During landlord harassment trial, residents testify to threatening behavior and climate of fear

Tenant Francis Roberts in front of 972 Park Place in November, where the landlord is allegedly harassing tenants.
Tenant Francis Roberts in front of 972 Park Place in November.
Photo by Anna Bradley-Smith

Maria Flores’ elderly father was home alone when a man with a dog climbed from the rear of neighboring 972 Park Place onto her parlor-floor terrace and tried to break into her home.

Martin Zack was sick and cooking dinner when an inebriated man jumped from the same property and started banging on his back door saying he was part of a hostage situation. The man then jumped back over the fence, climbed up to the parlor level and was let inside through a window, after trying to swing from wires above.

Hal Drellich saw a man that was staying in the same property verbally abuse, then throw a bottle, at a couple that was trying to park their car outside 972 Park Place.

Those are just a few of the situations the three Park Place residents described in Brooklyn Civil Court Tuesday while testifying in a trial where fellow Park Place resident, Francis Roberts, is accusing his landlord of harassing him in an attempt to push him out of his home of more than 20 years.

The harassment, the neighbors told Judge Remy Smith, goes beyond the walls of 972 Park Place, where Roberts lives on the ground floor, and it has created a climate of tension and fear on the entire Crown Heights block, drastically decreasing the quality of life for all residents.

Flores told Smith how her family relocated to Park Place from Harlem, buying the house next door to Roberts in 2015, because it was a diverse neighborhood with lovely neighbors and offered “the life we wanted to give our kids growing up.” But since the adjoining building changed hands in April 2022, the “whole flavor of the block has changed.”

“Now we are worried about our safety, it has ruined our quality of life,” she testified, describing how piles of trash, tent encampments, and a range of intoxicated and menacing people had appeared in the subsequent months. “My kids have seen people taking drugs, half naked, unhoused men.”

The outrageous goings-on are not an accident but have been purposefully set in motion by the landlord in an attempt to drive out Roberts, a rent-regulated tenant of more than 20 years, Flores and other neighbors allege.

‘All I’m asking for is a normal life’

In August 2022, Roberts, with representation from Brooklyn Legal Services, filed a lawsuit against his landlord, 972 Park Place LLC (HPD is named as a co-defendant), accusing the LLC and its president, Yehuda Gruenberg, of failing to repair the rent-stabilized garden apartment and harassing him in attempts to get him to leave. The LLC purchased the property in early 2022.

That alleged harassment includes “utter neglect” of the apartment; not immediately fixing sewage that was bubbling up through his kitchen sink and bathtub due to broken plumbing; allowing more sewage to leak in front of his bedroom windows from two portable toilets set up outside; drug deals taking place in tents set up around his front door that house “vagrants and itinerants” who have had conflicts with Roberts and threatened neighbors; music blaring into his living room 24 hours a day through a hole in the ceiling; chickens roaming outside his bedroom windows and a large dog roaming inside the building; and more.

Gruenberg has allegedly taken little to no action to address the hundreds of violations, despite constant requests from Roberts and city agencies, and, according to the lawsuit, Gruenberg is “aware of and complicit and/or encouraging of this illegal scheme of intentional harassment.” The suit adds: “Despite full knowledge of the illegal encampments and dangerous drug use, the landlords have utterly failed to protect the security of the building, or deal with these problems in any way at all.”

The trial for the case started in December, when Roberts testified. “How can that not affect a normal person?” he said through tears during his testimony.

“I’m 77 years old, and these goons are trying to harass me out of my apartment after my abject pleading for my safety and well being, all I am asking is for normal life. All I’m asking is for normal life and peace in my apartment. Just let me live a normal life I would like to live at my age. That’s all I’m asking,” he said.

On Tuesday, neighbors took to the stand to support Roberts, describing the situation he, and the entire block, had been living under.

Flores explained how loud chanting music was played from the parlor floor of 972 Park Place 24 hours a day seven days a week for months. “It really impacted our living situation, it impacted our sleep, we couldn’t have people over, keep in mind we have a ton of insulation,” she said. When she reached out to Gruenberg, the landlord for the property, he allegedly said there was nothing he could do about it.

She explained how large tents were set up in the front yard of 927 Park Place, outside Roberts’ bedroom window and blocking his exit from the house, and how they were lived in by a range of unhoused, half naked men. “You could see them taking drugs, urinating…there were lots of fights amongst them, broken glass.”

