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Tenants claim discrimination by Brooklyn landlord

- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 15, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - A Brooklyn landlord has engaged in a pattern of ill-treatment to force out minority renters, even failing to cash rent checks in hopes of later evicting them for nonpayment, tenants said Tuesday after filing a federal discrimination lawsuit.

Jean Wilkinson said the landlord has ignored requests to fix her water - the only source of hot water in her apartment for the last five days has been the stove, she said - as part of a "game plan" to get more affluent clientele.

The tenants filed a federal discrimination lawsuit late Monday against Homewood Gardens Estates and its principal owner, Yeshaya Wasserman, alleging a pattern of harassment "almost from the day" he purchased the complex in 2009. They are seeking an order stopping the alleged harassment and monetary damages.

Tenant Marquetta Bell said the plaintiffs - 11 current or former tenants and two community groups - are serving notice: "We will no longer stand for this discrimination."

Attorneys for the tenants said the complex in the Prospect Lefferts Garden neighborhood failed to complete repairs and changed locks without providing them with keys.

When the complex's maintenance staff did make repairs, the shoddy work created other problems including mold, leaky windows and floors so worn in some places tenants could see into the basement below, the attorneys said.

A woman who answered the phone at Homewood Gardens said Wasserman would not be back in the office to respond to questions about the lawsuit until Wednesday. No one else was available to answer questions, she said.

City officials reported dozens of complaints about the complex since Wasserman took ownership.

Last October, the state's Tenant Protection Unit served a subpoena on Wasserman for documents from Homewood Gardens and seven other properties. The unit, according to the governor's office, was investigating "a pattern of abusive behavior and flagrant violations of rent laws."

Pavita Krishnaswamy, an attorney for the tenants, said Wasserman is targeting them because they are black. She said 20 of the 52 rent-stabilized apartments in the complex have been vacated since he took ownership and, according to the lawsuit, 14 of the 15 new tenants are white or Asian.

She said the lone black tenant who moved in after Wasserman bought the complex faced a 13.9 percent rent increase while rent for tenants of other races went up less than 3 percent.

Wilkinson, who has lived at the complex for 14 years, said once she figured out the landlord had not cashed her rent checks he offered her $15,000 to leave.

"I told him to take a walk," Wilkinson said. "If you really want me to leave, take me to court."

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