Charity Begins—And Ends—At Home

Michael in his formerly windowless bathroom
photo: Michael Sofronski

Of course Michael P.'s landlord wants him out. His rent is about $700 for a large one-bedroom on East 105th Street, half a block from Central Park in a made-over tenement where renovated apartments fetch two and three times as much. Michael has become, in his own words, a "speed bump" in his landlord's path to fortune.

More surprising is who is willing to accommodate the landlord: the very agencies that are supposed to be on Michael's side. Michael is mentally ill, a fact that brought him to two of the city's most prominent social-service groups, the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health and the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, a multimillion-dollar charity whose staff and board of directors are loaded with former city commissioners, influential rabbis, and philanthropists. Instead of helping, Michael and his attorney say, they have abandoned him.

"They've just left me sitting here in the cold," says Michael, a deep-voiced but soft-spoken 52-year-old man who stands a lanky six foot three. "Just let me live like a decent human being. The way it is, I might as well live in Central Park"

Indeed, Michael's home life is not unlike camping. His apartment has been without gas for months since his landlord, real estate owner and financier Mark Scharfman, stopped midway in renovating Michael's apartment. To eat, he must either spend his limited income in restaurants or rely on government-issued applesauce and 29-ounce tins of pork. His electricity has been off since June. He sometimes runs an extension cord to a hallway light socket one floor below, but often the super pulls the plug.

For more than a month, Michael endured a staggering stench that permeated his apartment; he had no tub or toilet after firefighters broke down his bathroom to battle a blaze that had spread from the roof. Scharfman only recently repaired the fixtures after the city's housing agency added them to a long list of building-wide problems that are the subject of a suit it has brought against him. He did not replace the bathroom window firefighters axed out until a judge ordered him on April 6 to do it that day. Meanwhile, Scharfman is suing to evict Michael for staying on after his lease expired.

"Michael became a commodity, but now he's lost his currency," says Michael Gregorek, an attorney assigned to represent Michael in a city petition to appoint a permanent guardian; the eviction is on hold until that case can be heard on April 16. "When he moved to East Harlem in 1995, the landlord couldn't get tenants, and charities had state money to pay his rent. Now white people want to pay good money to live there, and that's it for this guy."

William Rapfogel, executive director of the Council on Jewish Poverty, says Michael's situation is not so simple. "This is an individual who probably needs a more institutional setting," says Rapfogel. "He's not ready to be independent." A multilayered real estate deal adds complication. Rather than have Michael rent an apartment directly, the Postgraduate Center referred him to Rapfogel's group, which in turn rented an apartment and sublet it to Michael, paying most of his rent with city and state mental-health funds.

But because groups like the council have little tenant protection, a landlord can refuse to renew leases as they expire—which is what Scharfman has done with four of the five council apartments that were in the building he bought in 1998. Rapfogel says three clients have been relocated, but that Michael refuses to move. He says Michael's large dog has scared off counselors and repair workers, though Michael notes that workers did get access to tear out his gas lines. Rapfogel says the council has no further obligation to Michael, adding that it paid his rent for months after the lease expired, and was told to stop by the state Office of Mental Health. OMH did not return calls.

George Nashak, a vice president at the Postgraduate Center, would not comment, citing confidentiality. Scharfman's response to a battery of questions about Michael's situation: "I have no comments at all."

No doubt Michael's dilemma is marked by bureaucratic and legalistic matters. But even the most passing glance at his circumstances, and his efforts to overcome them—the stench of his apartment coupled with bottles of disinfectant, the dimness that pervades it even when his one lamp is rigged for electricity, the canned food and huge bag of hard candies that seem to sustain him—raise a question: How could things go so wrong under the supervision of two agencies, the attention of at least three city offices, and the intervention of several courts? How Michael, once a poor but promising child, came to this impasse is disturbing. How those who were supposed to help instead let him down is a disgrace.

In his youth, Michael seemed to be on an upward trajectory. He grew up in the Alfred E. Smith housing project on the Lower East Side, attended Catholic elementary and high schools, and graduated with a business degree from New York University in 1972—an academic voyage that included study as a French-language exchange student in Lausanne, Switzerland. "I was the first black guy these people had ever seen," Michael recalls, smiling. "It was really weird."

For a few years, he worked in various businesses, but by the late 1980s he was beset by what he calls "a series of events that led to a slump." In 1989, he lost his Chelsea apartment when the building went co-op. He moved to a single-room-occupancy hotel. A girlfriend was killed by a car while walking in Brooklyn. A later love affair went bad. On May 16, 1994, he was hit by a car while crossing East Houston Street and injured his spine. He won a $15,000 settlement, but collected only $4000, much of which went to a lawyer. Michael says he became clinically depressed. A friend sent him to the Postgraduate Center.

Postgraduate records show that although the council signed the lease for Michael in October 1994, he had still not moved in by November. He was worried about a Con Ed notice that hallway lights would be turned off because the landlord owed a huge bill. He was troubled by a ladder that ran from the vacant apartment he was to occupy to the crack-vial-littered roof. "Even then the apartment was in bad shape, but it was like, move in or lose it," explains Michael. By January 1995, he'd agreed to move in.

That August, the council sent the landlord a list of problems in all five apartments it had rented, ranging from ceiling leaks to broken windows to a lack of gas in one apartment for 35 days. In 1998, Scharfman bought the building, and workers began renovations. On April 9, 1999, Michael tripped on the stoop, which was being rebuilt; he says the fall put him into a two-week coma. He is suing Scharfman and the construction company. When the council's lease for Michael's apartment expired in October 1999, Scharfman did not renew it.

Last May, Scharfman sued the council because Michael had not moved. The council agreed to give up the apartment, and at the request of the city's Protective Services for Adults office (PSA), a housing court judge appointed Michael a temporary guardian for Michael. In October, another judge ruled in favor of Scharfman, but postponed Michael's eviction until November. The city staved off the eviction with a petition to have a permanent guardian appointed. It is in that case that State Supreme Court Judge Diane Lebedeff appointed Gregorek to represent Michael.

In legal papers, officials detail the decrepitude of Michael's apartment and the recalcitrance of the landlord. City attorney Theoni Kosefas wrote that "it has been reported that there are many exposed, loose, disconnected wires in Michael's apartment and the landlord has refused to repair the wires." Robert Spain, a psychiatrist who evaluated Michael, noted that "the building appeared to have had major renovations, but [Michael's] apartment was a wreck." He noted that it was "dirty, cluttered, and disorganized, which [Michael] blamed on the above problems."

Gregorek complains that the pressure is on Michael, not on the landlord or the social-service agencies, even though in 1999, the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) sued Scharfman for hundreds of violations building-wide. In January 2000, the landlord agreed to fix 319 violations, but failed to complete the work. This February, HPD asked a judge to hold him in contempt of court. That matter is pending.

HPD spokesperson Carol Abrams says the department "has been quite diligent on this case." Gregorek disagrees, noting that Scharfman got an extension even after Michael had complied with his part of a court agreement by giving workers access to his apartment for five specific days in March.

Gregorek is also mystified by the lack of response to his many letters to Michael's temporary guardian, to Scharfman's attorneys, to PSA, and to the state attorney general's office. He wonders if the power of the Council on Jewish Poverty, where the vice presidents are machers like former HPD commissioner Abe Biderman and Toby Nussbaum, (wife of Clinton White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum), has tempered the city's resolve. And he is convinced that racism has shaped this case, noting that the one council tenant allowed to stay is white.

"I speak to people all the time who say, 'Well, what did Michael do wrong?' " Gregorek laments. "That kind of crap drives me nuts."

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