At one point, one of the men told her they were there at the behest of the landlord, she testified, and she alleged another former tenant told her everything would stop when Roberts moved out.

In October, Flores said, her elderly father came to stay with her family and they employed an aide to look after him while they were at work. One day, after the aide had gone home for the day, Flores got a call from a concerned neighbor saying a man with a dog had climbed from the parlor floor of 972 Park Place onto Roberts’ kitchen roof, which extends into the backyard, and then climbed onto her parlor terrace and was trying to break into her house.

With her father home alone, she had to leave work and rush home to make sure he was safe, she said. “That’s why I am very upset.”

Flores, and the other neighbors, testified that despite numerous complaints to multiple city agencies, the landlord, and the police, nothing changed. “The block realized we could do more as a community…it’s the only way you can get anything done because no one listens to you.”

Harassment allegedly at ‘landlord’s behest’

Martin Zack, who lives with his five housemates on the other side of Roberts, testified that since the transfer of ownership of 972 Park Place the change in the conditions on the block had been “destabilizing to our quality of life and dangerous for Francis, we are concerned about the safety of our whole block.”

He said there was “so much dangerous behavior” taking place at 972 Park Place, including menacing, threatening and unstable behavior of tenants and vagrants, defecation, drug buying and selling, and loud noise, it was “hard to describe concisely how much we endured.”

Once, he testified, a person staying on the property yelled at him and his housemates, “I’m going to knife you, I’m going to gun you motherf****r, I’m harder than you tent police.

Another time, Zack said, he invited 15 people over for the second night of Rosh Hashanah when someone staying at 972 Park Place tipped over two portable toilets that had been set up in the property’s front yard. “No one took responsibility for the porta-potties, no one cleaned them,” he said. Despite the police and fire department turning up, no one took any action and he had to leave his guests to clean the sewage alongside other neighbors.

There was also the drunk person who jumped the fence and banged on the back door claiming there was a hostage situation, twice, Zack said, and the time he had guests around for Shabbat dinner only to find his front yard filled with chickens.

The chickens, he said, belonged to Aaron Akaberi, whom Roberts accuses of being an agent of the landlord installed as a tenant at 972 Park Place to coordinate the harassment efforts. Roberts and the neighbors allege that Akaberi is the person who set up the tents, played the music, allowed trash to pile up at the house, and is responsible for letting transient people in and out of the property and tents.

Zack said that on one occasion some of the men living in the tent told him it was a Mishkan (a Hebrew word meaning tabernacle) and their mission was like the Exodus, a mission of liberation, which Zack said “is a perverse description given they are entrapping Francis in his apartment.”

“Francis is a dream neighbor, he couldn’t be kinder or more accommodating, he is a pleasure to live next to,” Zack said. “They have worn him down, but he has shown extraordinary equanimity.”

Issues remain as landlord trial continues

Hal Drellich, who has lived on the block for 20 years and known Roberts the entire time, testified that Akaberi was harassing Roberts, and it was the landlord’s responsibility to keep the tenants in the building free from harassment.

He said he couldn’t believe Gruenberg was “so negligent” in caring for his building and he couldn’t see why it would be so difficult to maintain, adding what he had seen of the interior was in a state of “horrible disrepair.”

“Mr. Roberts is friendly, outgoing, he is a cyclist, like I am. He is physically and mentally fit, lucid. He is a good neighbor,” Drellich said. “We have exchanged gardening tools.”

However, Drellich said Roberts’ “mood changes when he is talking about his situation in the house, he becomes despondent when explaining what is going on in his house.”

Drellich said he had tried to talk to Akaberi numerous times about different issues including the piled up trash and his unleashed dog defecating on the street, but said “he speaks in gibberish when confronted, all kinds of explanations about higher powers. If Mr. Akaberi is not psychotic, he’s doing a very good job of fooling everybody.”

When Gruenberg’s lawyer, Julius Toonkel, asked Drellich if he had seen Akaberi physically harass Roberts, Drellich said he had not. Toonkel had the opportunity to cross examine each witness, but did not spend much time on questioning.

A member of Roberts’ legal team, Liam McSweeney, told Smith that despite some repairs being made to the unit during the course of the trial, Roberts remained without gas, there were ongoing electrical issues in the kitchen and hallway that left him without light, lead removal was needed in parts of the apartment, there is no security to Roberts’ apartment with the front gate being continually being propped open, and more.

The trial will resume next week.

A version of this story first appeared on Brownstoner.com.