By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Somehow, over 20 years ago, Abdur Rahman Farrakhan convinced the world he was a tenant advocate. That's why city housing officials and state courts helped him become the owner or manager, through several nonprofit organizations he heads, of 66 properties in Brooklyn. Since taking charge of the Ocean Hill Brownsville Tenants Association (OHBTA) in the 1980s, he has helped it grow from a small-time administrator of a handful of properties to its current prominencemanaging more wretched buildings than almost anyone else in the borough.
"Under Mr. Farrakhan we had no protection, no services, he doesn't provide us with heat and hot water, and he was getting thousands and thousands of dollars in Section 8 money," says Paulette Forbes, a tenant in Farrakhan's 385-unit Noble Drew Ali Plaza. Tenants there have long been locked in a court battle with him, and a study by the Department of Investigation last October of less than half of his other small buildings revealed 1,300 housing violations
Until he resigned earlier this month, Farrakhan was the president of the Noble Drew Ali Housing Corporation (NDA), which owns the five-building complex in Brownsville. Court documents show that NDA owes over $10 million in unpaid taxes, and DOI found that it also ran up $911,287 in overdue water bills.
Farrakhan's nonprofit paid the city a mere $10 for the plaza in 1996. For the next five years, the buildings leaked and crumbled, and tenants frequently lived without lights, heat, or running water. NDA was paying over a third of its budget to a security firm Farrakhan owned, but tenants were still terrorized by frequent shootings and open drug sales. Forbes, who grew up in the Plaza, says, "When he came in, we didn't have a drug problem. When he came in, all the problems came in."
In 2001, conditions were so awful the New York City Housing Authority cut Section 8 funding for Noble Drew. Nevertheless, the next year, NDA secured government approval to sell the complex to a company Farrakhan helped start. Soon after the sale's approval, mass evictions forced out over 100 residents as part of an effort to make room for families housed under the Department of Homeless Services' controversial scattered-site programs. While a Section 8 tenant pays roughly $1,000 a month (about $30 a day), DHS was paying $127.24 per day for each family.
The tenants, however, did not sit quietly as their homes were taken from them. They brought a lawsuit against Farrakhan that succeeded in reversing the sale's approval, staying evictions, and preventing NDA from renting to anyone not offered a lease. A court ruling last month did allow the city or its agents to go after tenants who'd withheld rent in the protracted war with Farrakhan, but by then, NDA had filed for bankruptcy. The plaza is once again up for sale.
After years of struggle, the tenants, with the help of housing attorney Mimi Rosenberg, finally succeeded in forcing government agencies to address their problems, but tenant grievances in other Farrakhan buildings have only recently come to light. DOI identified conditions that put tenants' lives in danger, including more than 50 obstructed or rusted fire escapes, an emergency stairwell that was missing a step, and a padlocked escape ladder. At 1350 Park Place, the door to the roof had been removed. Inspectors noted this was a "possible entrance for burglars." DOI also reported that Farrakhan entities owe $6.3 million in property taxes and $1.25 million in water bills, on top of all the Noble Drew delinquencies.
Government reports, though, don't convey the visceral experience of Farrakhan's slums. For example, 1920 Union Street is owned by Farrakhan's William L. Chisolm HDFC and managed by the OHBTA, both of which share the same mailing address. On a recent visit by the Voice, entering the building was easythe front door was unlocked. Inside, the overwhelming stench of urine and trash dominated the lobby. The trash compactor was destroyed in a fire three years ago and was never repaired, despite city orders to do so. Instead, hordes of rats, mice, and roaches patrol the building, breeding in the garbage cans left in the halls.
The six-story building's elevator has been malfunctioning since 2001, causing myriad problems for the tenants with physical disabilities. Mona Lisa Little, who has osteoporosis, had to pay someone to carry her mother, who used a wheelchair, up five flights to her apartment. Little says other tenants also have physical disabilities and have struggled with the persistent elevator problems.
Little doesn't suffer quietly, however. She got Larry Jayson of Brooklyn Housing and Family Services to visit and compile a housing-complaint checklist. Jayson says the building was in "horrible shape" with defective electrical outlets and switches, a rotted bathroom floor, holes in the walls, and leaking windows. During repairs to some windows, Little and fellow tenants Zoelayma Dillard and Cheryl Squires saw there was no insulation between the building's outer bricks and inner Sheetrock. "It's ice-cold in here," says Squires, with one of her young children chiming in, "Yep." Without heat and hot water through much of the winter, the family resorted to boiling water and placing the steaming containers around the apartment to provide a little warmth.
At 1719 Sterling Place, OHBTA is as negligent as it is at 1920 Union. "When the hot water is available, it is scalding hot," says Lillian Easom, a resident of the building for more than 20 years. In Easom's bathroom, the paint and plaster have all but fallen away around a leak that blasts hot steam. Easom says the fire department shut the water in the building off for nearly 48 hours to investigate the problem, forcing tenants to buy their own water. Other complaints include mold that coats the building's walls, and broken windows that either cannot be closed or are sealed shut.
Without the help of a dependable landlord, tenants fix their own problems. Erica Mason, who's lived in the building with her 11-year-old son for the past seven years, buys her own boric acid and bleach to deal with vermin. Last winter, Yvonne Miller resorted to heating bricks in her oven on cold days. When Ann Mercier spoke to the managers about her malfunctioning refrigerator, she was told she'd have to replace it herself.
Farrakhan has repeatedly denied mismanaging his properties. "If I'm so bad, why did HPD continue to do business with me?" he says. In fact, HPD, which once did steer buildings his way, now considers him a blight. HPD prompted the DOI probe, and its view of Farrakhan has soured so badly in recent months that Farrakhan sent a letter to his allies in October enlisting help in his battle against what he now calls HPD harassment. Farrakhan tells the Voice that the agency was "only concerned about transferring buildings to their friends" he doesn't mention his own propensity to steer security and other contracts to firms connected to him.
Farrakhan also contends that many of his violations were exaggerated and that the rising prices of fuel, repairs, and supplies have contributed to the deterioration of his buildings. Without giving any specific information, he insists that he has a plan to rehab his properties. His tenants can only hope it's such a good one that he earns his salary at OHBTA of almost $150,000 a year $150,000 a year.