You’d think that the new City Council wouldn’t blink before voting to spend $11 million renovating a troubled building in Crown Heights for affordable housing. The funding for the plan was in place. Thirty-five tenants, a majority, signed a petition supporting the project. The local community board gave its blessing too. But thanks to a curious mix of Brooklyn machine politics; racially loaded, pseudo-populist rhetoric; and the efforts of a cadre of a dozen or so tenants and their Napoleonic, politically wired leader, Joyce Stewart, the plan died an abrupt death last week, sending the building back into the limbo in which it has suffered for more than six years.
The building is 320 Sterling Street, once one of the most notorious in all of Brooklyn. It became famous as the site of one of the most sensational acts of justice of the 1980s, when a clever judge sentenced its disreputable slumlord, Morris Gross, also known then as the Reptile Landlord, to the punishment of doing time in an apartment in his own rotting building, providing the basis for the Joe Pesci movie The Super.
Stewart led the tenants in their valiant struggle against Gross. She waged pitched battles to clear out the drug dealers and make the building a decent place to live. When Gross quit paying his taxes and the city took over the property in 1992, she managed the building, which entered the popular tenant interim lease program, in which residents work with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to run their buildings as cooperatives. She beautifully landscaped the area around the front entrance.
From there, everything went downhill. Almost immediately, the tenants splintered into bitter factions that have been warring for a decade. Half the apartments are now empty. Most of the strife centers on Stewart herself and her ironfisted rule over the building until 1995, when HPD revoked the plan to turn the building co-op after a city inspector general’s investigation into what officials call Stewart’s mismanagement of the building’s finances. HPD officials say she paid her son, Brett, then the super, $5700 for four months of traveling expenses, consistently overspent the building’s budget, and failed to pay contractors doing renovation work. Stewart responds that if they have evidence, they should bring charges against her, which they have not done.
“Don’t put your finger on me, ’cause I’m clean as a baby’s butt,” she says.
The current plan was developed after years of failed plans for the site, when, in concert with HPD, the Enterprise Foundation, a national affordable-housing group, recruited the nonprofit Community Assisted Tenant Controlled Housing Inc. and MFA Construction to convert the six-story, 113-unit building into 101 units of rent-stabilized affordable housing. In exchange for the team’s financing package and know-how, the city would transfer the property to them for $1, as the city always does in these situations.
None of the complaints about Stewart came up meaningfully at a hearing before the council a week before the vote. Then it was all Stewart as Crown Heights community hero, and Stewart, who would have had no role in running the building under the plan, opposed it wholesale, in spite of widespread support among the other tenants. She marched in with some 40 supporters, and for three hours, the group demanded that the renovation plan and sale be scrapped, saying the tenants were not fully notified. They did not quite claim, as some did on the street in Crown Heights, that the building was being sold to Jews for $1 to move in more Jews. (MFA’s president, Martin Horwitz, is the Jew in local demonology.) But they did say the building should not be sold to “outsiders” for $1, and especially not to “filthy-rich outsiders.” If it were, they said, it would be as bad as the Dred Scott decision, as bad as Jim Crow.
Not mentioned by those testifying—which to the surprise of many included representatives for political heavyweights like Congressman Major Owens, State Assemblyman Clarence Norman, and State Senator Carl Andrews—were Stewart’s menacing security guards, who harassed tenants in the building, the unfounded nonpayment-of-rent cases she brought against tenants who disagreed with her, her refusal to fix the apartments of those who did not attend her meetings, or much else that the embattled, mostly West Indian tenants say has happened in their building in the past decade. “All the people that did not side with her became her enemies and lived in hell,” remembers Reynold James, a retired welder who is 65 and has lived on the fourth floor for 20 years.
Only after a while did it become clear that many of those speaking for Joyce Stewart to the council about 320 Sterling Street did not actually live at the site. Give the building back to the 320 Sterling Street Tenant Association, they said. But when you call around at 320, you are much more likely to get a response like “There is no tenants’ association! I’ve lived here for 30 years!” And yet, because of the convincing portrait of doing the right thing painted by Stewart and her followers for the council, and the final indictment of the plan by Councilmember Yvette Clarke, who represents the district, the plan was sunk, taking its mix of private, city, and federal tax-credit financing with it.
After the vote, well-wishers patted Stewart on the back. “It’s God’s will,” she said, beaming. “God is in the mix.”
“I was never involved in any wrongdoing, except perhaps being a little stern about what the next generation wants,” Stewart says. “That’s what I stand for. If that upsets people, I’m sorry.”
At 320 Sterling Street, the mood was colder. “Why is it that this woman with a handful of people can prevent the building from being renovated for tenants who have suffered, some of whose apartments are in shambles?” asks tenant Marjorie McCarthy. “Because the politicians are behind her? Whose side are they on?”
The politicians who testified on behalf of Stewart say it is not about her at all, but about community control and tenants having a voice in their futures—both vital issues. While they have the right issues, they seem to be applying them to the wrong case. To sort out the tenant-control issue from Stewart’s personal relationship with these pols is a nearly impossible task anyway. In Clarence Norman’s 2000 primary campaign, she worked as a field operator, covering his polling sites (his disbursements note a $150 payment to her for her work). In the apartment in 320 that she uses as an office, she has a basket containing dozens of flyers for losing Brooklyn borough president candidate Ken Fischer (perhaps the reason no one from Marty Markowitz’s office came out for this one) and for Major Owens, whom she vocally supported in his bitter race with former councilmember Una Clarke, Yvette’s mother.
Some surmise that all these politicians, who’ve been vulnerable in local elections in recent years, are stumping for Stewart, who, like many in 320, is from Trinidad, as much to appeal to West Indian voters as to step up for tenants’ rights. Stewart takes a similar view. “It’s political time now,” she says. “Everyone is ready to come out of the henhouse and find the voters, and I have my voters.”
At a private meeting before the council vote, Norman and Yvette Clarke informed Stewart of their plans for 320, which include bringing in a mediator to somehow pull together these divided tenants. “Joyce supports elected officials,” Norman says. “But it’s not the case that that would blind us to the fact that there’s other factions in the building. We’ll incorporate them into the equation.”
Perhaps only one thing is certain. Now that Clarke, in one of her first acts as the representative for this district, has spiked the plan and hinged her fate to the building’s future, what happens to the tenants of 320 Sterling should be used as a moral barometer of her term in office, be it short or long.