Home Improvement?

A Brooklyn landlord's past with children should cast doubt on her plans to house seniors

Simmonds says she tore the tub, sink, and toilet out of Parks's apartment because a building inspector told her they were illegal. More important, she says, is the fact that Parks does not regularly live in the building. But in January 1998, Banks ruled that Parks is the apartment's legal occupant but unable to live there "because of the deplorable conditions."

The lawsuit charges alleges that Simmonds has threatened to use force to get Parks to leave. Parks and tenant Gill Gainey recall that Simmonds once told them, "I'm going to kill you, that's the only way I can get you out of the building." Simmonds denies ever making such a threat. The lawsuit also charges that Monty Chambers, a neighbor who says he supports Simmonds's efforts to restore the mansion, hit a guest of Parks's with a cane and threatened, according to a statement by Parks, "to kill both my friend and myself if we did not leave." Chambers, a former housing police officer, says he did "smack" Parks's friend because, he says, the friend had been menacing Simmonds earlier that day.

Simmonds calls Parks, who works for an airline, a "habitual liar," and, using logic reminiscent of her defenses in the child-care case, says tenants and city agencies are plotting to take the building from her. "I don't know why the courts go along with Parks," she says. "I called HPD and now all they want is to take the building away from me."

The 1887 John Truslow Mansion, described as one of Brooklyn's most impressive mansions, is now the home of a bitter landlord-tenant dispute.
Meredith Hener
The 1887 John Truslow Mansion, described as one of Brooklyn's most impressive mansions, is now the home of a bitter landlord-tenant dispute.

While Simmonds focuses her ire on Parks, other tenants— many of whom are working people who have lived there for over a decade— have complaints, primarily the lack of heat and hot water. Since Simmonds bought the building in August 1995, inspection reports show those essentials have been spotty, and frequently nonexistent during the first winter after Simmonds bought the building. Just three weeks ago, heat was off again for nearly a week. Simmonds says she has made repairs and installed a new boiler. HPD's most recent inspection report, from December 1998, shows there are 152 housing code violations, 29 of which are immediate hazards. According to tax records, Simmonds owes $73,378.85 in arrears and interest.

Simmonds says she's looking for investors and that she can't pay bills if tenants don't pay enough rent. Rents range from $150 to $300, as directed by state housing officials. "These people have to start paying some real rent, because $200 a month doesn't pay Brooklyn Union," says Simmonds. When she bought the building, tenants paid for the fuel and utilities, and did maintenance, like painting an exterior wall, in exchange for rent. When Simmonds took over, she sued them as squatters and claimed they had caused damage.

"I'll tell you what; I learned two new words when Ms. Simmonds took over," says tenant Natalie Johnson, who is 65 years old and has lived in the building since 1965. "Squatters and sabotage. Those were two words I'd never even heard before she came here." Simmonds has tried to hike rents to rates she says would help her make repairs, but has been stopped by the state housing agency because landlords cannot unilaterally raise rents. Simmonds maintains the building is not subject to rent laws; it is. Tenants say she wants rents of $750 to $800 a month.

"She wants us to pay that kind of rent, but then we have no heat or hot water," says Gainey, who has lived there 10 years. "It's just another form of harassment. Either through her words, or through neglecting the building, she makes it known that she wants us gone."

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