In the year 2009, the hit movie Avatar was released in theatres. Despite that bright spot for America, it wasn’t overall a great year for me - I was unemployed, fighting a nasty drinking problem, and suddenly and accidentally, I found myself residing in an apartment building where used condoms littered the hallways and the stench of urine was thick in the rarely-functional elevator. The building’s owner, a cynical man who had made his fortune via loopholes in New York City housing laws, wound up suing my then-boyfriend, whose name was on the lease, for 7 months of unpaid rent.
But how did I get there, and what did I learn from my triumph over one of New York’s most notorious slumlords?
How I ended up living in a slum
A few months after the economy crashed in 2007, I left my secure, well-paying job with the City of New York as an investigator of police misconduct in pursuit of an ill-defined plan to go to law school. To my surprise, the letter I wrote to Oprah failed to raise the necessary tuition money, and suddenly I was jobless, school-less, and aimless. At the time, I was living in a small bedroom in the bottom floor of a brownstone in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, down the hall from a close friend and a weird hippie who hated me. It wasn’t ideal, but it was clean and cheap.
Unfortunately, as New Yorkers already know, housing is like love: usually ephemeral and fleeting. Our lease ended and the landlord proposed a big rent hike for what was, in the end, not so great a place.
My employment situation was “touch and go,” in that I would touch alcohol and go missing from work for days at a time, so I didn’t have a ton of options for a new place.
Fortunately, or so it seemed at the time, my then-boyfriend (let's call him “Mack”) was looking for someone to split the rent in his Prospect Heights two-bedroom. Was our relationship in the best shape? No. Were we young New Yorkers with limited income who didn’t want to sleep under the Manhattan Bridge? Yes. So I moved in.
What makes a slumlord?
At that point, Mack had lived in the apartment for a year or two without any major problems. The place was big, no doubt, and it had two bedrooms, which we needed because our relationship was weird and constantly in flux. Oh, and it was also in a building that would be covered in depth by Gothamist for many months as a standing symbol of New York City’s dysfunctional housing regulations spiralling out of control. But this was in 2009 - more than six years before the building entered the public consciousness due to Gothamist’s intrepid reporting.
Sometime after Mack moved in but before I joined him, 60 Clarkson had been chosen by the City of New York to be a “cluster site.” Here’s how cluster sites work: the city, faced with a homelessness problem that by every statistic gets worse every year, contracts with private landlords to house homeless individuals outside of homeless shelters, in apartments, with the rent paid by the city. Why would any landlord willingly participate in this? Well, the city pays the landlords much more than they would earn by renting to traditional tenants to entice them to participate. And of course, formerly homeless people who don’t pay rent are far less likely than paying tenants to complain about building conditions. Really, it’s a win-win for landlords who are looking to make some quick cash.
You can imagine what this means for housing conditions. First, as noted, the landlords are “blessed” with tenants who are used to living in the street, and now have free apartments – their incentive to complain about mold and mice is low, and what leverage would they have anyway? They have no rent payments to withhold.
When you're used to being homeless and are suddenly living in an apartment building rent-free, you're not likely to complain about horrible living conditions. And that's a dream come true for a seedy, money-hungry landlord.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, homeless shelters are typically staffed with professionals – administrators, social workers, and security officers - who are trained to deal with the drug, alcohol, and mental health issues common in homeless populations. Cluster sites have none of that. Cluster sites have been the setting of some real life horror stories. In one, two young children were killed by a malfunctioning radiator after the landlord ignored requests to fix it for months. A 4-year-old died after eating rat poison left in the hallway of a cluster site. A man stabbed and murdered a mother and two of her kids at a Staten Island motel being used as a cluster site.
Moving (into a homeless shelter) day!
