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Olufemi Falade's tenants were pleased when HPD commissioner Shaun Donovan announced in April that their landlord would go to jail for his stubborn failure to maintain his buildings. If they didn't live in the Flatbush building in front of which the commissioner trumpeted the outcome of months of litigation, they likely saw the news in the many print and TV stories that followed.
But 12 days behind bars have not prompted much remorse. "How can a landlord fix if the tenant does not pay rent? . . . You put that in your newspaper," says Falade, who, in addition to owning at least 16 mostly run-down Brooklyn properties, continues to hold his $74,000-a-year job as a senior engineer for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Declaring that his tenants "all owe one year rent," Falade ends his Voiceinterview with a click. Asked in a second abbreviated phone conversation days later whether that meant it's a lack of money that prevents him from maintaining his buildings, Falade replies, "I'm not saying that. I'm just saying people want something for nothing." As evidenced by the 160-plus evictions Falade has sought in Brooklyn Housing Court since 1988, this belief may be heartfelt, but unfortunately it's particularly applicable to Falade himself.
In Brooklyn Supreme Court, Keyspan has filed suit against Falade, alleging he stole over $24,000 worth of natural gas by installing an illegal leaking bypass connection to circumvent a meter at 1122 New York Avenue. When tenants in Falade's buildings resorted to calling the heating-oil company to get the heat their landlord should provide, the company refused to deliver oil, claiming that Falade hadn't paid his bills. In just four of Falade's propertiesmany of which he has failed to pay taxes onthe city has been forced to provide emergency repairs, heating oil, pest extermination, and cleanup costing over $175,000. Talk about wanting something for nothing. He even applied for paid leave from his state job, albeit unsuccessfully, for his stay with the Department of Corrections.
Several of the Falade properties visited by the Voice can be spotted from a block away thanks to their decrepit statewindows and ironwork missing, stonework crumbling. Some of his buildings, like 49 Halsey Street and 478 Jerome Street, located on otherwise beautiful residential blocks, have been standing vacant for years, a tempting hazard for local children as well as a magnet for squatters, addicts, and people looking for a place to relieve themselves.
In buildings like 712 Nostrand Avenue, residents, many of whom are small children or seniors, go for months at a time without heat or hot water in a building that is little more than a sieve, with holes in the walls, dislodged window frames, and the wraith of a roof door off its hinges. Falade's unwillingness to keep his buildings heatedor even in a state that might make doing so feasibleleads to frozen pipes bursting, flooding, and causing water damage. In buildings like 1140 New York Avenue, all it takes is a storm. "When it rains, it rains inside the building," says Evelyn Rivera, a 20-year resident. "Then we have to mop the water down the stairs and out of the building."
Whether from busted plumbing or a leaky roof, the water inevitably leads to surface and structural damage, from mold and peeling lead paint to severe rot. Jeffrey Felder, who has lived in 579589 Rogers Avenue for decades, cannot forget the time his kitchen floor went out from under his mother. The hole went right down to the apartment below. Sections of rotted-out floor and collapsing ceiling are all too common in Falade properties, in extreme cases making simply arriving or leaving home hazardous for residents. Sometimes, the electricity bill for common areas goes unpaid by Falade, leaving tenants unable to buzz visitors in, forcing them to find their way in the dark.
Tenants say Falade is the runaround king, promising repairs, claiming to have sent workmen who were unable to get in, even giving the runaround to contractors so that they might show up to start a job, only to leave when no payment is forthcoming. When Falade does make repairs, tenants say, the work is usually shoddy.
Even 1186 Nostrand Avenue, the very place where Falade keeps irregular hours in his cluttered storefront office and advertises services such as building-inspection reports and the removal of violations, averages an incredible 16 C-level violations per unit. Falade's behavior is puzzling to some of his tenants, who wonder why, if money is the problem, Falade doesn't just sell another one of his buildings. He recently sold 542 Eastern Parkway for over $1.6 millionfar more than the $200,000 mortgage on it. Yet, in one recent civil case, he was found to be overcharging a tenant in rent-stabilized 1122 New York Avenue.
He operates behind a maze of incorporated entities, plus a mysterious investor. Of the four buildings associated with Falade's recent jail term, two were previously owned by Mauro Maratea, who also holds a mortgage on all four of them, either directly or through his company, Maratano Associates. In 2001 Maratea initiated foreclosure proceedings against Falade on three of the four buildings, claiming that none of the mortgage payments originally agreed upon in the early 1990s had ever been made. Yet Maratea continued to act as a lender to Falade, forwarding Falade many thousands of dollars, suggesting a deeper business relationship.
Visited in their Staten Island home, 88-year-old Maratea and longtime companion Daphne Samuels are most gracious, and have only kind things to say about Falade. Maratea has been active in real estate since he was 16, and ran twin real estate and food businesses for 50 years before undergoing open-heart surgery in 1995. He came to be regarded in the area, in his own words, "like the Godfatherthe good Godfather." Full of aphorisms ("If you give a wrong order to someone, they'll do it right away. If you give them a right one, it'll take forever" or "It's not wrong to be wrong if you're wrong"), Maratea suggests that Falade should quit his DEC job in order to stay on top of managing the properties. Of tenants, Maratea says, "You've got to minimize their ability to destroy. They know what to do not to pay rent."
Along with the lessons he's passed on to Falade, Maratea is also not shy about disclosing some of the fringe benefits of Falade's owning properties once his. It was Maratea who originally showed an 1122 New York Avenue apartment to and negotiated the rent with ex-tenant Sandra Marcano, the plaintiff in the rent overcharge case. When Marcano won the case, she was awarded future income from the building to compensate her for the excess rent she'd paid Olufemi-Nostrand Realty, the Falade company that bought the property from Maratea in 1995. Now that Maratea has foreclosed on Falade and is preparing to retake control of the building, he's also preparing to punish Marcano, who has moved out but is still expecting the repayment called for in the court judgment. Since Marcano's claim is subordinate to Maratea's mortgage, he announces with some satisfaction: "We're gonna knock her out."