Charity Begins—And Ends—At Home

Why Did Two Social-Service Groups Back a Landlord Against a Tenant?

Of course Michael P.'s landlord wants him out. His rent is about $700 for a large one-bedroom on East 105th Street, half a block from Central Park in a made-over tenement where renovated apartments fetch two and three times as much. Michael has become, in his own words, a "speed bump" in his landlord's path to fortune.

More surprising is who is willing to accommodate the landlord: the very agencies that are supposed to be on Michael's side. Michael is mentally ill, a fact that brought him to two of the city's most prominent social-service groups, the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health and the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, a multimillion-dollar charity whose staff and board of directors are loaded with former city commissioners, influential rabbis, and philanthropists. Instead of helping, Michael and his attorney say, they have abandoned him.

"They've just left me sitting here in the cold," says Michael, a deep-voiced but soft-spoken 52-year-old man who stands a lanky six foot three. "Just let me live like a decent human being. The way it is, I might as well live in Central Park"

Michael in his formerly windowless bathroom
photo: Michael Sofronski
Michael in his formerly windowless bathroom

Indeed, Michael's home life is not unlike camping. His apartment has been without gas for months since his landlord, real estate owner and financier Mark Scharfman, stopped midway in renovating Michael's apartment. To eat, he must either spend his limited income in restaurants or rely on government-issued applesauce and 29-ounce tins of pork. His electricity has been off since June. He sometimes runs an extension cord to a hallway light socket one floor below, but often the super pulls the plug.

For more than a month, Michael endured a staggering stench that permeated his apartment; he had no tub or toilet after firefighters broke down his bathroom to battle a blaze that had spread from the roof. Scharfman only recently repaired the fixtures after the city's housing agency added them to a long list of building-wide problems that are the subject of a suit it has brought against him. He did not replace the bathroom window firefighters axed out until a judge ordered him on April 6 to do it that day. Meanwhile, Scharfman is suing to evict Michael for staying on after his lease expired.

"Michael became a commodity, but now he's lost his currency," says Michael Gregorek, an attorney assigned to represent Michael in a city petition to appoint a permanent guardian; the eviction is on hold until that case can be heard on April 16. "When he moved to East Harlem in 1995, the landlord couldn't get tenants, and charities had state money to pay his rent. Now white people want to pay good money to live there, and that's it for this guy."

William Rapfogel, executive director of the Council on Jewish Poverty, says Michael's situation is not so simple. "This is an individual who probably needs a more institutional setting," says Rapfogel. "He's not ready to be independent." A multilayered real estate deal adds complication. Rather than have Michael rent an apartment directly, the Postgraduate Center referred him to Rapfogel's group, which in turn rented an apartment and sublet it to Michael, paying most of his rent with city and state mental-health funds.

But because groups like the council have little tenant protection, a landlord can refuse to renew leases as they expire—which is what Scharfman has done with four of the five council apartments that were in the building he bought in 1998. Rapfogel says three clients have been relocated, but that Michael refuses to move. He says Michael's large dog has scared off counselors and repair workers, though Michael notes that workers did get access to tear out his gas lines. Rapfogel says the council has no further obligation to Michael, adding that it paid his rent for months after the lease expired, and was told to stop by the state Office of Mental Health. OMH did not return calls.

George Nashak, a vice president at the Postgraduate Center, would not comment, citing confidentiality. Scharfman's response to a battery of questions about Michael's situation: "I have no comments at all."

No doubt Michael's dilemma is marked by bureaucratic and legalistic matters. But even the most passing glance at his circumstances, and his efforts to overcome them—the stench of his apartment coupled with bottles of disinfectant, the dimness that pervades it even when his one lamp is rigged for electricity, the canned food and huge bag of hard candies that seem to sustain him—raise a question: How could things go so wrong under the supervision of two agencies, the attention of at least three city offices, and the intervention of several courts? How Michael, once a poor but promising child, came to this impasse is disturbing. How those who were supposed to help instead let him down is a disgrace.

In his youth, Michael seemed to be on an upward trajectory. He grew up in the Alfred E. Smith housing project on the Lower East Side, attended Catholic elementary and high schools, and graduated with a business degree from New York University in 1972—an academic voyage that included study as a French-language exchange student in Lausanne, Switzerland. "I was the first black guy these people had ever seen," Michael recalls, smiling. "It was really weird."

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