By Bill Parry
It has been nearly nine months since a Christian non-profit informed 39 low-income residents of its Astoria dormitory they were being evicted so the building could be converted to a homeless shelter, claiming the ministry could no longer afford to maintain the property.
The 19 tenantswho remain in the residence have been subjected to increasing harassment and intimidation by the New York School of Urban Ministry, according to The Tenants Rights Coalition of the Legal Aid Society’s Queens Neighborhood Office, which filed a lawsuit in February on behalf of the tenants, seeking a stay of eviction.
The tenants and management entered into settlement conferences in March, but those conversations fell through as NYSUM failed to negotiate in good faith, offering residents a pittance to leave their homes with little chance for secure, safe and affordable housing, according to the Legal Aid Society.
Since the negotiations, Pastor Peter DeArruda, who is the landlord, and NYSUM management have tried to intimidate tenants into vacating the residence, threatened to end garbage pickup, custodial cleaning and other services, and threatened to cut electricity and other utilities, said Sateesh Nori, attorney-in-charge at the Legal Aid Society.
“This is textbook landlord harassment,” Nori said. “Especially after being sued by the tenants, it’s illegal and unholy to harass tenants by cutting services and threatening to make their apartments virtually uninhabitable. NYSUM management should take a long look in the mirror to reflect on how their actions are hurting their stated mission.”
NYSUM’s attorney, Ira Clair, could not be reached for comment.
Linda Lane Smith, a 66-year-old opera singer and three-year tenant at the residence, said the holdouts were experiencing a great deal of anxiety.
“One young man needed to be hospitalized with heart palpitations and another is seeing a doctor because he can’t handle the stress,” Smith said. “DeArruda? I can’t even call him a pastor after what he’s done, and it’s a shame because NYSUM had built a great ministry over the last 30 years.”
A preliminary court conference is scheduled for Monday and Nori is contemplating asking the judge to restrain NYSUM from bullying the tenants.
“These people are vulnerable missionaries who are straightforward and trusting,” Nori said. “They truly believed NYSUM was going to do the right thing. Instead, they’ve decided to go straight to the tenants to get them to leave. Even the pastor has come to the building offering a couple of thousand dollars to leave the residence. If everyone moves out, then there is no legal case.”
Smith knew of one tenant who took $1,000 to leave.
“He actually thought that was a lot of money, but I’m sure he found out it’s not a lot in this market,” she said. “I am determined to fight this and I have been so impressed with Legal Aid and the elected officials who have backed us since November. We know they’re fighting with us.”
State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) called DeArruda a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge when he blindsided the tenants with eviction during the holiday season.
“The New York School of Urban Ministry needs to stop its unscrupulous behavior and stop it right now,” Gianaris said. “Threatening and intimidating residents is just as low as claiming financial hardship to pressure low-income tenants out of their homes. Bad landlords are not, and never will be, welcome in western Queens.”
City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) deplored NYSUM’s abusive tactics to drive the tenants out of their apartments and onto the street.
After these actions, it is absurd that NYSUM continues to claim to be a faith-based charity,” he said. “In the City of New York, tenants have rights that protect them from abusive landlords like this, and I will continue fighting to defend the rights of my constituents alongside the Legal Aid Society.”
U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) called NYSUM’s tactics reprehensible, while Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) has words for the landlord.
“The New York School of Urban Ministry boasts of its mission to ‘reclaim cities for Christ,’ but those are hypocritical and empty words,” Simotas said. “NYSUM’s cruel and possibly criminal actions threaten to make their low-income tenants homeless in a city already in the grip of a homeless crisis. So tell me, how is that ‘reclaiming cities for Christ?’ Shame on them. NYSUM’s head, Rev. Peter DeArruda, needs to reread his Bible and he’ll find that it says: ‘Love thy neighbor…’ not ‘harass thy neighbor.’ ”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr