By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Abdus Shahid bought a well-worn three-story building in Bushwick out of foreclosure back in 1997, apparently thinking he could rent the apartments for $800 a month to poor people who get Section 8 subsidies from the government. The problem was, none of the existing tenants were paying much more than $200 for a two-bedroom, and they were protected from eviction and large increases under rent control or stabilization rules.
According to tenants, Shahid tried to triple or quadruple their rent shortly after buying the building. The tenants, according to Shahid, changed the locks on the building's doors. Over the following seven years, Shahid has attempted 23 evictions on various grounds, according to the tenants' attorney, and failed at them allexcept for one.
That complaint alleges that a senior citizen, Altagracia Rosado, broke into an apartment with help from some of the building's inhabitants, and has been squatting there ever since. The trial judge vindicated the tenant, but when a three-judge appellate panel in Brooklyn considered the case in January, it bought the landlord's assertion that tenants conspired to help Rosado move in.
What makes Shahid v. Rosado more than just another case of landlord-tenant hostility is that two of those appellate judges, Michelle Patterson and Joseph Golia, had decided that no break-in occurred when they ruled in a case against another of the tenants last fall. The third judge, Michael Pesce, didn't hear that case.
Pesce, the senior judge of the three, gained notoriety during the 1999 contract talks between the city and transit workers. At the request of the city's attorney, Pesce signed a restraining order prohibiting workers from even speaking in favor of a strike. Union members objected that the order violated their free-speech rights, to no avail.
It's hard to say whether Pesce, who, curiously, used to work as a Legal Aid lawyer, persuaded the other two judges to change their minds. (None of the judges would comment.) Other jurists, dealing with earlier charges against other tenants, found no evidence of a conspiracy to help someone move in. Rosado, the alleged squatter, has postmarked mail showing that she lived in her apartment long before Shahid bought the building.
But the appellate judges did not believe Rosado, who says that she was living in the Cooper Street apartment with her brother's family before Shahid entered the picture, and continued to live there even after she got married. Her husband lived elsewhere while the couple searched for a permanent home. The judges called this matrimonial arrangement "not credible."
"I can't figure out why they did what they did," said attorney Gibb Surette of Brooklyn Legal Services. "They worked very hard at it. They kind of bent over backwards for this finding."
The appellate panel's reversal has dispirited tenants, who get hauled into court every two months either as witnesses or defendants. "After all the fights, you get another judge who comes in and changes everything around," said Felicia Guzman, who has lived in the building for 20 years.
But the experience hasn't been easy for the landlord, either. Shahid wouldn't say whether he knew how much tenants were paying before he bought the building. When he tried to increase rentsthe tenants were not enrolled in the Section 8 program, and there is a long waiting list to get inthe tenants instead deposited money into a special savings account.
Shahid blames much of his misfortune on Carmen Bonilla, an organizer from the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, who is assisting the tenants. "She goes to buildings where the landlord is not Hispanic and most tenants are Hispanic and tells them that you do not pay the owner, you break the building, you give the money to me," Shahid said. Bonilla is Puerto Rican; Shahid is Bangladeshi.
He has hired 16 lawyers, but each one leaves him. "The Brooklyn Legal Services attorney calls my attorney over to the corner and they talk," Shahid said. "After that day, my attorney never comes to court." Now Shahid represents himself.
The eviction proceedings against Rosado have been adjourned while a higher court considers an appeal. By the end of this week, it is expected to decide whether it will hear the case.