A Perfect Storm

It's Residents Out, Homeless Families in at Troubled Complex

New York's exploding homeless crisis is being played out in dramatic fashion this month at a long-ailing housing complex in east Brooklyn—where scores of people are being evicted, only to be replaced by homeless families referred by the city.

The drama is taking place at Noble Drew Ali Plaza, a five-building, 385-unit housing project in Brooklyn's Brownsville section that—even before current events—could have served as a textbook example of the city's housing failures.

Opened in 1972 as new, affordable apartments for area residents, the project quickly slipped beneath the bureaucracy's radar and began toppling into disrepair. Elevators went out; heat and hot water were scanty. Problems escalated, residents say, as a stream of new managers came and went. In 1996, nonprofit legal services lawyers staged a rescue attempt, suing the owners in federal court. One owner went to jail and the complex ownership was transferred to Abdur Farrakhan, the head of Ocean Hill Brownsville Tenants Association, a local nonprofit housing management group. But the switch did nothing to change conditions. "Very little work was done," said a spokesman for HUD, the federal housing agency.

Paulette Forbes, tenant leader at Noble Drew Ali Plaza, where cash-rich deals to house the homeless are pushing out longtime residents
photo: Keith Bedford
Paulette Forbes, tenant leader at Noble Drew Ali Plaza, where cash-rich deals to house the homeless are pushing out longtime residents

Last fall, city monitors for the federal Section 8 program, which provides funds for low-income housing, took the unprecedented step of yanking subsidies from the project.

"Our inspectors found 40 abandoned cars on the grounds, numerous elevators out of order, many stairwells unlit, and vacant unsecured apartments," said Howard Marder, a spokesman for the city's Housing Authority, which oversees the Section 8 program.

The move left the complex in fiscal limbo. In February, however, the lightbulb went on. Landlord Farrakhan brought in a new firm called Eshel Management, and together they hatched a new plan premised on winning emergency shelter payments from the city by housing the homeless.

In step one, managers filed about 150 eviction notices against residents. Some tenants were accused of nonpayment, others were labeled squatters. People who had lived at the complex their entire lives received eviction notices addressed to "John Doe" and "Jane Doe." At least 60 tenants were quickly forced out. Meanwhile, Farrakhan and the new managers persuaded city officials to reinstate the Section 8 subsidies, arguing that millions of dollars in repairs were being undertaken.

In step two, the managers reached out to a for-profit real estate operator named David Somerstein, who leases apartments for use as emergency shelter for the homeless.

Somerstein, who did not return calls, is one of several entrepreneurs who are capitalizing on the crisis as the city's Department of Homeless Services struggles to cope with an explosion in the numbers of homeless people. With more than 37,000 people seeking shelter, the agency is paying up to $95 a night for emergency housing, well above the $600 to $900 monthly rents at the complex.

Somerstein, in turn, asked his consultant, former deputy city commissioner Kenneth Murphy, to find a not-for-profit organization that runs homeless shelters. Murphy brought in Women In Need, a veteran organization that operates seven other facilities around the city.

Both Murphy and Women In Need officials said they were unaware of evictions at Noble Drew Ali.

"Whether or not there were wholesale evictions, I don't know," said Murphy, who handled homeless issues under the Dinkins administration. "When I saw it there were large numbers of vacant apartments."

Bonnie Stone, director of Women In Need, said she now knows that evictions are being contested in court, but had no indication that any families were wrongly put out to make way for the homeless.

"We are only going into empty, renovated apartments," said Stone. "We are not interested in seeing people lose their rights."

Like it or not, however, the pressure to house homeless families seems to have combined with a decade of management failures at Noble Drew Ali to create a kind of perfect storm. Low-income tenants were forced out one door at the complex, while homeless families, referred by the city officials, came in another.

When the first repairs in decades were begun at the complex, residents watched in frustration as they saw the bulk of them performed at apartments for the homeless.

"They are fixing things up, but for the people they bring in, not for us," said Paulette Forbes, a resident of the complex since it opened.

"The only difference between [the homeless] and us is they're already in the streets; we're not there yet but they're trying," said Forbes, a telephone company employee who is president of a newly formed tenants association.

It is only a matter of time, said Forbes, before one of her evicted former neighbors winds up back at Noble Drew again, this time as a homeless family, courtesy of the city.

"Without a doubt some of those who were evicted wound up at the city's EAU [the Emergency Assistance Unit, where homeless families report]," said Mimi Rosenberg, a Legal Aid Society attorney who is representing most of the remaining tenants in Housing Court as they battle eviction notices.

"What's going on at Noble Drew Ali is unconscionable," said Rosenberg. "They are creating more homelessness by evicting legitimate tenants."

Legal Aid attorneys expect to file suit in Supreme Court in Brooklyn this week, seeking an injunction to bar further evictions and to prevent a pending sale of the complex to an entity that includes Somerstein, Farrakhan, and the management company.

Steve Banks, the Legal Aid attorney who has championed efforts to compel the city to house the homeless, is not directly involved in the Noble Drew Ali fight but said it highlights the city's housing problems.

"Nobody should be removed from their homes to make way for someone who has already lost theirs," said Banks. "I think the city agrees with us that people should not be displaced. But all of these things are symptomatic of the fact that for years the city has had no real housing policy and the current administration has inherited that legacy."

Part of that legacy is the sustained failure by authorities to address Noble Drew Ali's long-standing ills.

"Last year we had no heat, no hot water," said Laura Smith, 84, a retired machinist who was one of the project's original tenants. "I have this big rat hole under my sink, leaks coming down from I don't know where. The ceiling fell in. Then they told me I was behind in my rent and took me to court," she said.

Catherine Coley, who has lived in the complex for 18 years, said she desperately tried to find another apartment to get away from conditions that led her to stay up at night with a baseball bat to keep rats away from her three children. "I had three brokers looking for another place for me and my kids; there's nothing out there for people like me," she said. In June, she said, she was served with eviction papers by Eshel Management, the firm brought in by Farrakhan to run the project.

Farrakhan, who is currently running for state assembly in east Brooklyn as a candidate of both the Green and Republican parties, said his efforts to turn around the project were undone by uncooperative tenants, politicians, and bureaucrats.

"We were in a quandary," he said. "We were fighting every day to keep the drugs out and there was vandalism every time we fixed the elevator."

He said the decision to bring in the homeless was spurred by the potential revenue stream made available by city emergency payments, and a desire to help. "We wanted to do something to help the homeless," he said.

Tenants scoff at those claims. "We'd go to the management office to see about something, there'd be no one there," said Bernadine Evans, who has lived at Noble Drew Ali since 1974. As she stood in the complex's barren asphalt courtyard last week, an ambulance arrived to aid a homeless woman who had collapsed. Nearby, a handful of contractors unloaded tools for work on the homeless family units. "See there," Evans said, pointing to one of the homeless apartments. "Those apartments are gorgeous; they got lights in the ceiling, fire extinguishers in the halls. We're here 30 years; we don't have that. Sometimes we don't have lights in the hall."

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