Harlem Residents Await Building's Repair Seven Years After Accident

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When it rains it’s as if they are outside in the rain, he says. On windy days, air gushes between the ceilings and howl in an awful cry that keeps the family awake.


[Black Star News Investigates: Housing] 

 
Part One of a Series 

Some
residents in an East Harlem co-op building say they've lived in terror
for seven years now, fearful that their five- story building could
collapse any day while they're asleep.  
 
One resident says she
even has nightmares about being buried in a pile of ruble. The building
is so unsafe that even the co-op's board of directors don't live in the
building as they're required to by law, residents say. 
 
The
building, at 205 East 124 Street suffered foundational and structural
damage in 2005 during the construction of a brand new apartment complex
next door. Excavation for the adjoining building's foundation damaged
205's foundation, according to residents and court papers. Residents
say their entire building shifted and the floors slanted sharply after
the accident. During a recent visit, one resident, Claudette Clare,
walked a reporter from The Black Star News through her third floor
apartment, 3D. The reporter placed a 16.9 ounce plastic bottle of water
on the floor. It didn't stop rolling until it reached the opposite end
of the room.
The building's board of directors, whose
legitimacy residents question, have yet to oversee complete repairs
after seven years. Yet, some residents say, the board has sued them for
non-payment of rent. They had withheld monies to force the board to
complete repairs, residents say. Judge Ruben Martino, who is handling
the board's case against some residents in housing court even visited
some of the damaged apartments. Residents say they had hoped the judge
would sympathize with them after the visit. 
 
Some residents
report that there was a flurry of construction repair work on some units
once The Black Star News started making inquiries over the past two
weeks. 
 
The damages sustained after the 2005 incident include
cracks on the building, slanted floors, mis-aligned windows and doors,
dislodged bathroom tiles, cracked ceilings, gaps between the walls and
the floors, and other damages. One shareholder complains that whenever
it rains heavily, his roof leaks and water seeps into the apartment
beneath his. 
 
After the accident caused the damages, the board
of directors sued the owners of the next door building in May 2006, in
State Supreme Court in Manhattan asking for triple damages for a total
of $3 million, court papers show. According to the lawsuit, the owners
of the next door building, the defendants, "breached, demolished, and
removed a portion of the foundation party wall" that supported the 205
East 124 Street property. Both the building, and the individual
apartments, sustained "extensive damage" the lawsuit alleged. 
 
Yet,
later, shareholders say, the board, wanting to justify lower
compensation to some owners, claimed that extensive damages occurred
only to apartments that were adjacent to the next door building. Only
those units were to undergo major repairs; subsequent compensation would
also be disbursed based on a formula favoring those same West side
units. Says one resident: "Do you think it's a coincidence that the
board members' own apartments are on the west side of the building?" Some
residents say all the board members have had their own units --which
they actually rent out and don't even live in-- fully repaired. 
These
residents interviewed say when the case against the owners of the next
door building was settled last year, the board didn't even let them know
details of the settlement. The highest amount of money given to any
shareholder was only $6,500. One shareholder says he was compelled to
sign papers from lawyers representing the board without even being
allowed to properly read them before a check was mailed to him. The
board's treasurer, Robert Yates, declined to speak when reached by
telephone and referred all questions to Joel Bernstein, a partner at
Solomon and Bernstein, who is representing the board. The board
president,, Rosezinner Murray, also reached by telephone, declined to
comment. The board's secretary, Lizzette Hill-Barcelona, couldn't be
reached for comment. 
 
The case against the owners of the next
door building was settled for $814,000, according to one document --a
resolution approved by the board-- reviewed by The Black Star News. The
board "resolution" dated October 18, 2011 and signed by the three
officers states that of the $814,000 settlement, the East Drive Housing
Development Fund Corp. (HDFC), which oversees 205 West 124 Street, was
to retain $730,000.  
 
