the family’s battle to reclaim full ownership of their home. It gave them time to prepare for an appeal, asking New York State Supreme Court to review their 2017 claims of deed fraud. Oral arguments in that case are scheduled to begin April 12.
Going after an elder
Menachem Gurevitch, the Robinsons’ self-proclaimed landlord, claims that Ida Robinson sold her home in 2015.
The Robinson-Torain family says the sale was a scam was concocted by lawyers Andre Soleil and Yariv Katz, who were not authorized to represent Ida Robinson, and that their matriarch did not receive any money for her home. The deed was transferred to Gurevitch’s control five days after being transferred out of Ida Robinson’s possession. The Indypendent has reviewed legal documents related to the “sale” and found anomalies in what is purported to be Ida Robinson’s signature on the 2015 deed transfer from her to 964 Park Place LLC.
Also in 2015, Soleil was accused of stealing $500,000 from a nonprofit. He has since been disbarred and fled the country, as confirmed by the Robinsons legal team.
“I went to the Department of Records, the Sheriff’s Department. I went to the DA, to HPD — you name it, I did what they say. Politicians. I even spoke to an FBI field agent in 2017.”
Torain says she’s been trying to reclaim the deed for years, but that she found little recourse until Feb. 14, when Gurevitch’s “goon squad” of about 20 local yeshiva students tried to force their way in, and dozens of housing activists barred their entry. A gaggle of police officers, including a captain and a lawyer, watched passively, allowing Gurevitch to act on an eviction order had expired months before.
“As long as you have money to pay, you can play, and this is what the game is all about and it’s a shame on this system!” said Torain. “For the police to stand and watch, watch that behavior — I dream about that daily. They stand by and watch that abuse of women.”
A community rallies
Gurevitch has been trying to evict the Robinson-Torain family since he obtained the deed. The family says they never signed a lease and that he never provided heat or hot water, which the State requires of landlords. On Feb. 11, less than three weeks after the moratorium ended, he sent goons over to ransack the house and lock the family out while Torain was in the hospital. They pulled out a sink and shattered the family photos hanging in the living room. In another instance, three men sought to tear through the roof to gain access to the home.
With the help of Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU) and Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED), the women were able to re-enter and maintain control of their home. They have not left their property unoccupied since.
On Feb. 11, a round-the-clock “stoop watch” began — “a defensive formation where we watch for landlord activity to keep each other and the family at 964 Park Place safe,” said Brooklyn Eviction Defense.
Over the next few weeks, 964 Park Place evolved into a community hub. Stoop watchers organized classes on topics such as eviction defense and door-knocking as a means of organizing, screened movies and even hosted a crocheting event. One evening, Helen Robinson, who is a holistic health expert, led a meditation on communal healing. Community members made food for the stoop watch. The watchers would go on runs to the store if one of the family members needed something.
The eviction defenders also led speak outs and know-your-rights canvasses in the neighborhood, where they encountered other Black homeowners who have been victims of deed theft.
Volunteers dragged themselves out of bed in the wee hours to appear for their stoop shifts at a time when the nights were still frigid. “A lot of us are here whenever we’re not at work or sleeping,” said Xavier, a member of BED. The group says around 200 people signed up to take a shift monitoring the stoop, and dozens of them have become BED members.
Torain is a member of CHTU, a union of tenant associations from over 40 buildings. It closely supported her in resisting the eviction.
The Robinson-Torain family also saw an outpouring of solidarity from their neighbors. At one event, a woman approached Helen, asking if she remembered that they used to play together, and said she couldn’t believe what was happening to one of the mainstays of the block. Hal, the man who lives next door, invited stoop-watchers into his home. The neighbors directly to the right, too have stood by the family throughout the debacle.
“The people came out! If it weren’t for the people, we wouldn’t still be in our home,” Helen Robinson said at a press conference announcing Judge Stoller’s decision in her favor.
During the hearing that resulted in Judge Stoller’s Feb. 28 decision, Gurevitch’s lawyer David Stern argued evicting the family would uphold the rule of law and the sanctity of private property at a time of increasing resistance to evictions.
“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,” she said.
Gurevitch himself is no stranger to crime. His umbrella company, Mandy Management, is a notorious slumlord in New Haven, Connecticut, where it’s based. He’s bought up whole blocks in New Haven, Connecticut, where he’s a notorious slumlord. Through Mandy and its affiliates, Gurevitch has spent roughly $125 million acquiring 444 properties containing 1,307 different apartments in New Haven in the past four years alone, reported the New Haven Independent in January. The landlord has been found guilty on multiple occasions in landlord-tenant court In New Haven. Most recently, he pled guilty to 21 housing code violations including rat infestations and fire code violations.
