By Bill Parry
The 12 low-income tenants who remain in an Astoria dormitory-style residence were hailed as heroes last week for fighting eviction by a Christian non-profit so the building could be converted to a homeless shelter. Their attorney said they had faced threats and intimidation since the New York School of Urban Ministry told the original 39 residents to leave just before Thanksgiving.
“It’s been hanging over our heads that we need to get out and that we’re not welcome here,” 66-year-old Linda Lane Smith said. “There has been harassment and just the terror of not knowing where you’ll be living during the winter season and the holidays. It’s just been very traumatic.”
Several of the tenants said they feared being left homeless themselves. The Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit in Queens Supreme Court last Friday to protect the 12 residents from eviction.
“What we have seen with this residence is another brazen example of landlord harassment that unfortunately is not unique to this part of Queens but an epidemic in every borough,” attorney Sateesh Nori said. In the complaint, he explained, the tenants allege that their apartments are protected by the Rent Stabilization Law.
This law gives each tenant the right to renewable leases for their apartments. The ministry is attempting to shield itself from this law as a charity, but it does not meet any of the legal requirements for an exemption.
“For months, I have stood by these hardworking Astoria residents and encouraged them to fight for their rights and stay in their homes,” state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) said. “I am proud of their decision to take a stand against a non-profit that puts its self-interest ahead of those it is supposed to serve. These residents have been through enough and should not be victimized any further by an organization looking to make more money off of their misery.”
Last month, Gianaris, state Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) and U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) urged state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate NYSUM Pastor Peter DeArruda over the evictions of the residents, who pay rents between $400 and $500 a month and would not be able to afford market-rate apartments in New York City. Schneiderman’s office sent DeArruda a letter Feb. 23 calling for the notices to vacate to be rescinded until the court reviews and makes a final determination on the rent stabilization status of the property at 31-65 46th St.
“The New York School of Urban Ministry has been talking out of both sides of its mouth,” Simotas said. They have received the benefits of tax exempt status — as a religious school — and are now attempting to claim that they are a charity and should be exempt from the city’s rent stabilization law, which protects tenants from being thrown onto the street. When you quack like a duck, walk like a duck and look like a duck, then you’re a duck, which in this case means that NYSUM is plain and simple a landlord, actually a bad landlord trying to evade the law.”
DeArruda’s attorney could not be reached for comment. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 residents who remain at the dormitory.
“Not only is it incredibly cruel and heartless for NYSUM to evict these tenants, many of whom have resided here for years, it is quite possibly illegal,” City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) said. As a charitable organization, one would hope that NYSUM would have a modicum of basic human compassion for these low-income residents. It’s clear that this is not the case.”
Gianaris agreed, saying the organization treated the tenants unfairly.
“This is no way for a non-profit promoting Christian values to be behaving,” he said.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr