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One of those families is now all that remains in the way of Bailey and Loughery's goal. Evelyn Suarez lives in a first-floor apartment with her boyfriend, their 17-year-old son, and two nieces, ages eight and four. She moved in 28 years ago and raised four children in the apartment. Now, at the age of 51, she's on to the second round of kids: In addition to raising her two nieces, she is the daily babysitter for five grandchildren. "I'm comfortable here," Suarez says. "I don't want to move."
In 28 years, her rent has gone from only $97 a month to a still-astoundingly-low $402. The years of low rent have afforded her the ability to build a comfortable home on her income from babysitting and other off-the-books jobs. And it has also allowed her to stay home since she was diagnosed with colon cancer five years ago. She's in remission now, but remains unemployed. There isn't much privacy in Suarez's home—it's a railroad apartment with three bedrooms that open into one another—but it has a washer and dryer and two flat-screen televisions.
The new owners told Suarez that her lease wouldn't be renewed and then, when she refused to leave, began eviction proceedings and tried to raise her rent to $1,500 a month. According to plans filed with the Department of Buildings, her room is slated to become a storage room for Bailey and Loughrey's bicycles and strollers; the rooms occupied by her son and nieces would become a television and playroom for the couple's two young children.
"To me, they are breaking up a home," Suarez says. "It's just ridiculous. There are empty lots all over—why not go get a lot and build from scratch up? Why mess up a neighborly building where everyone was together and getting along? To me, they don't have a heart. They don't care about nobody. . . . Even if it was the other way around, I wouldn't have done it that way."
The first tenant to receive an eviction notice left without a fight, and Bailey and Loughrey moved into that vacated apartment in early 2007. Another tenant, Hector Gerena Jr., contested his eviction but eventually took a $12,000 buyout and moved in March. "The apartment meant a lot to me, because that's where my father had his dying days," he says. But his lawyer warned him that if he took the case to trial and lost, he would owe his landlords money for their legal fees. Two more families settled recently and agreed to move out in the coming months. Suarez is the last one standing.
With the help of Brent Meltzer, a lawyer at South Brooklyn Legal Services, Suarez has put up a fight for her $402-a-month apartment. They argued that Suarez was protected from eviction because she was disabled due to her bout with colon cancer. Rent regulations bar landlords from displacing disabled or elderly tenants unless they can provide an apartment of equivalent size and (impossibly, in this case) equivalent price in the same neighborhood. The stakes are high: If the court agrees that Suarez is protected as a disabled person, the landlords will either be forced to let her stay, or they will have to find her another three-bedroom apartment in Prospect Heights, where she will pay her current $402.50 rent and they will pay the difference.
The landlords' lawyers asked for an independent physical exam of Suarez, apparently to verify that part of her colon had been removed due to cancer. They also wanted years of medical records, employment records, Social Security documents, and contact information for all medical personnel who saw Suarez as a patient. (The landlord's lawyers eventually dropped the request for the independent exam.)
Meltzer countered with demands for documents to verify that the landlords were, in fact, planning to live in the house permanently and not just clearing out the building in order to sell it for a profit. He asked for five years of the landlords' bank statements and other financial documents, as well as information on the financial agreement between the four owners of the building, and medical evidence to back up Bailey and Loughrey's statement that the evictions were justified because "a doctor had suggested that their son needed more space."
The battle over 533 Bergen, meanwhile, has ignited interest from housing and neighborhood advocates. In August 2007, the Fifth Avenue Committee invited several elected officials to a block party outside the building. "This stuff usually happens in the dead of night, and we wanted to really broadcast it," explains Powell, the tenant organizer. "We wanted to say: 'Hey! This is happening in your neighborhood, and we don't find this socially acceptable.' "
State Senator Velmanette Montgomery and City Councilwoman Letitia James have denounced the landlords. James characterized them as part of an unwelcome trend of new homeowners who have little regard for Brooklyn's close-knit minority communities. "You can describe this generation as having an all-about-me attitude," she says now. "It seems excessive, and I don't understand why it's necessary that this family would want a palatial living arrangement in a neighborhood filled with rent-stabilized and rent-controlled tenants. It smacks of selfishness."