Not So Artful Dodgers

Inside Politics Doom an Affordable-Housing Plan in Crown Heights

You'd think that the new City Council wouldn't blink before voting to spend $11 million renovating a troubled building in Crown Heights for affordable housing. The funding for the plan was in place. Thirty-five tenants, a majority, signed a petition supporting the project. The local community board gave its blessing too. But thanks to a curious mix of Brooklyn machine politics; racially loaded, pseudo-populist rhetoric; and the efforts of a cadre of a dozen or so tenants and their Napoleonic, politically wired leader, Joyce Stewart, the plan died an abrupt death last week, sending the building back into the limbo in which it has suffered for more than six years.

The building is 320 Sterling Street, once one of the most notorious in all of Brooklyn. It became famous as the site of one of the most sensational acts of justice of the 1980s, when a clever judge sentenced its disreputable slumlord, Morris Gross, also known then as the Reptile Landlord, to the punishment of doing time in an apartment in his own rotting building, providing the basis for the Joe Pesci movie The Super.

Stewart led the tenants in their valiant struggle against Gross. She waged pitched battles to clear out the drug dealers and make the building a decent place to live. When Gross quit paying his taxes and the city took over the property in 1992, she managed the building, which entered the popular tenant interim lease program, in which residents work with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to run their buildings as cooperatives. She beautifully landscaped the area around the front entrance.

From there, everything went downhill. Almost immediately, the tenants splintered into bitter factions that have been warring for a decade. Half the apartments are now empty. Most of the strife centers on Stewart herself and her ironfisted rule over the building until 1995, when HPD revoked the plan to turn the building co-op after a city inspector general's investigation into what officials call Stewart's mismanagement of the building's finances. HPD officials say she paid her son, Brett, then the super, $5700 for four months of traveling expenses, consistently overspent the building's budget, and failed to pay contractors doing renovation work. Stewart responds that if they have evidence, they should bring charges against her, which they have not done.

"Don't put your finger on me, 'cause I'm clean as a baby's butt," she says.

The current plan was developed after years of failed plans for the site, when, in concert with HPD, the Enterprise Foundation, a national affordable-housing group, recruited the nonprofit Community Assisted Tenant Controlled Housing Inc. and MFA Construction to convert the six-story, 113-unit building into 101 units of rent-stabilized affordable housing. In exchange for the team's financing package and know-how, the city would transfer the property to them for $1, as the city always does in these situations.

None of the complaints about Stewart came up meaningfully at a hearing before the council a week before the vote. Then it was all Stewart as Crown Heights community hero, and Stewart, who would have had no role in running the building under the plan, opposed it wholesale, in spite of widespread support among the other tenants. She marched in with some 40 supporters, and for three hours, the group demanded that the renovation plan and sale be scrapped, saying the tenants were not fully notified. They did not quite claim, as some did on the street in Crown Heights, that the building was being sold to Jews for $1 to move in more Jews. (MFA's president, Martin Horwitz, is the Jew in local demonology.) But they did say the building should not be sold to "outsiders" for $1, and especially not to "filthy-rich outsiders." If it were, they said, it would be as bad as the Dred Scott decision, as bad as Jim Crow.

Not mentioned by those testifying—which to the surprise of many included representatives for political heavyweights like Congressman Major Owens, State Assemblyman Clarence Norman, and State Senator Carl Andrews—were Stewart's menacing security guards, who harassed tenants in the building, the unfounded nonpayment-of-rent cases she brought against tenants who disagreed with her, her refusal to fix the apartments of those who did not attend her meetings, or much else that the embattled, mostly West Indian tenants say has happened in their building in the past decade. "All the people that did not side with her became her enemies and lived in hell," remembers Reynold James, a retired welder who is 65 and has lived on the fourth floor for 20 years.

Only after a while did it become clear that many of those speaking for Joyce Stewart to the council about 320 Sterling Street did not actually live at the site. Give the building back to the 320 Sterling Street Tenant Association, they said. But when you call around at 320, you are much more likely to get a response like "There is no tenants' association! I've lived here for 30 years!" And yet, because of the convincing portrait of doing the right thing painted by Stewart and her followers for the council, and the final indictment of the plan by Councilmember Yvette Clarke, who represents the district, the plan was sunk, taking its mix of private, city, and federal tax-credit financing with it.

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