The Heat Is On

Brooklyn landlord faces charges of broiling tenants — again

It has been a year and a month since Lena Hurt died in her sweltering Crown Heights apartment, but her landlord is still blaming the deceased senior for troubles he faces today.

"I'm assuming the problem is that there was a ringleader living in the house and that they are her followers," 78-year-old landlord Absolum Hunter told a housing court judge on August 11, referring to tenant complaints about conditions at 1836 Park Place. "The leader passed away, and these tenants are trying to carry on."

Hunter identified the "ringleader" as Hurt, and said that a current suit against him by the city's department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is being waged on behalf of tenants who are following in Hurt's footsteps. Last year, Hunter was a focus of a probe by investigators in the Brooklyn District Attorney examining whether Hurt's death was caused by the excessive heat in her apartment. Housing officials measured the temperature in Hurt's apartment at 104 degrees in early July 1998; Hurt was found dead in her apartment on July 21 of that year.

HPD and tenants alleged that Hunter or his workers turned up the boiler in the summer to drive tenants out. Hunter denied it, saying Hurt raised the temperature by running hot water. Asked on the stand earlier this month if he is responsible for Hurt's death, Hunter replied, "No way."

The medical examiner lists heart disease as the cause of Hurt's death, and the D.A.'s office says its probe is over. But just two months ago, a state housing agency found Hunter guilty of harassing tenants in part by allowing heat in the summer. Hunter's attorney, John James, says the landlord is considering an appeal.

Now Hunter faces charges that he ran the heat again this summer in his building at 1836 Park Place, next to the property where Hurt died. On July 20 of this year, housing investigators found steaming radiators and temperatures of 110 degrees in apartments and hallways and water coming from the spigot at a scalding 188 degrees. "There was heat in June early in the morning, when he [Hunter] came to the boiler," testified tenant Loretta Sams. Hunter admitted in court that there are problems with the boiler, resulting from clogging during refueling, but denied that he ever ran it in the summer. In June, fire officials had to turn off the boiler at 1836 Park Place themselves; during the summer when Hurt died, fire and police shut off the boiler in that building at least three times.

Ironically, the current HPD case against Hunter stems from a lack of heat during winter of 1998­1999. Sams testified that her landlord sometimes provided adequate heat and hot water, but at other times, she was forced to run the stove to keep warm and went weeks without hot water. In February, Hunter agreed to a court order to supply heat, but HPD attorney Abbott Gorin argued that Hunter failed to do that and should be held in contempt of court. James said his client at least made efforts to comply. Judge Ava Alterman is scheduled to take up the case again on September 22.

Meanwhile, Hunter has other problems: He faces foreclosure on his buildings, including the one he lives in at 1871 Park Place, and according to the Department of Finance he owes real estate taxes totaling $101,990. In light of Hunter's financial duress, James says HPD could best help tenants by taking over the buildings as a receiver, or vacating them as unsafe. On June 9, the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) socked Hunter with a $10,000 fine, concluding that Hunter "harassed . . . tenants by engaging in a course of conduct in an attempt to cause them to vacate their apartments . . . ," in part by providing excessive heat in the summer, failing to provide heat in the winter, and failing to make building repairs.

Hunter himself admitted last year that he would like the tenants to leave. "I'm not trying to force [the tenants] out, but I want them out because they don't pay rent . . . " Hunter told NBC reporter John Noel in mid June 1998, a month before Hurt died. The landlord reiterated his complaint about nonpaying tenants in Alterman's court earlier this month, saying he collects no rent from them. But public assistance pays the biggest proportion of the rent for most of Hunter's tenants, and while some may not pay their remaining share, Hunter does collect the bulk of the rent from the government. In addition, Hunter said he gets $900 a month in rent from a grocery store.

Hunter testified that he cannot afford to sue nonpaying tenants. But he did find the funds to sue Hurt in May 1998 for $12,800— four months of back rent. Hurt died in the midst of that litigation, and had herself begun other proceedings against Hunter, including the state harassment charge that resulted in the recent fine, and a 1997 housing suit that landed Hunter a $57,625 fine. The animosity between the two was clear; last year, Hunter described Hurt to the Voice this way: "She was the devil."

According to the medical examiner, no one claimed Hurt's body. She was buried in a potter's field on Hart's Island.

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