Dubbed 'Lord Slum', A Landlord Claims HPD In Smear Campaign So City Can Avoid Paying Him $600,000 In Back Rent
HPD Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas. Nyc.gov
A Landlord Claims HPD Encourages Infractions To Elude Rent
A New York landlord who was dubbed "Lord Slum" in a full-page spread in The New York Daily News claims that the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development is out to smear him in order to get out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent he's owed for housing tenants sent to his properties through City-run programs.
The January 15 article reported that Housing Court Judge Kimberly Moser had issued a warrant for the landlord's arrest for contempt of court related to numerous violations on his property, ordering that he be jailed for five days.
Judge Moser, formerly of King's County is now in Richmond County, on Staten Island. Attempts to reach her for comment Friday were not successful. The Black Star News also left a voice mail message and sent an e-mail message with questions to David Bookstaver, spokesperson for the New York Unified Courts System; there was no response by the time this article was posted.
The landlord, Kris Gounden, says the City owes him more than $600,000 in years of unpaid rent for tenants sent to him from homeless shelters on HPD)- and New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA)-administered programs that later stopped making payments.
Gounden claims Judge Moser also didn't have jurisdiction over the case. He claims she denied him a traverse hearing, which, in his case, would have determined his contention that he was not properly served with the plaintiff's summons and complaint, which were sent to the wrong address.
Gounden says tenants owe him a total of $269,181.78 in back rent for his property on 864 Elton Street in the East New York section of Brooklyn. The six-unit building was the subject of The Daily News article.
He claims the City actually encourages tenants to make infractions so that it can then avoid rent payments. Two tenants quoted in The Daily News story and HPD, which administers their subsidy programs, owe him $40,359 in back rent, Gounden claims.
Gounden even he took one tenant, Ana Garcia, who went to another one of his properties through a NYCHA program to court and won the case for the $49,700 in outstanding rent, he didn't see a dime. The Housing Court judge on that case to collect the money from Garcia, not the City. "What the City wants me to do is operate a homeless shelter for free," Gounden says.
The $382,000 figure that The Daily News reported Gounden owes the City were mostly based on "bogus violations" written by HPD inspectors who are under pressure to fulfill a quota, he claims.
In one case, which he was able to document and keep records of, Gounden says he challenged an HPD lawyer over alleged violations that came to $44,000, on another one of his properties located in Queens. After weeks of haggling with the HPD attorney, Ronald Smith, and disputing the validity of the violations the lawyer agreed to drastically reduce the amount by $42,000, he says.
"Dear Mr. Gounden," Smith, the lawyer, wrote, in an e-mail message to Gounden, dated November 15, 2012. "I will forward a proposed stipulation of settlement for $2,000.00. However the judge will not approve any settlement made outside of the courtroom. You or your attorney must personally appear before the judge to finalize the agreement. Thank you sir."
Court papers prepared by Smith called for Gounden to make four monthly payments of $500; if he defaulted a judgment of $20,000 was to be entered against him, the documents show.
Ultimately, the fine was dropped to zero, Gounden says.
"What kind of legitimate violation is that where the City is owed $44,000 but agrees to reduce it to zero? Was I expected to really pay? Would this money have gone to the City? Does a City official have the right to give away $44,000 that is legitimately owed to New York City? It seems like it's HPD that should be answering some questions," Gounden says.
Gounden compares HPD's alleged quota system for writing violations to the ones exposed in recent years at the New York Police Department (NYPD); and years ago, during the Koch administration when traffic cops who wore brown uniforms were notorious for writing parking violations.
The January 15 Daily News article reported that the City received so many complaints about Gounden's East New York property that in 2007 it was put in a City program that monitors land lords with excessive complaints.
"The tenant who was quoted in the article saying how terrible I was, Latoir Green, was sent to me in 2010 by the City through one of its programs," Gounden says. "Another tenant quoted in the article, Oneather Folks, was sent in 2012. If I was that bad, why was the City still sending me tenants?"
"HPD wants to demonize me in the public's eye through media so it doesn't have to pay me for the hundreds of thousands I'm owed," Gounden adds. He says Green hasn't been paying her share of the rent, which is $366; the city, which is supposed to pay the remaining $1,389, also stopped paying. Between the city and the tenant, he's owed $27,509.55 in back rent for Green, Gounden says.
A printed breakdown he provided two weeks ago when The Daily News article appeared show's tenant Folks' share of the monthly rent as $235 and the City's as $1,736. Gounden says he's owed $16,654 on Folks' apartment.
"How do I know HPD is trying to demonize me? Look at the photos in the article," he says.
According to Gounden the photo which showed a padlock placed on a door leading to the basement and the building's hot water boiler, allegedly placed by Gounden to deny HPD technicians access to make repairs, "actually shows a padlock put there by HPD."
The photo of the boiler in the basement covered in water was taken by HPD after its technicians botched the repair, he says. "If you look carefully at the picture, you'll see that they put in a wrong boiler heater gun. I have the right gun but the City prevented me from accessing my own building to repair the boiler. The City says it now controls the building. How can I be held responsible or liable for a building HPD says is under its control?"
Gounden claims because HPD didn't use a licensed technician, the boiler emitted toxic carbon monoxide fumes so the New York Fired Department rushed to the building and shut down the boiler.