The building was already in the process of being “clustered” by the time I moved in, though Mack and I didn’t know it. We only noticed small changes at first. A fight broke out in the lobby and police came. Sometimes there would be garbage in the hallways. The front door lock broke, letting people come and go as they pleased. Okay, I thought, pouring myself another cheap bourbon, it ain’t the Ritz. But over the weeks and months, the building began literally falling apart around us. Some weeks, police would be called nearly every night to resolve violent disputes. Piles of trash accumulated through the halls and lobby, including used condoms and what we hoped was dog (not human) shit. Puddles of urine were common in the elevator. The building’s trash disposal system involved placing your garbage in a hallway closet – these would not be emptied for days, and would overflow and rot until the whole floor smelled like spoiled milk. The hallway walls were were graffitied, and people smoked and drank in the hallways all night.
Inside our apartment, things weren’t much better, as all our maintenance requests were ignored. The bathroom ceiling collapsed and wasn’t fixed for weeks. Roaches moved in. Mice followed, leaving their droppings everywhere. The radiator spewed steam, and mold grew on some surfaces.
The toilet broke for a time – I began to pee in a soda bottle that I kept in the closet and adjust my shit schedule so I only pooped in public restrooms.
Mack got fed up. To his credit, he was the one who prodded us both into action – I was such a mess that I had more in common with the recently homeless than I did with my boyfriend/roommate. Some drunk nights, it seemed that the condition of the apartment mirrored my mental state, which felt sort of right. Mack just wanted to not live in a slum. He started doing some research, prodded by another long-term tenant who was also frustrated, and discovered – voila! – that we were living in a homeless shelter. In fact, homeless residents were being moved in the middle of the night after coming from a city processing center, so as not to tip off the paying tenants.
Mack’s research also uncovered the identity behind the generic corporation we sent our monthly checks to: a man named Barry Hers (or Barry Hersko or Hershko or Herskowitz, depending on who he was trying to fool), who would later become infamous in tenants-rights circles as a true so-called “slumlord,” a worst-of-the-worst type who made a fortune in taxpayer dollars doing one thing: letting buildings fall apart.
Finding out that your landlord conducts business using many different fake names isn't a good sign.
Barry operated a non-profit through which he contracted with the city for big money to run cluster sites at the buildings he owned. He’d been sued many, many times by tenants in crumbling, rat-infested buildings, and when that happens, he plays hardball, fighting subpoenas with a team of lawyers and cutting off gas and heat to residents, which is absolutely illegal. Some litigants have found the circuit breakers to their apartments literally ripped from the walls. He’s also allegedly illegally jacked up rents on stabilized housing – if there is a tactic included in the Slumlord Handbook, this guy has stood accused of doing it in spades.
It’s hard to undersell how furious we were, particularly when we realized that because the landlord was making way more money (approximately 2.5 times as much, if memory serves – our rent was $1,200, and the city was paying him $3,000) from apartments-turned-homeless-housing than he was from our rent-stabilized apartment, he had every incentive to force us out and move in new, city-funded occupants. We never asked for this – we had been good tenants, paying the rent on time, no big parties (maybe one big party), we recycled. But none of that mattered.
We didn’t contribute enough to Barry’s rapidly fattening wallet, so our maintenance requests and complaints would be ignored until we vacated in disgust, to be replaced by tenants that the city paid him more than twice our rent to house.
How to NOT withhold rent
Fuck that. Mack and I decided to stop paying the rent until and unless major changes were made. We had already filed complaints, both with the building’s management and with the City of New York. Nothing had come of any of them. Essentially, we decided that if this was how it was going to be, well, we would at least get some extra disposable income out of it.
So no, we did not move forward in a responsible-citizen type way. We were angry and petulant. We were also broke, and welcomed the extra money. Which leads to a fundamental mistake we made, although in the end we avoided consequences: we didn’t put the rent in escrow, which New York City law requires tenants to do if they withhold rent for repairs. Escrow? Yeah right. We didn’t even KEEP the rent money, we spent it, on god knows what. I probably bought slightly nicer bourbon for a few months – Mack liked to play Magic the Gathering and maybe got a fancy card or two for his deck. Not putting the rent we withheld in an escrow account was incredibly stupid of us, and had the potential to bite us in the ass later.
Mack informed the landlord by letter that we would no longer be paying rent, absent certain improvements. Time passed, and our apartment and the building containing it remained decrepit and vile.
