Lawsuits Target Three-Quarter Operators

Photo by: Adi Talwar
Several three-quarter houses occupy a single block of MacDonough Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant. (Some buildings pictured are not three-quarters houses.) The owner of one four-story house has been fined multiple times for building violations.

At some dormitories for homeless people, lawyers allege, landlords forced tenants to attend particular drug programs and failed to provide safe housing. But operators say they were trying to do good—or at least following the law.

By: Patrick Arden

This is the second story in a three-part series about three-quarter houses, the concerns they raise and the essential role they play. Click here to read part one, and here to read part three.

In New York City, a landlord must get a court order to evict a tenant who's lived on the premises for 30 days or more. Even after an eviction notice is served, he can't take the law into his own hands. The tenant has at least 72 hours before the police or a marshal can remove him.

The landlord can't use threats of violence, stop providing heat, or lock the tenant out. But all those things happen regularly to tenants at three-quarter houses, the unregulated dormitories that provide beds for homeless people, many returning from prison or in substance-abuse programs. These rooming houses—sometimes called “sober homes”—are indirectly supported by government agencies, which refer clients and cover their rent by sending welfare payments to landlords.

Tanya Kessler, a public-interest attorney at MFY Legal Services, says locking out tenants is especially common: "It's a building block of the business—throwing people out at will."

Over the last two-and-a-half years, MFY has provided legal advice to people living in more than 250 three-quarter houses in Brooklyn. "And we don't think that's a complete list, by any means," says Kessler. "We only write down addresses when someone calls us, and a lot of people probably don't even know about us. We think the biggest concentration [of three-quarter houses] is in central Brooklyn, but certainly there are a good number of them in Queens and the Bronx."

Pressure to get treatment

In the past year, MFY has pursued two lawsuits against three-quarter-house operators.

The first tried to stop the eviction of people from a single-room-occupancy hotel that leased 89 rent-stabilized rooms to a three-quarter-house operator. The Greenpoint Hotel had been renting the rooms for about $215 a month, the suit said, but then its owner, 1109-1113 Manhattan Avenue Partners, began leasing these rooms for $1,225 per month, or nearly six times the regulated rent, to Harmony House LLC.

Harmony House put two people into each room, collecting $430 a month in rent, and sent the occupants to an outpatient clinic run by CIS Counseling Center, which, according to the lawsuit, billed Medicaid $77 for each visit. MFY collected affidavits from some tenants who said they were required to visit CIS as often as five times a week but received no services.

In an unrelated 2009 report, the state’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) "determined that fifty percent of CIS patients reside in sober homes" and "must attend treatment" as a condition of their stay. The center's director told OASAS "the homes are owned and operated by CIS; however, when asked to provide copies of rental agreements, he refused," stating "he wasn't really sure who owned them." In a review of patient files, OASAS found CIS provided "clinically unnecessary" services and concluded that "mandating outpatient treatment as a requirement for admission into a sober home is a violation of patient rights . . . and should be immediately ceased."

The MFY lawsuit claimed this "violation of patient rights" continued at the Greenpoint Hotel for more than a year after the OASAS report. But then CIS announced it was going out of business, and a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge allowed the hotel's owner to continue with eviction proceedings in housing court, ruling the tenants were "licensees" rather than permanent, rent-stabilized tenants.

About 50 tenants received eviction notices; their cases were all dismissed or discontinued in housing court. The hotel's owners filed new eviction cases earlier this year, maintaining the move was necessary to lease the premises to another entity. Attorneys for 1109-1113 Manhattan Avenue Partners and the former CIS Counseling Center did not return calls for comment. No one representing Harmony House ever appeared in court.

'Dregs of the earth'

MFY's second class-action lawsuit takes aim at Yury Baumblit, a well-known three-quarter-house operator, and others associated with nine buildings in Brooklyn and one in Queens, each holding about 30 to 40 tenants.

That suit charges the defendants engaged in deceptive practices to lure tenants, promising, and then never delivering on, housing- and job-placement assistance. The defendants, the suit says, pressured tenants into attending substance-abuse programs and signing agreements waiving their rights under the law. The suit also claims the defendants provided overcrowded and substandard housing, violated rent-stabilization laws, and illegally kicked tenants onto the street once they became unprofitable. In affidavits, the plaintiffs tell stories of threats and intimidation. One welfare recipient even says he had to pay to get a toilet fixed.

A judge issued a temporary restraining order to stop the eviction or harassment of tenants, but Baumblit was due in court March 6 to answer contempt charges for allegedly violating that order. Baumblit, who pleaded guilty in 2009 to money laundering charges related to an insurance fraud investigation, could not be reached for comment. His lawyer, Matthew Aboulafia, would not respond to specific charges in the lawsuit, but he laid out the defense's case for evicting the residents without a court order.

