Brooklyn D. A. to Bad Landlords: “You May End Up in a Jail Cell!”
On Thursday, April 16, 2015, the street in front of 98 Linden Street was packed with the press and elected officials, community leaders, housing advocates, etc. for a history making press conference called by Brooklyn District Attorney, Ken Thompson. History making because Joel and Amrom (Aaron) Israel (notorious for being among the City’s worst landlords) on that afternoon had been arrested on criminal charges. Prior to this, recourse for landlord tenant issues were civil actions landing and usually languishing in housing court.
Such was the case with 300 Nassau Avenue, also a property owned or managed by these Israel brothers. Tenants of this building were forced to vacate when so-called building renovation/repair work left the building uninhabitable. It took over a year (from December 2014) in housing court for the tenants of 300 Nassau Avenue to receive anything resembling justice from the civil courts when this past February a Brooklyn Housing Court judge banned these landlords from entering this property and appointed an administrator to repair and manage the building so that the tenants would be able to return home.
“This [arrest] not only brings justice to the tenants of 300 Nassau, but also sends a clear message that in North Brooklyn these tenants have rights. I remember when we first went into these buildings and saw what the tenants were living in, what we call “harassment by construction” : when the landlords say they need to make improvements but instead shut down essential services to the building. This is a historic precedent that tells landlords if you are not following the rules there are going to be just consequences,” said Rolando Guzzman Assistant Director of Community Preservation of St. Nicks Alliance.
It moved all present to hear in the tenants own words about the ordeal. It was also moving for the tenants who couldn’t help but let the emotion of their plight come through while they spoke. Michelle Crespo, a tenant, said, her voice cracking with emotion, “It’s been a very long battle. We did not give up. This is a big deal for us.”
“Landlords know these acts [of harassment] are illegal, but they also know the law is what you can get away with. Until these laws are enforced unscrupulous landlords will continue to treat city fines and bad press as a small cost to a very lucrative business. The Israel brothers are perhaps the most brazen perpetrators of tenant harassment in the City of New York, but they aren’t the only ones.” stated Adam Meyers, Staff Attorney and Skadden Fellow of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, the law firm for the tenants of 300 Nassau Avenue.
Fraud, burglary, grand larceny, etc. — add up to a total of 7 charges and 15 counts in the criminal case that D.A. Thompson has brought against Joel and Aaron Israel. “This is the beginning of what we intend to do, because we believe there are other unscrupulous landlords out there that are subjecting their tenants to horrific living conditions,” said D.A. Thompson who continued, “We intend to be aggressive. We intend to be fair. These defendants will be treated fairly, but we have to get going as prosecutors in law enforcement. … Landlords need to know that if they rip up somebody’s bathroom with intent of getting them out so they can make more money on that apartment that they may end up in a jail cell, because that may cause them to hesitate. What we want to do is prevent this from happening, not just react to it.”
Aaron and Joel Israel pled not guilty to at their criminal court appearance. If these two are found guilty they could be sent to the big house for a decade and a half. A prison cell is lush compared to the conditions they are accused of subjecting their rent stabilized tenants to in order to force them out to replace them with new tenants willing to pay market rates (up to five times the previous rent).
Aaron and Joel Israel are members in longstanding on the Worst Landlords Watch List; they’ve been featured on the list since Mayor de Blasio, its creator, was the public advocate. The Israel Brothers and their companies, according to the indictment, owned or controlled at least 4 rent-stabilized buildings in North Brooklyn several of which were the sites of horrendous efforts the clearest interpretation of such actions being to force the affordable housing tenants out and bring market rate paying tenants in. In several of the buildings in question, in 2013 they told their tenants work needed to be done on their apartments which would be finished in 3 weeks. However, this ‘work’ left them without bathrooms and/or kitchens for 18 months.
This most beautiful spring day inspired many of the speakers to comment on how the sun was shining, hope was returning, as the game was starting to change.
“We’re changing the game and this is where it starts.” Council Member Antonio Reynoso said joyfully. He has been a constant champion of helping those longtime tenants of his district to withstand the pressures gentrification brings.
Public Advocate Leticia James; attorney Adam R. Meyers from Brooklyn Legal Services Corp.; Rolando Guzman, Assistant Director of Community Preservation of St. Nicks Alliance, and Father Edward Mason, Pastor of St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church were among the speakers at the press conference. Assembly Members Maritza Davila and Erik Dilan were in attendance, and Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez was praised for her assistance so therefore was there in spirit.
Council Member Stephen Levin was asked for a comment on this judicial game changer as he has been fighting for the tenants of 300 Nassau Avenue. He said, “The behavior of these landlords is despicable – plain and simple. Tenants at 300 Nassau Avenue and elsewhere do not deserve what the Israel’s have done and I hope justice will be brought in this case.”
“The effort that this took, the amount of energy and time it took on the part of all these good people to fight one landlord?! The great victory today is this is what is going to happen in the weeks and months and years to come. Today is a victory of only going forward! Other landlords: Wake up and see what’s happening here today!” The crowd cheered Father Edward Mason’s words on that point and he continued, “This has finally become a legal issue. This is wrong, it’s immoral, and now it’s illegal. This cannot happen again, this cannot happen again. Greed cannot be the banner by which our society rules itself. That’s not who we are, we are better than that. This is New York, this is Brooklyn, this is Bushwick, we are a heritage and we are a culture, we’re here to show people who we are and what we mean. We mean business, and I’m very happy to know that going forward this war is going to be fought on a new front as well. It won’t just be a moral war of right versus wrong. It will be a legal war.”
6,000 landlords are on the Worst Landlords Watch List. The consensus of the advocates and leaders is that these landlords believe that the law is what you can get away with. The criminal indictments now made against Amrom and Joel Israel is a first step in vigilance in government putting its foot down and making the law clearer for those lacking a moral compass.