Isaac Hersko, one of three landlords being investigated for possible fraud and tenant harassment. (Tenant Protection Unit/Kings County Supreme Court)
A notorious landlord and homeless shelter operator is resisting turning over documents to state investigators who say they have "direct evidence" that he and his relatives and business associates may be harassing tenants, skimping on maintenance, and perpetrating schemes designed "to evade the rent laws and regulation" in at least eight different Brooklyn apartment buildings.
The state's Tenant Protection Unit, formed in 2012 to combat landlord fraud and harassment, subpoenaed Barry Hers, Isaac Hersko, Shloimy Hersko, and nine companies they're allegedly involved in back in November, seeking tax returns, construction receipts, lists of employees, and much more. Hers owns the prewar apartment building at 60 Clarkson Avenue in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, where rent-stabilized tenants are suing claiming they've been overcharged, some for more than a decade. Approximately eight rent-stabilized households remain in the building, alongside about 23 families who until November were being paid for to the tune of around $2,700 a month by the Department of Homeless Services as part of its cluster site homeless shelter program. The former shelter residents are suing, too, saying that despite gaping ceilings, mold, vermin, leaks, and spotty utility services, they want to stay on as tenants.
Hers and the Herskos filed court papers in December seeking to throw out the subpoenas, which their lawyer wrote didn't contain "even the barest allegation of even a single act" justifying turning over troves of business records. The lawyer also claimed that the request was "defectively vague, overly broad, unduly burdensome, and unnecessarily cumulative." The objection made what would have been an otherwise secret investigation public, and prompted the state to explain some of its suspicions—backed up by 50 pages of legal writing and 62 separate exhibits, including fishy rent rolls, inspection reports showing serious maintenance problems, and letters from "tenants" affirming good repair at six apartments in three different buildings, all in the same handwriting.
The state explains in its response that there are "tenant complaints abounding that petitioners have operated buildings containing rent-stabilized units illegally, with gross laxness for basic sanitary conditions and the provision of essential services, and the imposition of unfair rental charges." Among other evidence, rent registrations are "in direct contradiction to the leases...are entirely fictitious, and inherently unreliable."
Hers has also been put on notice before. The evidence includes a letter from the Tenant Protection Unit threatening thousands of dollars in fines for 60 Clarkson's lack of janitorial services and trash cans, water damage in at least 10 apartments, broken lobby door lock elevator, and mailboxes, along with several broken ovens, stoves, and cabinets, and roach and fly infestations thriving amid masses of unmoved garbage.
In addition to the questionable letters certifying good repair in apartments up for follow-up inspections, the state says Hers threatened a tenant who refused to sign paperwork denoting satisfaction with work in his or her apartment, allegedly telling the renter over the phone, "You'll be sitting on the street if you don't cooperate."
State lawyers called the attempt to resist the subpoenas, "a patent attempt to delay and obstruct...investigation and obtaining justice for the tenants."
A 270 Clarkson Avenue interior. (Tenant Protection Unit/Kings County Supreme Court)
The scheme alleged by residents of 60 Clarkson echoes what state lawyers describe happening there and in at least two other buildings, also on Clarkson. Rent-stabilized tenants moved out and homeless families moved in, bringing in much more for rent and services. Meanwhile, Hers allegedly listed companies called We Care and We All Care as the tenant on state rent stabilization documents and, year after year, boosted those rents without documenting any apartment renovations that would justify such increases, in some cases doubling what's called the legal rent from one year to the next.
This pushed the apartments ever close to, or in some cases over the $2,700/month ceiling at which they become deregulated next time someone moves out.
Further complicating matters, while the for-profit We Care and We All Care were leasing the apartments, a nonprofit homeless services group that legal papers show Isaac Hersko founded, called We Always Care, was subleasing them with the millions it was collecting in city money ($17.5 million for 300 apartments over 22 months).
"Once petitioners began leasing apartments to We Care/We All Care, the rental status for these apartments began to proceed along a path wherein these apartments may no longer be subject to rent regulation," Tenant Protection Unit lawyer Thomas Mennecke wrote. "The petitioners set up this scheme in order to evade the rent laws and regulation."