Gounden first approached The Black Star News about the building early last year. He reported that on January 4, 2013 HPD employees had "illegally entered" it without a warrant or authorization, broken the lock to the basement, and replaced it with their own. It was the lock shown in the photo in The Daily News story, he says.
Last year, on January 27, 2013, The Black Star News left a voicemail message for Oscar Bhagwan, an HPD official who was handling the matter, inquiring about the replaced lock. Bhagwan did not return that voicemail message.
Gounden says HPD's Bhagwan was in his building last year on a regular basis, telling tenants not to pay rent.
Another photo in The Daily News article shows a car, a white 1983 Monte Carlo with three blue stripes running on it from front to back. The caption says the car was parked over the heating oil cover to prevent it from being refilled. "That car belongs to my neighbor and hasn't been parked there since last July. And the heating oil cover is about 10 feet where that car was parked and photo taken," Gounden says.
The final photo used to illustrate the story shows Gounden holding a young boy. "That photo was actually taken over six years ago by The Daily News when the newspaper did an article about the racist attacks my family encountered when we moved to Howard Beach. Those attacks were covered by several media outlets including ABC television," he says. "That boy I'm holding is now seven years old and in second grade. They could have at least photo-shopped my son out of the picture."
The original Howard Beach harassment story by The Daily News is still on the paper's website and shows Gounden wearing the same shirt as the one used in the photo on the January 15 story. (The harassment at Howard Beach still continues, Gounden reports).
"You see photos can tell 1,000 stories," Gounden adds. "But they can also tell 1,000 lies."
"You know, it's a very interesting coincidence that all my troubles with HPD started after my Howard Beach incident in 2007," Gounden adds. "Before that, I had no such problems."
New York City Housing Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas is quoted in the January 15 Daily News article saying: “If you’re trying to be in the club of very bad building owners, this person would be in that club.”
"How could that even be true when The Daily News has done stories about multi-millionaire slumlords with thousands of units?" Gounden says.
"I would love for HPD to deny to The Daily News that I'm not owed a huge sum in unpaid rent," Gounden says. "Second, how does a legitimate violation of $44,000 go to zero? How much more of the $328,000 the City claims I owe based are based on phony violations? Finally is the City trying to drive me out of business so someone who doesn't look like me can get my property?"
"I wish an independent mediator could examine what the City claims and what I claim. My family, beginning with my father who's not retired, has owned this building for 30 years," he says.
Gounden says Judge Moser wouldn't let him subpoena HPD inspectors to take the stand.
The Black Star News contacted HPD Commissioner Visnauskas's office and sent several questions related to Gounden's claims: whether he was indeed owed hundreds of thousands in back rent; whether HPD inspectors are pressured into meeting a quota; whether tenants are encouraged to intentionally damage apartments; and whether some of the fines were "fraudulent", including the one handled by the HPD lawyer Ronald Smith.
Visnauskas, who was appointed by former mayor Michael Bloomberg last August, responded through spokesperson Eric Bederman.
“Mr. Gounden shirked his legal responsibilities as a landlord, obstructed the City’s efforts to restore services for his tenants and defied court orders to repair his property," Bederman said, in an e-mail message to The Black Star News on January 24.
"We are pleased that the Judge ordered Mr. Gounden to provide services and make repairs, held that he was in criminal and civil contempt, and imposed incarceration, fines, and sanctions for his egregious conduct. We feel that the Court’s decision and the punishment it imposed accurately reflect Mr. Gounden’s actions.”
Bederman did not answer any of the questions sent via e-mail message for Commissioner Visnauskas about the specific claims by Gounden.
Gounden says his battle with HPD dates back over several years. He says typically, the City would pay for the first few months or for the first year of the lease when a tenant is sent. Then either during the lease period or at the end, the City encourages tenants to sue the landlord for alleged violations.
"I can't evict the tenant," Gounden says. "In the meantime, the tenant and the City stop paying rent. Meanwhile, the City continues to send inspectors who write violations such as the phony $44,000 one. That's how they can come up with the $382,000 figure HPD gave The Daily News."
Gounden claims some of the intentional violations that HPD encourages tenants to commit includes destroying smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, windows, doors, the floor, and the walls of the apartment.
"If these damages are not encouraged how is it that they happen in pretty much every apartment occupied by tenants from homeless shelters? Are you telling me that every family from a homeless shelter does not know how to keep an apartment or don't take pride in the place where they live," Gounden says.
Gounden says the apartment where the tenant Green lives is "very busy" with "the kind of activity that used to go on in Times Square." He adds: "I have reported these activities to the police and to HPD and nothing has been done."
Bederman, the HPD spokesperson also did not respond when asked about this specific allegation in the e-mail message.
Gounden says the tenant Folks actually filed the lawsuit against him and the City but once they were in court he became the only defendant. "The City should be the only defendant, not only for failing to pay it's share of Folks's rent as agreed on the lease, but for also instructing Folks not to call me about any damages in the apartment as required by the lease," he says. During the trial Folks testified that she stopped contacting Gounden to report damages.
Editor's Note: If you're aware of similar cases involving HPD or NYCHA please contact The Black Star News via email message at firstname.lastname@example.org or (646) 261-7566