"The people there are not 'tenants,' they're 'occupants,'" Aboulafia says. "They are there illegally, because they are there in contravention of contracts that they entered into with my client. Those contracts said, 'We will provide you housing on the condition that you go to certain drug treatment programs, because you are drug addicts, and you are ex-convicts, and you are the dregs of the earth that have no place to live.'"

Aboulafia claims "a few people in these places" have violated their agreements by threatening others and refusing to attend treatment. "Of course it's a business," he acknowledges. "My clients may do this out of the goodness of their own hearts, but if they weren't making money they wouldn't be able to help people at all. So you can spin that however you like. Bottom line is, we give them housing, and they are required to go to drug treatment programs. When they go to drug treatment programs and they complete them, the city gives us money, and that's the only way we are able to afford to keep them in these apartments at such minute rates."

Though the city provides the $215-a-month rental allowance on behalf of each resident, the Human Resources Administration (HRA) insists it doesn't have a "direct relationship" with any three-quarter-house operator. Clients choose where to live, an HRA spokesperson says, but "if a client [tells] us they were being coerced to do anything, we inform them of rental rights, assist them with a referral to Legal Services, advise them to call the NYPD as well as to call 311 to file a complaint with the appropriate agency." HRA doesn't make any payments for the completion of a drug-treatment program.

A landlord speaks out

Two of MFY's clients were living in a pair of three-quarter houses associated with Baumblit—345 and 347 Miller Avenue in East New York—when the buildings were taken over by a nonprofit called Uplifting Men.

Uplifting Men locked these clients out of the buildings, but a housing court judge reinstated them to their rooms, after they spent nights sleeping on the subway. When presented with the order, however, Uplifting Men had one of the plaintiffs arrested, while the other was allowed to sleep on a kitchen floor, according to court records. Uplifting Men never appeared before the judge, who subsequently found the group in contempt.

Yet, even when confronted by this past, Uplifting Men's president, Kevin Green, remains upbeat. Baumblit may be known for ducking attention, but Green seems to thrive on it. A YouTube video shows the wiry, 53-year-old wearing a Santa hat as he conducts a tour of three-quarter houses in East New York.

"That Christmas I gave 40 kids brand-new coats, I gave 175 kids toys, I gave 50 men and women brand-new suits and dresses," Green tells City Limits. "I take a holistic approach.

"Let me tell you what's the difference between Uplifting Men and every other organization: We are a 501(c)(3) registered in the states of New York and South Carolina, so we're considered, under the federal government, as a program. We even applied for a grant [to assist] the formerly incarcerated under the Second Chance Act."

Uplifting Men has no listing on the state Attorney General's online registry of charities, but it has filed federal taxes as a nonprofit dedicated to providing "housing, work, psychological, and emotional support for the transition between prison and society."

Its 2009 taxes claimed revenues of $84,000 and expenses of more than $157,000, resulting in a loss of a little over $73,000. Salaries accounted for $33,701. Though he requires residents to attend substance-abuse programs, Green says he gets nothing from the programs and collects only his tenants' monthly housing allowance from HRA.

"That's it," he says. "Their food stamps are their food stamps. Their cash is their cash." Like most three-quarter-house operators, he leases his buildings, though he would like to buy them. With the total number of residents in several buildings ranging from 90 to 100, he could get paid $19,350 to $21,500 a month from HRA. He says rent takes $15,000 of that and he still has to pay staff.

Green says parole officials make frequent visits to his houses and continue to send him clients. "We enroll the new people with the HRA benefits and in an outpatient program." A nearby church, he adds, has donated new suits for the parolees.

Green did his own stint in prison for drugs, and, he recalls, later lived in a shelter. He describes these experiences as his road to Damascus: "I walked out of prison in 1998, and I said, 'God, I can't do this no more.' I was in recovery. My mother was a counselor at the Board of Education, and she always brought kids home. I decided to carry on my mother's legacy by helping others. I learned a lot from being in the shelter system. I saw a need, and I provided it. It's been God's will."

He claims to be a credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor, but an OASAS spokesperson says no Kevin Green is listed among the state's certified counselors—who must meet standards of education and conduct as well as pass an exam—and Uplifiting Men is not a certified program. When City Limits called Green at Uplifting Men's office to seek an explanation for the lack of a record at OASAS, a man answering the phone said Green would be gone for "the next month."

Today, Uplifting Men runs three three-quarter houses in East New York, two for parolees and one for women. Green says it also has two residences for homeless veterans, one in Harlem, the other in Columbia, South Carolina; both places sound similar to three-quarter houses, with public assistance paying the rent. They're named after Green's son, Sgt. LaShawn D. Evans, who died last year in Iraq. In February, Green decided to designate one of the East New York buildings as the Sgt. Evans Sober House for Homeless Veterans. "They can rent single rooms," he says, "with their own key."