Eviction drama sparks standoff in Crown Heights

Tensions rise as activists break into Jewish landlord’s rental, return Black tenants

Letitia James, attorney general of New York, in front of 964 Park Place in Crown Heights (Getty Images, iStock/Illustration by Steven Dilakian for The Real Deal)
Letitia James, attorney general of New York, in front of 964 Park Place in Crown Heights (Getty Images, iStock/Illustration by Steven Dilakian for The Real Deal)

UPDATED Feb. 17, 2022, 5:03 p.m.: It’s no surprise that the end of New York’s eviction moratorium would usher in some landlord-tenant dramas. But the saga unfolding at a Crown Heights home signals a seismic shift in how renters are fighting displacement, one landlords fear may ruin their shot at finally getting nonpayers out.

Last Friday, tenant advocates descended upon 964 Park Place, where renters Ida Robinson and granddaughter Sherease Torain, along with the rest of their family, had been evicted earlier that week. Court documents allege they had not paid rent in nearly six years.

Landlord Menachem Gurevitch had already changed the locks when the advocates arrived. But the groups, including the Crown Heights Tenant Union and Brooklyn Eviction Defense, broke in and moved the Robinsons back into their home of over 70 years, saying the family had been victimized by an illegal lockout.

The groups spent the rest of the weekend on “stoop watch,” barricading the door from the front steps to prevent Gurevitch or any affiliates from entering.

When Monday dawned with the renters still inside, the advocates celebrated. Dozens gathered in front of the Brooklyn home to protest evictions and advocate for the passage of good cause eviction, legislation that would enhance protections for tenants, although not necessarily the Robinsons.

Then things got ugly. Orthodox Jewish news site Collive reported that the landlord arrived at the home to find 70 people protesting “greedy Jewish landlords” and barring the owner from entering. A spokesperson for Gurevitch said that the owner was out of town when the Robinsons re-entered the home and arrived at the scene last Sunday, but did not step foot on the property. The spokesperson confirmed that there were slurs thrown at the owner and his team.

“We weren’t paying attention to it,” he added. “We’re above that.”

Amdi Ozier, an organizer with the Crown Heights Tenants Union, did not initially respond to a request for comment on whether protests devolved into anti-Semitism, but the group later denied that it had.

“No video or audio evidence for the former claim has been presented or ever could be presented, because it did not occur and is in fact anathema to the CHTU and BED’s creed of working-class solidarity across all ethnic lines,” the activist groups said in a statement.

Brooklyn Eviction Defense tweeted that Gurevitch had arrived with “goons” who were “shoving” protesters. Gurevitch’s spokesperson denied that representatives for the landlord pushed protesters as the tenants group said a video showed otherwise.

“We need all hands on deck at 964 Park Place ASAP,” the group tweeted.

On Tuesday night advocates outside the building told News 12 that the eviction effort was an attack on Black and brown families. Days before, Shearease Robinson had given her version of events via megaphone:

“You are stealing people’s property. This is not your property,” she said, apparently addressing affiliates of the landlord in a video captured by tenant activist and former City Council candidate Michael Hollingsworth.

“What you have over me is you are a man and you have money and you are white,” she said.

For some, the clash between Black tenants and a Jewish landlord will evoke the race riots that overtook Crown Heights for three days in the summer of 1991. A representative for Gurevitch acknowledged that the battle for 964 Park Place has “turned into a race thing as if Jews are evicting Black people,” but stressed that “it has nothing to do with that.”

“This is purely a legal matter,” he added.

In this case, the bad blood stems from what the Robinsons allege to be deed theft.

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In 2015, Ida Robinson, whose family had lived in 964 Park Place since 1951 and owned the home since the late 1960s, entered into a buy-back arrangement with a limited liability company, court documents show.

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Robinson had fallen behind on her mortgage and to avoid foreclosure, she agreed to sell the property for $800,000 but could remain for two years as a tenant if she paid $5,500 a month. Come July 16, 2017, Robinson would then have first dibs to purchase the property for $1.4 million.

Should she fail to pay the rent, the agreement stipulated, the landlord could evict her.

The deal closed on September 17, 2015. The LLC immediately transferred the property to Gantz Brooklyn, another limited liability company. Five days later, Gurevitch transferred the property to himself.

In March 2016, the Robinsons stopped paying rent. In July, Gurevitch filed an eviction proceeding and in December, Robinson sued him and the other LLCs, claiming the owners coerced her into signing the sale agreement “for the purpose of tricking and deceiving” her, the suit reads.

Her lawsuit alleges that the first LLC had no intention to honor the agreement and that the subsequent property transfers prove that the owner intended to dupe Robinson.

Robinson asked the court to block her eviction because the deed she transferred to Gurevitch did not “effectuate a sale of the property,” and therefore, he wasn’t an owner and lacked standing to force her out.

But the court ruled in 2017 that the settlement resolved all matters between the parties, meaning the house belonged to Gurevitch and the eviction could go forward.

The Robinsons, however, still contend that the property was stolen from them and that they should be allowed to remain, despite owing nearly half a million dollars, according to a representative for the landlord.

Gurevitch’s team contends that everything from the sale to the eviction filings “was done legally.”

“I think they fell behind for six months and then realized their back was up against the wall and started screaming deed theft,” a representative for the landlord said. “If they felt they were screwed out of the house, why were they paying for six months?”

The Robinsons are now getting the state to step in. Bronx 12 reported that Attorney General Letitia James intervened in court on behalf of the Robinsons Tuesday and was expected to do so again on Wednesday.

The attorney general’s office did not confirm that, but called the 964 Park Place situation “deeply concerning.”

“My office is looking into this matter,” said James in a statement. “Whether you’re a renter or homeowner, New Yorkers have the right to a roof over their head.” (A longtime consent order requires the city, although not private owners, to shelter the homeless.)

A hearing is scheduled for next week. But Guervitch’s team is anxious that politicians’ sympathy for the Robinsons could prolong the six-year saga.

“We expect there’s a lot of pressure on the judge by elected officials to postpone this,” the representative said.

If the tenants remain in the house for 30 days, they can gain squatter’s rights. Gurevitch would then need to refile an eviction proceeding and work through the housing court backlog.

The landlord sees the case as a litmus test for evictions after the statewide moratorium, which ended Jan. 15.

“Landlords need to know [that] if this eviction is not upheld by the NYPD, then eviction in NYC is out the window,” said the spokesperson for Gurevitch. “Tenants are going to know that if they get evicted, they can just break back in. All they have to do is get a tenant’s union on their side and push off the court date.”

This article has been updated to include additional comments from Gurevitch’s spokesperson and from the Crown Heights Tenants Union.

Correction: Sherease Torain is the granddaughter of Ida Robinson. She was incorrectly characterized as Ida Robinson’s daughter and her last name was incorrectly listed as Robinson. Gurevitch was out of the country when the eviction took place, but was present at the scene this weekend, though he did not step foot on the property, a spokesperson said. A previous version of the article stated that he is currently out of the country and was not present during confrontations.

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