Muddy as the waters may be, one thing is clear: Barry Hers and Isaac Hersko are hard guys to pin down. In fact, when I began reporting on 60 Clarkson last July, a Legal Aid attorney, residents, neighbors, and housing activists I spoke to all believed Barry and Isaac to be the same person. Since then, in emails I've received from someone who answers to Barry, he has ignored a question about why he uses an alias, and never corrected the record. The TPU, with all its investigative powers, is sure that they two are different people, but even its investigators don't know exactly who they are to each other.
"[The state] believes there is a familial relation between Shloimy Hers, Isaac Hersko, and Barry Hers," Mennecke writes. He also indicates that Barry goes by "Hers," "Hersko," and "Herskowitz."
Serving them with legal papers wasn't easy, either. Mennecke reports that when he buzzed Shloimy's office and home, each time a female voice "refuted knowledge" of him, and that, as with Isaac's, he had to settle for sticking the subpoena to a front door. So it went with Barry, only when the server caught up to him, he "actively sought to evade service by either refusing service or literally running away."
60 Clarkson Avenue (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Mennecke writes that when he and an investigator finally spotted Hers outside his house in Borough Park, they called his name and he ran inside and closed the door. They buzzed, and a woman "would not acknowledge" that he was there. So they waited. When he came out minutes later, he allegedly ran to his car and refused to open the door. One of the state's people blocked him in while the other stuck the subpoena under his windshield wiper. He allegedly responded by turning the wipers on and, seeing an opening, driving away.
A man who answered a cellphone number that I've reached Hers at previously said it was the wrong number. His realty office did not respond to a message. A woman who answered at a number listed for Isaac Hersko said, "He's not in," then, when informed who was calling, said, "I don't know this name. I don't know who this person is. I don't know who this is. Who you want to leave a message for? Who should I give it to? Have a nice day." A message left at a number listed for a Shloimy Hersko was not returned, and Leah Hersko, the wife of another Shloimy, said her husband's not involved: "We don't have any rental properties. I'd love it if we did."
Nativ Winiarsky, lawyer for Hers and the Herskos, declined to comment, but wrote in an email that the court record shows "the wholesale frivolous and inquisitional nature of the investigative subpoenas served by DHCR, which we fully expect the court to quash."
Jen Berkley, an organizer with the group Tenants and Neighbors who is helping residents of 60 Clarkson in their fight, said that little has changed for the worse apart from some "plumbing problems," since some lost gas and electricity in what they suspected was sabotage back in November. Most former shelter residents have managed to move utility accounts into their names or have worked out an arrangement with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to cover their electrical costs while that process plays out, Berkley said. Legal Aid is fighting to halt eviction proceedings against them while their lawsuit claiming tenant rights proceeds.
Berkley praised the Tenant Protection Unit for taking concerns raised by residents and activists seriously and investigating Hers's operation.
"I’m cautiously optimistic that the state has stepped forward to hold the owners, the landlords responsible for the tremendous amount of harassment that they’ve inflicted on their tenants, both scatter site and rent-stabilized," she said. "I think they've had this coming for a really long time. They’ve been really bad landlords for a really long time."
The buildings being investigated include:
401 East 21st Street in Ditmas Park
250 Clarkson Avenue in Prospect Lefferts Gardens
270 Clarkson Avenue in Prospect Lefferts Gardens
553 Hinsdale Street in East New York
666 Hancock Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant
930 Dekalb Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant
279 Kosciuszko Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant
116 Van Siclen Avenue in Cypress Hills
Together, the buildings contain 353 apartments in which there are currently 603 open building violations, or 1.7 per unit. Of those violations, 33 are considered "immediately hazardous" according to city standards.
Update 4 p.m.:
A Department of Homeless Services rep said that the agency is still using nine properties managed by We Always Care to house about 200 homeless families, but that it plans to close the shelters down and find residents permanent housing by June 30th.
"We are committing to end the use of clusters over the next three years, and just yesterday announced a number of cluster sites that we have identified for closure, as we aggressively inspect and repair our shelters and clusters," spokeswoman Nicole Cueto said in a statement, noting that the de Blasio administration has helped 30,000 people find housing or avoid imminent eviction through rental assistance programs.
Those shelter residents who choose to stay on at Hers buildings after DHS pulls out, as the residents of 60 Clarkson have done, will have access to free legal services, according to the agency.