As New York skidded toward lockdown, the landlord of a three-unit building in Queens was being thrown in handcuffs.
It was March 17, 2020, and Roderick Compass remembers leaving work early to handle a distress call from the first-floor tenant at 146-08 181st Street, the home he owns and occupies in Springfield Gardens.
The tenant’s ceiling was pooling with water because the second-floor renters had flooded their apartment — again.
“He’s like, ‘You gotta get over here now because the ceiling is going to cave in,’” Compass said.
The landlord could hear water gushing as he hurried downstairs to his basement unit and cut off the lines. When he emerged, the second-floor tenants told him they’d called the cops on him for threatening them with a gun. Compass said he didn’t own a gun, and anyway, he’d been at work.
The irony was that Compass’ accusers, Sylvia Cruz and Jason Hermidas, a formerly incarcerated couple housed by the nonprofit Fortune Society, had themselves been a near-constant torment to their neighbors, landlord and caseworker from the moment they moved in.
They let the sinks run over and clogged the toilet. They stomped on their floor at 2 a.m., waking the downstairs neighbors’ newborn, whom they later threatened to kill. They called child protective services on Compass for abuse of a 9-year-old son the agency found didn’t exist. They made their caseworker cry.
Compass repeatedly told the Fortune Society that he wanted the couple out of his house. Fortune, which signed a lease as Compass’ tenant and then rented to the couple through an occupancy agreement, had failed to act. Things were boiling over.
In the weeks that followed the arrest, Compass was charged with harassment with a deadly weapon, banned from his home via an order of protection and physically assaulted by the second-floor renters.
Nearly a year-and-a-half later, he says he’s lost everything. A lackluster response by the Fortune Society has left the couple in occupancy, Compass’ property destroyed and the landlord with a repair bill he believes the nonprofit will try to punt.
Now, Compass fears that a line from one of Cruz’s tirades approximates how the saga will end:
“We are going to tear your house apart when we are finished with it,” she allegedly said.
Bad first impression
Before Cruz and Hermidas, Compass had maintained a good working relationship with the Fortune Society — a nonprofit that rents from private landlords to house the formerly incarcerated. He’d leased to Fortune since 2015 and had resigned a two-year agreement as their landlord in March 2019. Through the spring and early summer of that year, another tenant occupied the unit with whom he had had no issue.
Then, two days before Halloween, Cruz and Hermidas moved in. That morning, Compass remembers screams raining down from the top-floor apartment.
Cruz had grabbed the wrong key from Fortune and locked herself out, then reamed out her case manager for the mistake, court documents show. Compass said Hermidas told him Cruz suspected the landlord had played a role in the mixup.
In the evening, Compass said he was raking leaves out front and saw Cruz smoking. He asked her if she could pick up her butts; he didn’t mind the smoke, just the litter.
“The lady gets upset — ’I’ll smoke anywhere I want; I’ll smoke in your house.’ And I’m just like, what the hell is going on?” Compass said.
The toilet clogged for the first time that night. Compass called the nonprofit. This wasn’t going to work out, he said.
The Fortune Society replied that it could not remove the tenants until March 2020, Compass remembers.
Fortune’s general counsel, Michele Weinstat, declined to comment on the case because of ongoing litigation, except to say the state moratorium had delayed the legal team’s “ability to do evictions when they are warranted.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a blanket moratorium on New York eviction proceedings on March 16, 2020. An extension of the ban in May allowed for evictions to proceed for reasons other than nonpayment, such as if a tenant had become a nuisance.
She fears for her safety
In the months following Compass’ first call, tensions between the couple, their neighbors and the landlord escalated. Documents from Cruz’s eventual discharge hearing show that the Fortune Society understood the severity of the tenants’ disruptive behavior, as the nonprofit dealt with their verbal abuse first-hand.
Two weeks after moving in, Cruz and Hermidas told Fortune they wanted another apartment; Fortune promised to get back to them. In the interim, the nonprofit documented altercations between the tenants and Compass, as well as with their first-floor neighbors and a program supervisor. The couple’s case manager said she feared for her safety around Hermidas.
In February of 2020, Fortune told the couple they would be moved to another apartment and that the agency planned to terminate its contract with Compass.
Despite their previous request, the pair contested the move and vowed to stay in the apartment for another year. Hermidas arrived unannounced at Fortune’s office to confront an executive about the decision. When he was told the senior vice president was unavailable, he demanded the nonprofit call an ambulance because he couldn’t breathe, then allowed the ambulance to pass him as he walked home up a hill.
Eventually, Fortune wrote that the couple agreed to take a fourth-floor unit in Far Rockaway.
But the nonprofit chose not to move them.
“Fortune could not in good faith expose another landlord or other Fortune clients to the safety risks caused by the behaviors being exhibited by the Cruz family,” the organization wrote in Cruz’s hearing statement.
That left Compass to bear the fallout.
The day after Compass’ arrest, Fortune discharged Cruz from its family housing program. The nonprofit said Cruz had failed to comply with the program’s rules, citing her interactions with others and physical destruction of the property. After a hearing, the nonprofit finalized the decision April 6.
After his release from jail, Compass returned home to collect footage from the cameras he’d mounted along the perimeter of the building. He wanted to show the cops he hadn’t been holding a gun.
Compass said he didn’t get far before Hermidas slammed him against a door and held a knife to his face. Cruz took the knife and tried to cut Compass. He blocked her with his hand and she cut his palm. The police came but did not make an arrest. The Fortune Society documented the assault. That was April 1.
Compass said that after the attack, Fortune promised to start an eviction proceeding.
“I was sitting there, eating what they were feeding me,” he said.
By September, Compass had not received notice of a proceeding. He began to doubt whether the nonprofit had filed anything. He asked for the index number, calling repeatedly until Fortune sent him a petition. It was dated September 30.
“I’m like, Come on, are you guys really that cold?” Compass said.
Court documents show the Fortune Society served Cruz and Hermidas with a notice terminating their tenancy on July 23, effective Sept. 27, 2020.
On Sept. 30, a lawyer hired by Fortune filed an eviction proceeding that named Compass as a plaintiff, but Cruz and Hermidas as tenants.
Compass contested the filing. Cruz and Hermidas weren’t his tenants — Fortune was. Compass feared that if the nonprofit were not named in the suit, it would not be held liable for the damages the couple caused, as a clause in the lease had stipulated.
An attorney for Fortune, Robert Mizrahi, responded to Compass’ concerns by discontinuing the suit. Mizrahi, who told Compass in an email he exclusively handled the nonprofit’s eviction proceedings, said he had left Fortune out of the suit as he believed the nonprofit managed the property, rather than renting it.
The landlord has since filed his own eviction suit naming the Fortune Society, Cruz and Hermidas as defendants. His lawyer told him that given the current housing court backlog, it could be 14 months before his case is heard.
As for the tens of thousands of dollars Compass expects he’s owed in damages, the landlord doubts he can find a lawyer to accept the case. He said multiple attorneys have declined to take on Fortune.
The destruction of the last year and a half has left its mark. Compass is still banned from his home. He has picked up criminal charges and a smoking habit to cope with the stress. A few months ago, he lost most of what he owns.
In the spring of this year, Compass sent a plumber over to remedy an HP action the couple had filed against him for a broken faucet and no running water. When the plumber arrived, he called Compass: A blockage had flooded his apartment.
All of Compass’ belongings — his bed, his television, his clothing — were submerged. The culprit: a rag the couple had flushed down the toilet.
“Everything that I own is in raw sewage,” Compass said. “I have nothing anymore. Nothing.”