The money, according to the document was
"to pay down the mortgage being held by CPC in order to reduce the
maintenance, make outstanding repairs, pay all professional fees and
costs incurred in the action, and fees and costs incurred in the
mortgage reduction..." The Community Preservation Corp. (CPC) is a
nationally recognized not-for-profit financier of affordable housing
that often works with HPD.,  
 
Bernstein, the lawyer, said the
board had not taken a loan from HPD when asked; he didn't return a
subsequent message asking if the board had taken a CPC loan.  Residents
say the loan was never used for complete repairs. 
 
When asked
how much of the settlement money went to attorneys' fees, Bernstein, the
lawyer sent a non-committal and evasive written response: "No
individual tenant paid any legal fees." 
 
The "resolution" states
that the share value of the apartments on the same side as the adjacent
building that caused the damage would increase by $9,000; and the share
value of the other apartments increase by $4,500, the document states. 
 
Some
residents reject the formula and say all the units in the building
should be treated equally and want the board to produce documents
assessing the damages by an independent contractor. They also say
instead of being reduced, the building's maintenance has actually
increased by $240.73. The new fee is $810, up from $564.27. 
 
They
say they will contact HPD to ask for an audit and to determine the
amount of the settlement and the formula for distribution. 
 
Shareholders
who question the board's legitimacy say they don't recall when the last
annual meeting was ever held and that the board also doesn't provide
annual reports, as required by law. They wonder whether the board was
authorized to sue on their behalf, let alone to settle the case.  
 
These
residents also question why the board did not seek their consent before
signing off on a settlement, since they too, as shareholders are listed
as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Bernstein, the lawyer, said shareholders
approved the settlement. He didn't provide any documentation. Bernstein
also said he didn't know whether the board held regular elections, when
the last vote was held, and whether the board also issued annual
reports.  
 
When asked whether the settlement agreement could be
nullified if it turns out that the board wasn't duly elected, in a
written response Bernstein said the board was "duly elected" at the time
the firm started representing it. "Officers and directors remain in
office until a new election is held, even if scheduled elections are
missed, or if rescheduled, but no quorum is present. I simply do not
know about subsequent elections since we were not asked to conduct such
elections or to participate," Bernstein also wrote. 
 
So it's
quite possible that the board has not held an election since the 2005
incident to the building when the firm started its representation. 
 
There's
been a lack of transparency in dealing with the law suit against the
owners of the next door building, some residents say. "They would never
provide us with any information about the case," says Linsford
Dominguez, a shareholder who has lived with his family in the building
for 22 years. Dominguez's unit is the one whose ceiling still leaks. His
floors, once flat, are completely uneven, and now spot lumps here and
there. 
 
Dominguez is one of the shareholders who has been sued
by the board for non-payment of rent even though his apartment remains
in wretched conditions. "Can you believe I'm the one in court being
asked to pay money instead of the other way around?" he says. 
 
Last
October the board posted a note to inform residents that a lawyer from
Solomon & Bernstein was coming "to discuss the settlement of the
lawsuit against the builders/owners of the property next door," and that
the lawyer needed "to speak to individual shareholders about their
share of the settlement." 
 
Beginning around 6PM, on October 6,
2011, shareholders were summoned, one-by-one, to meet with Isabella
Rodriguez, a lawyer from the firm. 
 
Dominguez doesn't recall any
discussion. He says his own meeting with Rodriguez lasted barely two
minutes. He was told to sign a document that he wasn't even allowed to
read. He was also given an ultimatum. If he signed, he would get money;
if he refused, he would not get money. "I was told I would not get a
dime if I did not sign," Dominguez explained, when a reporter asked him
how he could sign papers without reading them or without securing a
copy. 
 
"Eventually all shareholders signed the documents and
were given copies of what they signed when they signed," Joel Bernstein a
partner at the firm said, in a written response to The Black Star News.
As of March 24, Dominquez denies ever getting a copy of what he signed.
"He's lying," he said, of Bernstein. 
 
Dominguez was later
mailed a check for $6,500, which he says he presumes is only partial
payment for compensation he's entitled to for the extensive damages that
have yet to be fixed on his unit. Dominguez says he wants his unit
fully restored to its original condition. He insists he also deserves
compensation for living in the damaged unit for years and for the cost
of moving out of the building for two years, at his own expense, and
storage costs after the accident. He says he had been told the repairs
would be completed during his absence; they clearly were not, he says.  
 
