In an old Manhattan tenement apartment, it's not unusual to find the tub in the kitchen or the toilet down the hall. But when one Brooklyn tenant came home to find her bathroom fixtures ripped from the walls and dumped in the middle of the kitchen of her one-bedroom apartment within an 1888 mansion, it was not just unusual. It was criminal.
At least that's what the city's corporation counsel is alleging in a lawsuit likely to go to trial next month. The suit charges Brooklyn landlord Sue Simmonds already in criminal contempt for ignoring orders from a housing court judge with 12 criminal counts of unlawful eviction for trying to oust a tenant from a landmarked Crown Heights building Simmonds bought in 1995. And while not part of that lawsuit, Simmonds's own plan for 96 Brooklyn Avenue is alarming: she wants to turn it into a home for seniors living with overcrowded extended families despite the fact that officials closed down a child-care center Simmonds ran in the 1980s, accusing her and her business partner of child neglect and sex abuse.
The prospect of Simmonds, 58, in charge of yet another vulnerable population appalls sources who know her history. "There are some things in one's life you don't forget," says one former city official who, more than a decade after he and two dozen police officers raided the Crown Heights day-care center, still remembers the scene. "She was a nut job. There's no other way to put it."
In 1988, a judge ordered the shutdown of an unlicensed child-care facility that Simmonds and Thomas Davies ran at 839 St. Mark's Avenue; the pair was permanently enjoined from running child-care centers in the city. According to court records, city inspectors found that the school, where about 75 children attended and 13 lived with Simmonds and Davies, was overcrowded and lacked proper permits, fire equipment, medical reports, or staff credentials, among other things.
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The closure prompted a family court proceeding in which Simmonds and Davies were charged with neglecting and sexually abusing five children. Medical evaluations found, among other things, that two girls, aged three and four, had vaginal chlamydia and that the four-year-old had gonorrhea of the throat. Family court records are sealed, so it is impossible to determine if the court found that Simmonds or Davies themselves had perpetrated the abuse. Simmonds told the Voice they did not, and claims the court never determined that they had. Davies would not talk to the Voice directly but through Simmonds denied the accusations. There was no criminal prosecution. In the end, the family court took the children away, but it is not clear why. Two years later, Simmonds lost guardianship of two two-year-old girls because she falsely told judges that she was the girls' aunt.
Simmonds says the abuse charges were contrived and trumped-up because she is a critic of the child-welfare system. "They wanted to destroy me, and how you can destroy a black woman is through her children," says Simmonds. "It was lies."
In 1988, Simmonds filed a federal suit arguing that closing the center and removing the children was a conspiracy wrought by the government and the Catholic church because she and Davies are black and because the nuns who owned 839 St. Mark's decided they could make more money selling the building to another party. "I wrote an article against the Catholics in the Daily Challenge, and I accused them of warehousing our babies and destroying the black family," says Simmonds. But in 1989, a federal judge rejected Simmonds's arguments, calling them "devoid of merit."
In court papers, Simmonds argued that she and Davies were extremely religious and observed the laws of God, not society. Indeed, in a 1983 letter to a state child-welfare official who was concerned about a particular child in Simmonds's care, she wrote, "We are in compliance with any law because God is the Judge."
Simmonds has had plenty of experiences with mortal judges. In 1986, a family court judge jailed her when she refused to tell him where she and Davies were hiding the children who had been living on St. Marks Avenue. In December 1997, Brooklyn housing court judge Gerald Banks found Simmonds in civil and criminal contempt for failing to do repairs she had promised to make a year earlier at 96 Brooklyn Avenue; Banks fined Simmonds $1250 and has kept open the option of jailing her. A second housing judge, Marc Finkelstein, is contemplating a request from the city's department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to put a court-appointed administrator in charge of the building. And on March 8, a criminal court judge is scheduled to consider whether the pending illegal eviction case should go forward or whether, as Simmonds alleges, the city has denied her right to a speedy trial.
The city charges in that case that Simmonds harassed, threatened, and repeatedly locked out tenant Elizabeth Parks in an effort to get her to leave the landmarked building, which was built in 1888 as a mansion for Brooklyn merchant John Truslow. The Queen Annestyle building was subdivided into seven apartments earlier this century. Parks moved there in 1965, but by 1991 conditions had so deteriorated, she could not live in the apartment anymore and stayed in a condo she owned in Fort Greene. Even so, she kept her lease and returned several times a week to the apartment. In January 1998, she found her bathroom fixtures piled up in the kitchen.
Simmonds says she tore the tub, sink, and toilet out of Parks's apartment because a building inspector told her they were illegal. More important, she says, is the fact that Parks does not regularly live in the building. But in January 1998, Banks ruled that Parks is the apartment's legal occupant but unable to live there "because of the deplorable conditions."
The lawsuit charges alleges that Simmonds has threatened to use force to get Parks to leave. Parks and tenant Gill Gainey recall that Simmonds once told them, "I'm going to kill you, that's the only way I can get you out of the building." Simmonds denies ever making such a threat. The lawsuit also charges that Monty Chambers, a neighbor who says he supports Simmonds's efforts to restore the mansion, hit a guest of Parks's with a cane and threatened, according to a statement by Parks, "to kill both my friend and myself if we did not leave." Chambers, a former housing police officer, says he did "smack" Parks's friend because, he says, the friend had been menacing Simmonds earlier that day.
Simmonds calls Parks, who works for an airline, a "habitual liar," and, using logic reminiscent of her defenses in the child-care case, says tenants and city agencies are plotting to take the building from her. "I don't know why the courts go along with Parks," she says. "I called HPD and now all they want is to take the building away from me."
While Simmonds focuses her ire on Parks, other tenants many of whom are working people who have lived there for over a decade have complaints, primarily the lack of heat and hot water. Since Simmonds bought the building in August 1995, inspection reports show those essentials have been spotty, and frequently nonexistent during the first winter after Simmonds bought the building. Just three weeks ago, heat was off again for nearly a week. Simmonds says she has made repairs and installed a new boiler. HPD's most recent inspection report, from December 1998, shows there are 152 housing code violations, 29 of which are immediate hazards. According to tax records, Simmonds owes $73,378.85 in arrears and interest.
Simmonds says she's looking for investors and that she can't pay bills if tenants don't pay enough rent. Rents range from $150 to $300, as directed by state housing officials. "These people have to start paying some real rent, because $200 a month doesn't pay Brooklyn Union," says Simmonds. When she bought the building, tenants paid for the fuel and utilities, and did maintenance, like painting an exterior wall, in exchange for rent. When Simmonds took over, she sued them as squatters and claimed they had caused damage.
"I'll tell you what; I learned two new words when Ms. Simmonds took over," says tenant Natalie Johnson, who is 65 years old and has lived in the building since 1965. "Squatters and sabotage. Those were two words I'd never even heard before she came here." Simmonds has tried to hike rents to rates she says would help her make repairs, but has been stopped by the state housing agency because landlords cannot unilaterally raise rents. Simmonds maintains the building is not subject to rent laws; it is. Tenants say she wants rents of $750 to $800 a month.
"She wants us to pay that kind of rent, but then we have no heat or hot water," says Gainey, who has lived there 10 years. "It's just another form of harassment. Either through her words, or through neglecting the building, she makes it known that she wants us gone."
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