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Photo by Angela Matua/QNS
Photo by Angela Matua/QNS
The landlord of a building in Astoria is trying to intimidate tenants into moving out so he can convert the building into a homeless shelter.

A Christian nonprofit that owns an apartment building in Astoria is allegedly using intimidation tactics to kick out its tenants in order to turn the place into a homeless shelter.

New York School of Urban Ministry (NYSUM), which owns a 39-unit building at 31-10 47th St., sent a letter to its tenants last November warning them that they had to leave the building within a month. The organization had worked out a deal with a homeless shelter provider and decided to kick out low-income adults from the building since owners claimed NYSUM was facing financial hardship.

After a rally organized by local elected officials to pressure the landlord to change his mind, Legal Aid Society stepped in filed a lawsuit on behalf of the tenants.

According to Sateesh Nori, Attorney-in-Charge at the Legal Aid Society, eight tenants have moved out of the building since then and the landlord, Pastor Peter DeArruda, is trying to intimidate the remaining tenants to leave.

“He has been personally coming to the building and talking to people in the common area and telling people that they’re going have to leave and offering people a free van if they need help with their stuff so they can leave right away,” Nori said.

Linda Smith, who has lived in the building for three years, said she was harassed a few months ago when using a computer in the communal space. Randy Catalano, a pastor and director of maintenance for the building, repeatedly asked her if she found a new place to live and how soon she could leave the premises.

“It’s extremely stressful,” Smith said. “This is your home and on top of that these are Christian people acting like this.”

She also added that tenants visiting the food pantry downstairs were harassed by Catalano and some repairs to individual units were made only after tenants called the city to complain.

Tenants alerted Nori to the harassment about a month ago. Though they have a pending court date on July 17, Nori said Legal Aid Society is contemplating asking the judge to restrain the organization from harassing tenants.

The apartment building houses people who are referred by clergy and who are encouraged to do charitable work while they live there. Each tenant lives in a studio with communal living and kitchen spaces. Rent for the rooms start at $425 and tenants have said that they cannot afford market-rate apartments if they are kicked out.

Nori said most of the tenants are missionaries and are upset that a religious organization would resort to threatening them.

“They’re extremely nervous. People are saying they can’t sleep at night, that they are anxious,” he said. “A lot of these tenants feel betrayed. They feel like this is not something that a religious group should be doing [and] that they should be looking out for each other.”

Smith said she is encouraged by the work Legal Aid Society has done to protect tenants and added that they “have bent over backwards to try to resolve this in an amicable way and [those at NYSUM] just don’t seem to be willing to do that.”

Nori is confident that tenants have a strong argument against NYSUM and that they will ultimately prevail in the end. But he said they were hoping to have a fair fight, which has not been the case so far.

“We are very hopeful,” he said. “We think we have a very strong legal authority that these tenants have a right to stay and we were looking forward to a fair fight in court. They’re trying to undercut the legal case by taking out each one of our plaintiffs one at a time. If everyone’s moved out then there is no legal case.” 

Ira Clair, the attorney for NYSUM, did not respond to a request for comment as of the time this article was published.

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