Damage
to Dominguez's ceiling is so severe that when it rains it’s as if they
are outside in the rain, he says. Even the drop ceiling he had installed
is not helpful; it still leaks during heavy rain. On windy days, air
gushes between the ceilings and howl in an awful cry that keeps the
family awake. 
 
At one point Rodriguez, the lawyer who came to
the building to meet residents believed a similar settlement offer, of
$6,000 for units that were adjacent to the neighboring building's, and
$3,000 for other units, was inadequate, records show. "I am obligated to
inform you of this offer even if I do not believe it is a reasonable
offer," Rodriguez wrote in part, in a letter dated July 21, 2011 to
Dominguez. "We believe this offer is too low and it’s simply a tactic to
avoid individual Plaintiff's testimony at the trial."  
 
Clearly, three months later, Rodriguez had had a change of heart when she reportedly delivered the ultimatum. 
 
Claudette
Clare, who moved into the building in 2009, wasn't invited to the
October meeting with Rodriguez, the lawyer. "They claim I'm a squatter
and have no rights," she explains. Clare has now been given an eviction
notice by Judge Martino, and has until the end of May to leave. 
 
Clare insists she's entitled to live in the building as a shareholder and that she shouldn't be before Judge Martino. 
 
Her
two aunts, Eulah Bevans and Gladys Cain, purchased 250 shares of the
co-op on June 27, 1991 together. Cain lived in the unit until her death.
Eulah Bevans, lives in Texas; her husband suffers from multiple
sclerosis and climbing the three stories to the unit was an arduous task
as the building has no elevator and is not wheelchair accessible.  
 
Bevans
signed over a power of attorney to Clare, allowing her to live there,
she says. "Bevans' name is on the original certificate of ownership,"
Clare says. She says the board refused to repair her unit and she ended
up spending about $10,000 of her own money for repairs. She says the
unit still needs about $15,000 worth of repairs that the board refuses
to undertake. 
 
Clare claims the real reason why the board is
determined to evict her is because she's been asking tough questions.
"Why haven't they made any proper repairs all these years when they took
out a loan years ago for the purpose of repairs?" Clare says, referring
to the reported CPC loan. 
 
"Yes, my aunt is in Texas," Clare
says. "But how can I be a squatter when the board members don't live in
the building as is required by the By-Laws and Proprietary Lease either?
They are renting their units out to people and allowing other
shareholders to do the same. So who is the squatter?" she says.  
 
Bernstein,
the lawyer, didn't respond to a subsequent question via e-mail message
asking whether the board members lived in the building or not.  
 
Clare
says she doesn't know why an administrator has been appointed for her
aunt Cain's estate, when Bevans is still alive and well. "Why are they
acting as if my aunt Bevans is dead? Do they know something I don't
know," Clare said. "Who appointed the administrator and who is paying
her?" 
 
The administrator, Andrea Shapiro, didn't respond to questions sent by email message.  
 
During
one hearing before Judge Martino, Clare says Shapiro, the administrator
told the judge that Bevans, who is in Texas, told her she no longer
wants to keep the apartment. "I was shocked, I knew this was a lie,"
Clare says. Clare had hired an attorney, Fred Berg, to accompany her for
the hearing. Judge Martino allowed them a break during which they
called Bevans, she says. 
 
Bevans told them that it was in fact
Shapiro who had called her in Texas and told her that her only option
was to sell the apartment, Clare says. 
 
Residents interviewed
say Judge Martino is familiar with the damages to some of the units in
the building. The judge paid a visit to the building in May, 2011, and
inspected three apartments, in various states of disrepair: Dominguez's
apartment, 5A; Rosa Alberto's apartment, 5B, and; Emily Allen's, 3B. 
 
The building, with 20 units, was built in 1930. 
 
Part Two next week. 
 
"Speaking Truth To Empower." 

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