Some residents of the Gardens of Forest Hills Owners Corp. (GFH), a housing cooperative in the neighborhood, led a street protest on Sunday, Dec. 6, against board president Belal Mohd, a real estate broker, for overcharging shareholders.
About 25 protesters were at 66th Road near the Grand Central Parkway for the demonstration, during which residents said that for more than a decade, shareholders of GFH have served as sources of income for Mohd, who along with his Superior Service Realty LLC, have sold more than 100 apartments from the co-op, which were discovered in litigation documents.
During his tenure, 22 co-op owned rent stabilized apartments were sold for about $5 million with about $920,000 wiped off to somewhere that the board has not provided any records of.
Lily Liang, who was elected as a board member of the co-op last year, said what has happened in the co-op is the “most absurd thing” she has ever seen.
“As a board director, I repeatedly requested the board to examine the records of the whereabouts of the wipe-off,” Liang said. “The money belonged to 300 households. There must be accountability here. But I was simply ignored by Mohd and his pals on the board.”
According to Liang, for years, shareholders could not have a fair election. Video was taken of Mohd inspecting election proxies in favor of his opponents, which was posted on YouTube. Since it was a civil offense, nothing happened.
In last year’s election, Cesarano & Khan PC, an accounting firm hired by the board disqualified 35 proxies for “signature issues” and refused to disclose the names of the shareholders they disenfranchised, Liang said. It resulted in only two opposition leaders to the board with five incumbents.
“Mohd still controls the board. In a country of democracy, voting is people’s sacred rights. But again, under state law, disenfranchisement in a co-op election is a civil wrong,” Liang said. “There is no punishment for doing that but a huge cost for the grieved party to prove the wrong.”
In response to the YouTube video, Mohd told QNS that he was actually submitting his proxy to the inspector.
“This is a video from years ago,” Mohd said. “It doesn’t matter what is published, they will twist it and become very creative saying, ‘This is a bad guy, don’t vote for him.’ They want to kick me out so they can control the group.”
The constant irregularities of the co-op elections have led to some shareholders that have been arbitrarily charged penalties of up to tens of thousands of dollars, Liang said. Once an apartment carries such a penalty, it becomes very difficult to sell.
Lenna D’Souza, 69, a shareholder of the Gardens at Forest Hills Owners Corp., said she tried to sell her apartment to a relative, but the co-op office onsite refused to sign a bank questionnaire for her buyer, and didn’t give her a reason as to why they couldn’t do it.
“Since then, I have been in mental anguish. I don’t want to hire a broker to sell my apartment because my little money is for my healthcare,” D’Souza said. “I have been a taxpayer for decades, but when I need government protection, there is none. I am calling for the authorities to look into my situation and help the helpless.”
Another shareholder, Naresh Patel, said he has been accused by Mohd of illegal subletting, despite the fact that he and his wife invested in a unit and provided written permission from the previous board.
As a result, his maintenance account has been charged various fees up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
“I didn’t realize why such harsh treatment until an ex-shareholder said she was charged $10,000 because a relative lived in her apartment, and she ended up hiring Mr. Mohd’s real estate firm and sold her apartment,” Patel said.
According to Patel, in 2017, one week after the co-op opposition group — to which his brother belongs and is second in leadership — made it clear that they were going to run for the co-op election, he had received a notice asking him to “cure” a renovation of the investment unit that was completed a half year ago. The unit was then sent to an auction.
As of today, Patel said his maintenance bill shows a balance of $272,000, which is more than the apartment’s worth.
In 2016, Rohit Shah, who is also a shareholder of GFH, was moving out to live at his daughter’s house, and Mohd had offered to rent out his apartment. He had agreed, but later changed his mind and decided to hire an agent.
Shah was then charged a $2,000 illegal sublet fee for not having board approval. In his affidavit, Shah said, “In my decade-long living at the co-op, I have never received a notice about policies on subletting an apartment.”
In September 2019, he was charged again, this time for $500, without any written explanation.
“To not jeopardize my ongoing application to sublet my apartment, I paid the penalty,” Shah said.
When asked about the shareholders’ statements, Mohd said the group is trying to use the media to influence their pending court case and the next election.
“They’re trying to start something and some of them don’t even live in the co-op,” Mohd said. “There’s been a lot of intimidation, harassment and attacks against me. These are investors who owe a lot of money to the co-op and they’re spreading false lies and propaganda.”
According to Mohd, the group is hurting the co-op, where 368 families currently reside and more than 90 percent of the shareholders are peaceful and pay their bills.
“It’s the people who don’t want to pay their bills and take over the co-op. I know some of them hate me, and it’s very upsetting and hurtful,” Mohd said. “I’m a realty broker by profession and you want to hurt me, but you’re also hurting innocent people who won’t be able to buy, sell or rent because of the name. Everything is posted online and people tend to believe it. They were happy it would ruin my profession.”
The shareholders have reported to law enforcement, but nothing has been done to protect them, they said.
After filing a lawsuit twice at the Supreme Court of Queens and spending three years and tens of thousands of dollars drawn from their retirement funds, the cases were consecutively dismissed for procedure issues such as being late to file affidavits.
Though the lawsuits were dismissed, Mohd said it had impacted the business, calling it an embarrassment.
“If I’m the bad guy, why does the co-op have to give you $10 million?” Mohd said. “We suffered a lot and it doesn’t matter who won the lawsuit, the banks would turn them down,” Mohd said. “It affects the people who live here and quality of life. Who wants to live here when people are using the media?”
According to Liang, the New York Co-op shareholders are severely disadvantaged in fighting against board corruptions.
“The NY Business Corporation Laws (721-724) entitle board co-op money for lawyer fees in civil and criminal cases. Skilled lawyers can turn such litigation into a game of who has money, and who wins,” Liang said. “Lawyers representing the GFH board requested to depose each of the 12 suing plaintiffs ‘day to day,’ setting up a huge financial hurdle for the plaintiffs to overcome while the board didn’t have to pay a penny out of their own pockets.”
After spending $210,000 of co-op money on legal fees, Liang said, Mohd and his associates, without a word to opposition leaders on the board, began charging shareholders assessments in October when some had trouble paying for food due to COVID.
“Shareholders at GFH wonder if Mohd has ever been a legitimately elected president, because all he did in court was to fight fiercely not to disclose original votes,” Liang said.
Edwin Wong, president of the Forest Hills Asian Association (FHAA) who is running for in the District 29 City Council race, suggested forming a coalition not only with GFH, but also with other co-ops in the area that may be enduring a similar situation.
“Mr. Mohd, if you are hearing this message, these are all shareholders,” Wong said. “You and the rest of the board that isn’t doing what’s right, I think, is going to catch up with you. I think right now, the best thing is for us to keep this awareness of this group and other groups. And then, from there, we’ll build a coalition and more awareness.”
The group is asking grieving or concerned New Yorkers to join them at “NYC Co-op Shareholders” on Facebook, or search “Lily Liang, New York” on Facebook to communicate.