Every month we received a rent bill with an ever-increasing number.
It made both of us anxious, but this was the course to which we had committed. And at that point, we didn’t have the money to pay even if we got cold feet and regretted our deadbeat tenant strategy. So we were stuck. We were $1,200 richer every month, while also technically in debt – but life is for living, right?
How to win in housing court
Eventually, our little bohemian fantasy hit reality: we were served with Housing Court papers seeking to evict us for non-payment. We knew this day was coming, but it still shook us. I had never been sued before. Technically, I still wasn’t being sued – Mack’s name was the only one on the lease – but you know how it is, sue my lover, sue me. I was certainly on the hook for half of the rent we didn’t pay, and, if Mack were evicted, I would be evicted just the same. I, the future lawyer, was rattled. Mack, on the other hand, prepared for battle.
Full and complete credit goes to him for what happened next. Mack took photos of every disgusting violation we could find, printed pages of proof of complaints we had made, and did research on the cluster site program and when our building started participating. This is the way to handle a housing case – preparation, pure and simple. Be ready to go before that judge. When the day came to go to the courthouse, I was nervous, but also drunk, so it evened out. Mack was absolutely equipped to litigate – it was inspiring. He had his little manila folder of professionally-printed photos and detailed lists clutched tightly to his breast. He was fucking pissed and wanted the judge to understand why.
It had been 7 months since we last paid rent and we owed, with late fees, almost $9,000.
There was a lot on the line here. Particularly since I would guess that Mack and my own bank accounts, when combined, totaled maybe 800 bucks.
We sat in tense silence in the courtroom galley, watching other lawyer-less people incoherently plead their cases to an impatient judge. Suddenly, a heavyset man in a suit entered and stage-whispered Mack’s name. Mack and I looked at each other, and I cocked my head in the direction of the fat lawyer. Mack got up and approached, and the two went outside in the hallway. In a fitting visual metaphor for how this had all transpired so far, I twiddled my thumbs and kind of looked around while Mack took care of it.
Mack came back a few minutes later, extremely excited. “They want to make a deal!” And what a deal it was: Hers’ lawyers were willing to forgive the back rent – all of it – in exchange for a promise by us to move out within 2 months, for which we also would not have to pay. Since we wanted to leave anyway, this was an ideal outcome. Mack took the deal, signed some papers, and that was that.
We moved out of the apartment having paid zero dollars in rent for 9 months.
Mack was left with no legal blemishes on his record. You might wonder why we got off so easy. I did too, but I don’t anymore. The simple answer is that Barry Hers and his lawyers were worried about the huge amount of damning evidence that Mack had gathered. They didn’t want the story of 60 Clarkson to be aired in public, much less before a Housing Court judge.
Hers almost certainly did the right thing by letting us go. He could make the $9,000 we owed back in only three months of cluster site renting our unit. And, probably with a series of settlements similar to our own, he managed to avoid any significant public outcry for another five years. He literally made millions of dollars in that time.
Mack and I broke up a few years later – it had nothing to do with 60 Clarkson and that’s as much as I’ll say about that. I eventually stopped drinking – sober three years as of this writing. De Blasio has promised to end the cluster site program, first giving 2018 as the end date and then moving that up to 2021. Cluster sites continue to operate throughout the city, although 60 Clarkson was removed from the program shortly after a police shooting in one of its apartments. Earlier this month, Hers won his lawsuit to evict the homeless tenants who remained behind at 60 Clarkson. They had been fighting for formal tenants rights and wanted leases. It’s unclear where they will live now. While Hers has apparently been barred from the cluster program, as of 2016 he continues to own at least nine NYC buildings, including some in up-and-coming Bed Stuy neighborhoods, and apparently hasn’t had to relinquish any of the millions of dollars paid to him by New York City.
But he didn’t get our $9,000.
John Teufel is a lawyer and writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnTeufelNYC
For more information on landlord-tenant laws in New York:
- Eviction laws in New York
- Evicting a roommate in New York
- Can you withhold rent for repairs in New York?
- What are a landlord’s responsibilities for repairs in New York?
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