Eviction action against Brooklyn tenant activist exposes fair housing vulnerability left unaddressed by Federal prosecutors

Tenant activists demonstrated on Friday morning outside of Brooklyn Housing Court, following the adjournment of the eviction action against Brooklyn tenant organiser Rebecca Stuart. Ms. Stuart alleged that her landlord was retaliating and discriminating against her and her roommate. Source : Louis Flores/Progress Queens

Tenant activists demonstrated on Friday morning outside of Brooklyn Housing Court, following the adjournment of the eviction action against Brooklyn tenant organiser Rebecca Stuart. Ms. Stuart alleged that her landlord was retaliating and discriminating against her and her roommate. Source : Louis Flores/Progress Queens

By LOUIS FLORES

A tenant organiser and her roommate appeared in Brooklyn Housing Court on Friday to fight an eviction proceeding commenced by the organiser's landlord, Tod-Del Housing Corp. The landlord had allegedly sought to evict the tenants, because the organiser, Rebecca Stuart, had a roommate, who kept a pet, which the landlord claimed was against the landlord's rules, even though the roommate said that the pet was an emotional support companion.

Whilst lawyers busily paced through hallways, announcing names of tenants for conferences, Ms. Stuart said in an interview with Progress Queens at Brooklyn Housing Court that she was angry, because, "My roommate and I are both here losing a day's work," adding that, "If the Government is supposed to be investigating [allegations of violations of Federal fair housing laws], where are they ? I'm here. Where are you ?"

The eviction proceeding appeared to violate two of several protections enshrined in Federal fair housing laws : the first, which prohibits actions that can be described as retaliation by landlords against tenant activists, and the second, which prohibits discrimination against tenants, who keep support pets.

The housing court hearing was the first appearance by Ms. Stuart, which allowed the judge, the Hon. Jeannine Kuzniewski, to get a sense of what the landlord's case was about, said Ms. Stuart's attorney, Ellery Ireland. The proceeding was adjourned to 27 June, according to Mr. Ireland. Ms. Stuart's landlord was represented by the law firm, Borah, Goldstein, Altschuler, Nahins & Goidel P.C. For this report, an attorney from Borah, Goldstein appearing at Brooklyn Housing Court declined to comment on behalf of his client.

Advance questions about Ms. Stuart's case were submitted by Progress Queens to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn, but those questions were not answered for this report. However, according to information obtained by Progress Queens, some of which was provided by the Federal prosecutors' office, the U.S. Department of Justice has, in recent years, prosecuted several landlords in the Brooklyn jurisdiction of the Federal prosecutors' office for violations of Federal fair housing laws. In 2015, Federal prosecutors filed or settled separate cases against two landlords for violations of the Fair Housing Act. In one case, a coöperative at Trump Village and a former coöp president, Igor Oberman, were sued for moving to evict tenants living with disabilities that required them to keep emotional support pets. In the other case, Long Island developers of the Sayville Commons Apartments, the Broadway Knolls Apartments, and the Oak Creek Commons Condominiums were sued for violating accessibility standards for people living with disabilities. In 2012, Federal prosecutors settled a housing discrimination case against the owners of the Woodbury Gardens for Fair Housing Act violations. In 2010, Federal prosecutors settled another case of Fair Housing Act violations with the coöp board of a Rockville Centre apartment building.  And in 2002, Federal prosecutors sued ADI Management, Inc., Herbert Donner, and Highland Terrace, L.L.C., for Fair Housing Act violations for having served eviction notices on a terminally-ill cancer patient, who required a service pet. After the patient died, Federal prosecutors filed the case on behalf of the tenant's estate, in part, because, the "discriminatory actions" by the management company, its principal, and the apartment building owner "were intentional, willful and taken in disregard" of the tenant's rights. ADI Management, Inc., is the management company of several rental apartment buildings, including the one where the publisher of Progress Queens resides.

Despite the record of Brooklyn Federal prosecutors in enforcing Fair Housing Act violations against tenants with disabilities, who require service pets, some tenant activists believed that the retrospective work of litigation allowed landlords to engage in discrimination during housing court proceedings, due to the high volume and the speed by which housing court petitions are disposed. In particular, some tenant activists believe that they were vulnerable to discrimination and retaliation from their landlords over their activism, an area where Federal prosecutors have not expressed an interest in enforcing provisions in Federal fair housing laws.

Several activists and community members appeared in support of Ms. Stuart after tenant activist group Equality for Flatbush's Before It's Gone campaign made a call for people to "pack the court." Many wore black T-shirts emblazoned with slogans, such as "Brooklyn is not for sale," "Take it back before it's gone," and "Affordable for who ?" After the hearing, activists help up a banner outside Brooklyn Housing Court, asking for Federal prosecutors to be more proactive in policing allegations of fair housing law violations, particularly during housing court proceedings. The banner read, "Housing court is an eviction court. Many evictions violate fair housing laws. Where is the U.S. Attorney ?"

To Ms. Stuart, when the Government investigates allegations of Federal fair housing laws after the fact, it is too late to protect the rights of tenants, who may lose their apartments in the process. "We have a tenants' organization in my building. If I don't win, that's going to put a chill in tenant organising in my building," adding that, "There's laws that I can google, that say that tenant activists are protected." Despite the existence of those laws, Ms. Stuart said that the laws had little practical impact on her, because, "There's no enforcement. I put up flyers in my building, and they get taken down. They don't even last the night. Every day, my rights are being taken away."

Mr. Ireland, Ms. Stuart's attorney, said he believed, in his experience with housing court, that landlords appeared to target tenant activists for retaliation. "It's common," Mr. Ireland said, adding that, "What is uncommon is tenant organising," raising the spectre that retaliation by a landlord against a key tenant activist could hinder the movement to protect tenants' rights.

When asked if there were a possible action that Federal prosecutors could institute to help prevent violations of Federal fair housing laws allegedly taking place during proceedings before Brooklyn Housing Court, Ms. Stuart said that, "If there was a [representative of the] U.S. Attorney here, maybe that would put fear into landlords," adding that, as it were, alleged landlords' violations of tenant organisers' rights hurt more than just one person, it can undermine efforts by other tenants to be secure in their apartments. "It hurts us, and the landlords are running around, free to do what they want, regardless of the law."