James, Adams take down Brooklyn slumlords

New York State Attorney General Letitia James speaks at a news conference in New York
New York State Attorney General Letitia James speaks at a news conference in New York, U.S., June 11, 2019.
REUTERS / Mike Segar/ File

New York Attorney General Letitia James and New York City Mayor Eric Adams on Wednesday shut down a Brooklyn-based slumlord and scored a victory for tenants’ rights after a group of tenants were subjected to unlawful evictions in July 2020.

James and Adams announced a settlement against Gennaro Brooks-Church and Loretta Gendville — the owners of 1214 Dean St. in Crown Heights, Brooklyn — for illegally evicting tenants in 2020 and running an unlawful short-term rental operation for four years across nine Brooklyn buildings.

James said Wednesday’s $2.25 million settlement agreement compels the owners to forfeit their $2 million property, which will be converted into affordable housing for New Yorkers.

The legal actions — coordinated jointly between the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), the city’s Law Department, the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement (OSE), and Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants (MOPT) — represents the first-ever enforcement of the unlawful eviction law in New York City.

“During a period of unprecedented global struggle, Brooks-Church and Gendville callously forced New Yorkers from their homes,” said Attorney General James. “We have long seen these types of harmful housing scams, especially in Central Brooklyn, where people make a business out of unfairly and inhumanely pushing others out of their homes.

“Let this serve as a warning: Any landlord who mistreats and tries to unlawfully evict renters will face the full force of my office and the law,” she added. “We will continue to work closely with Mayor Adams and other government partners to ensure individuals like these can no longer terrorize New Yorkers.”

“These landlords may have been sending a loving and peaceful message out publicly, but they were kicking tenants to the curb privately,” said Mayor Adams. “Safe, affordable housing is not only vital to the city’s survival and public safety but is a basic human right, which is why my administration will never hesitate to stand up for tenants who are illegally harmed.

“Today’s settlement sends a clear message to slumlords everywhere in the city: Cruel and illegal behavior will not be tolerated, and, as long as I am mayor, you will never get away with putting tenants at risk,” he added. “I thank Attorney General James for her continued partnership and fighting every day to protect New York City’s tenants.”

The global settlement stemming from the city’s lawsuits and the investigations by the OAG and the city requires landlords Gennaro Brooks-Church — a self-proclaimed “green builder” — and Loretta Gendville — the owner of a Brooklyn-area yoga studio and a separate retail store that sells both maternity and workout clothes — to take several steps.

The steps include transferring the building at 1214 Dean Street — which is valued at more than $2 million — to an entity designated by the city for use as affordable housing; paying $125,000 to the OAG, to be put toward Attorney General James’ Affordable Housing Fund; paying $125,000 to the city of New York for substantial penalties; and agreeing to a permanent injunction against further illegal short-term rental activity anywhere in the city.

The landlords must also comply with laws governing rentals in New York state pursuant to a written agreement with the OAG.

Simultaneously, the landlords have settled the lawsuit brought by former tenants of 1214 Dean Street by providing them with a substantial recovery for the damages and trauma they suffered from the unlawful eviction.

James said the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) will work with an entity designated by the city to rehab the property for affordable housing.

“The Adams administration will not tolerate tenant harassment,” said Chief Housing Officer Jessica Katz. “We will go to bat for tenants, protect our housing stock, and create the affordable housing New Yorkers need and deserve. Safe, affordable housing is a top priority for this administration, and our work on this case shows it. Thank you to all of the tenant advocates and community members who worked so hard on this case.”

Attorney General James said she began an investigation in July 2020 following an illegal eviction incident at the 1214 Dean Street property.

In coordination with the city of New York, James found that from January 2016 through at least the summer of 2020, Brooks-Church and Gendville ran an illegal short-term rental operation generating $1.4 million by placing 83 different listings on Airbnb.

The attorney general said the scheme deceived nearly 5,600 guests, and prevented 14 homes across nine Brooklyn buildings from housing permanent tenants.

In July 2020, James said the landlords used threats and force to push out at least four tenants at 1214 Dean Street — removing their tenants’ possessions and changing the locks without providing keys to the tenants.

“These actions violated the law prohibiting property owners from engaging in ‘self-help evictions’ — also known as lockouts — and circumvented the statewide moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Attorney General James said.

She said the city became aware of the landlords’ illegal behavior via social media on July 7, 2020.

Within three days — on Jul. 10 — the city’s Law Department sent a cease-and-desist letter to the landlords.

On Nov. 17, 2020, working closely with the OAG and MOPT, the Law Department’s Tenant Protection Unit brought its first lawsuit under the city’s Unlawful Eviction Law.

The following month, on Dec. 16, OSE filed a lawsuit targeting the illegal short-term rentals, which did not include 1214 Dean Street.

Four of the former 1214 Dean Street tenants — now represented by counsel from TakeRoot Justice — brought an action for damages based on their unlawful eviction.

Additionally, the OAG began an investigation of possible state law violations.

If the terms of the agreement are not met, Attorney General James said she reserves the right to pursue civil action.

More from Around NYC