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In early November, Amy Neustein called the Voice with a message about her brother, an Orthodox Jew who owns a number of buildings in Inwood and Washington Heights.
"My brother," she said, "is a slumlord."
Neustein said she was overcome with worry: The tenants in her brother's building were living with rodents, lead paint, and no heat or hot water. The situation there had become so dire, she explained, that local politicians had declared their support for the tenants, who are largely Spanish-speaking, and her brother, Joshua Neustein, had become a notorious figure in the local Spanish-language press.
Neustein also explained that she has long disliked her brother; a few years ago, she changed her last name so that it would be pronounced Neu-stine instead of Neu-steen to distance herself from him. Vouching for her credibility, Neustein also pointed out that she's an author and an activist-at 51, she's a veteran of many crusades.
She first came to prominence some 20 years ago over a lengthy custody battle for her young daughter, who she claimed had been sexually abused by her ex-husband. After the court disagreed and awarded the father custody, Neustein became a public figure and a symbol for other women who felt they were harmed by the family court system. She went on to co-write From Madness to Mutiny: Why Mothers Are Running From the Family Courts-and What Can Be Done About It, which was published in 2005 by the Northeastern University Press, and is now editing Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities and Child Sex Scandals, due out in March by Brandeis University Press.
Despite the time that has passed since her custody case was in court, Neustein's experience is still cited by women's groups as a prime example of bias against women in the family courts. One of her biggest supporters was Governor David Paterson, then a state senator, who became known as an advocate for women and held several hearings on Neustein's behalf. Neustein has built a career in part on talking about her experiences and advocating for other cases involving women fighting for custody of their children after accusations of child sex abuse.
"My schedule is crazy," Neustein wrote in an e-mail, explaining that she was in the final stages of editing Tempest. But she wanted to talk about her brother.
She said she had compelling information about what Josh Neustein was putting his tenants through. And, yes, she acknowledged that it was unusual for a sister to accuse her own brother of something so damaging-and especially to do so by going to the press.
But Amy Neustein has long had a complicated relationship with the media. That became plain as we learned about her brother's buildings-and plenty more about Amy Neustein herself.
The part about her brother wasn't hard to check out. Josh Neustein is a notorious landlord, particularly among working-class Dominicans.
In May, the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario published a front-page story titled "Hispano Contra Goliat" ("Hispanic Versus Goliath"), reporting that a contractor said he was owed thousands of dollars and six years of back pay by Neustein. Another news story referred to a lawsuit filed by tenants, which pointed out that the city had been forced to make 11 emergency repairs to 78 Post Avenue, a Section 8 building owned by Neustein, over the past two and a half years.
When we arrived at 78 Post Avenue in early November, the locks on the doors were broken, so that any visitor could stroll in (at the time, Neustein was under court order to replace the doors).
Manuela Ceballos, 44, has lived in the building for 20 years, calls everyone mi amor, and speaks with a thick Dominican accent. She works for the Board of Education, where she spends her days fielding parental complaints.
Ceballos swung open the door to her first-floor apartment, where she lives with her three teenage children. The apartment was a small oasis in the grim surroundings: Full curtains hung over the windows, hiding metal bars; in the living room, plush armchairs surrounded a large flat-screen TV. Ceballos's daughter, Perla, was filling out boarding-school applications in the bedroom she shares with two teenage brothers. Perla wants to go to boarding school because she's sick of the sound of gunshots in the courtyard behind her window.
"This place is clean because I live here," Ceballos said, explaining that she'd replaced every tile, light fixture, cabinet, and sink by hand when she moved from an upstairs apartment a few years ago. "Before, there were drug dealers here."
Tenants at 78 Post Avenue describe the security of the building as precarious and say the maintenance is terrible. Many say that as recently as a few months ago, drug dealers would come from the Bronx to conduct business in the building-and when the courtyard got too cold, they simply moved in to the central lobby. In some apartments, pipes and bathroom walls are leaking water. A couple of days a month, tenants resort to taking showers with water boiled on the kitchen stove. A year before, tenants got together and painted the faded facade of the building at their own expense.
In addition to the lawsuit by Ceballos and 39 other tenants, and the case outlined in the El Diario story, Neustein has been involved in numerous personal injury lawsuits: He had to pay $750,000 to a worker who fractured his knee when he slipped on dog urine on the stairs, and another $527,000 to a tenant who slipped on construction equipment. Eleven years ago, Neustein settled a lead poisoning case involving two children in the building who suffered developmental problems after inhaling paint flakes.