Deed fraud & its impact on families
The only deed transfer from Ida Robinson to 964 Park Place LLC — which was created by Soleil, Katz and their cronies solely for that property, a common practice in real estate — is not notarized and appears to be a draft version, with scribblings all over it. Robinson’s printed name looks completely different in the two places it appears on the document.
But if a victim of deed fraud has the documents to prove a deed or signature has been forged, they can only do so through the court system, which requires hiring a lawyer. “Usually people who fall victim of deed theft are cash-poor and house-rich… so affording a lawyer can be an insurmountable task,” says Adam Birnbaum, an attorney who recently began representing the Robinson-Torain family.
Those victims are almost always Black and Latino, and commonly older, says Birnbaum. The perpetrators usually seek out someone with financial troubles who bought a house decades ago that is now worth hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, which is common in gentrifying neighborhoods, and the inflating real-estate values raise owners’ property taxes. They market their offer as if it’s a refinancing project, as was the case with Soleil and Katz, and have the homeowner unknowingly sign away their property-ownership rights. But before the supposed new owner can use the property for themselves, they have to evict the old occupants.
“Since this case went public, many families have called me to share similar stories,” Birnbaum told The Indy.
Deed fraud is not impossible to avoid. Most wealthy countries use electronic land registration systems that are nearly foolproof. New York, too, in 1906 passed a law creating a land registration program. But it was little used, as realty groups were able to pressure and convince people not to partake in the program, says Birnbaum. And if someone did want to take advantage of it, they had to open a case with the New York Supreme Court first to prove that there were no competing claims to the property. Then, after years of nonuse, the law was abolished around 20 years ago. Property ownership in the United States is still determined by paper deeds, which are relatively easy to falsify and file.
At a speak out against deed fraud on the sidewalk in front of 964 Park Pl. during the stoop watch, Janina Davis told a small crowd that her home was stolen out from under her, too. “It took me a while to speak about it because I was so ashamed,” she said. “But I went to a neighborhood awareness meeting about deed theft in 2019, and the church was packed with people.” When another neighbor asked Davis if she got her house back, she said “no,” eyes welling with tears.
Davis was in a legal battle with M&M Developer LLC for 10 years. When her case was finally set to be heard by the New York Supreme Court, the developers filed for bankruptcy, nullifying the case. “They pit family members against each other. They rob your home of all its equity,” she told The Indy. “There needs to be a class-action lawsuit around this.” In 2019, Attorney General Letitia James launched the Protect Our Homes Initiative, which collected information from victims of deed theft under the premise of helping them combat it. But after submitting her documents and receiving a case number, Davis never heard back from the state. “They continue to drop the ball because this is Black and brown people. And I do think misogyny was involved in my case, too.”
The arc of history
“I can’t even believe how everything has changed. Our house went from being the house that everyone came to, to being a sad place. It used to be a very happy place.” Torain told The Indy.
The family’s odyssey to New York began when Torain’s great-grandfather, Ephram Robinson’s father, was killed by his bosses while working on a chain gang in the South. His wife was told to leave town by sundown, so she took her kids and went to Washington, D.C. Ephram sought greater freedom in New York City after returning from World War I and “seeing that white men were hanging Black men in their service uniforms from their poles to remind Black men that it doesn’t matter if you go and fight in the war, you’re still a n***** when you come back to America,” Torain recalled. Ephram’s wife, Ida Robinson, came from a family of farmers in Monroe, Louisiana that in 1970 received an award from the State of Louisiana for cultivating some of the best farmed land in the state.
Ida Robinson used to garden in the backyard of 964 Park Pl., which was full of friends and family on sunny days. The home has hosted several family weddings. They were close enough with their neighbors that when Torain was a child, she minded any adult on her block who kept her in line. “I always had a bunch of girlfriends, and my house was the sleepover house,” she says. Her family was highly involved in the block association until it was dismantled about 10 years ago.
But the seven-year battle to regain ownership of their home has put immense strain on the family. Torain’s brother, Ali, who also lived there with his partner and their baby, moved out of state.
“His child’s mother couldn’t handle the stress,” she said. “Having that level of chronic stress for years, it changes you.”
Correction note: an earlier version of this article stated that Ida Robinson came from a family of sharecroppers.
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