By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A Brooklyn landlord who threatened a tenant, repeatedly locked her out, and demolished her bathroom has been convicted on five counts of unlawful eviction. The landlord, Sue Simmonds, 58, was convicted in Brooklyn criminal court on January 7. She could face fines and up to one year in jail for each of the five counts. Sentencing is set for February 10.
"I'm happy about this, but I'm also hoping that something really does come of it," says Simmonds's tenant Elizabeth Parks, noting that Simmonds has in the past escaped the law's grasp. "She's harassed me and shown no remorse. It's taken up four years of my life."
Tenants and city officials alike have long been agitated about Simmonds's tenure at 96 Brooklyn Avenue, an 1888 mansion that was years ago subdivided into seven apartments, including one where Simmonds lives. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has been in court with Simmonds since 1996, trying to force her to make repairs; one housing judge held her in criminal contempt for failing to do so. She owes the finance department $86,396.35 in taxes. And the city's corporation counsel filed the criminal case charging that Simmonds tried to force Parks from her apartment.
But worries about Simmonds go beyond her abilities as a landlord, in part because of her history as a day care provider in the mid 1980s, when she and a partner were accused of neglect and sexual abuse of five children in their custody. In 1988, a judge ordered the unlicensed Brooklyn day care facility shut down and forbade Simmonds from ever operating such centers in the city. Medical evaluations found two girls, aged three and four, had vaginal chlamydia and that the four-year-old had gonorrhea of the throat. Since family court proceedings are sealed, it is impossible to report who was responsible. But last year, Simmonds told the Voiceneither she nor her partner perpetrated the abuse. There was no criminal prosecution. Ultimately, the court took the five children away, but it is not clear why.
Neither Simmonds nor her lawyer, Robert Ryba, responded to repeated requests for comment on the Parks case, although Simmonds did talk to the Voicelast February for a story about ongoing troubles at 96 Brooklyn Avenue.
Simmonds's history as a caretaker is troubling considering that, on a 1998 cable TV show, she announced her plan to turn her building into a senior citizens' home. It is unclear if she has ditched that scheme, which would require emptying the building of its current tenants, including some, like Parks, who have lived there for decades.
While Simmonds is locked in legal battles over rent and poor conditions with virtually all her tenants, she has been particularly aggressive with Parks, an airline worker who moved into the building in 1965. By 1991, the building was so deteriorated, Parks bought a condo in Fort Greene, but maintained her Brooklyn Avenue lease. When Simmonds took over, the landlord often changed Parks's lock despite a judge's ruling that Parks retained her status as a tenant at 96 Brooklyn.
On New Year's Eve 1997, Parks saw Simmonds and workers "finagling with my door." She once again could not get in. When she returned on January 12, Parks found her bathtub, toilet, and sink strewn about her kitchen. Simmonds has said that the fixtures were removed because a building inspector called them illegal but, in the bench trial that ended January 7, criminal court judge Richard Allman ruled that the move was an attempt to illegally evict Parks.
Simmonds enjoyed better courtroom luck last fall in a series of cases before housing judge Marc Finkelstein. She convinced him that she had made enough repairs to stave off an HPD move asking Finkelstein to appoint an administrator to run the building and jail Simmonds for contempt, since ordered repairs were either late or ignored. Finkelstein denied HPD's requests, saying that on a September visit to Simmonds's building, he saw that the bulk of the 29 most serious violations had been corrected. But HPD records indicate that as of its last inspection, on November 2419 days after Finkelstein's final rulingthose 29 violations remained, along with 121 less serious ones. Finkelstein did not return calls.
Finkelstein also relied on Simmonds's "representations" that she was applying to the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) for a grant to repair the exterior of her historic property. But LPC chief of staff Terri Rosen Deutsch says that no such funding is imminent because Simmonds "has never supplied the requisite information."
Indeed, in a letter to the landmarks commission, HPD described its protracted efforts to get Simmonds to comply with basic elements of the building code, like providing hot water. ( Simmonds herself acknowledged that tenants had no hot water for two consecutive months in 1998. She has since installed a new boiler.) As of January, tenants began sending their rent to HPD to pay their landlord's fines for not making repairs. The bill is $20,650.