After just a few months in their Franklin Avenue storefront, Crown Heights community space Public Assistants is facing eviction — threatening to derail the mutual aid locale after they spent thousands of dollars renovating the former dilapidated laundromat.
The landlord told the space’s organizers that they have between 20 and 50 days to vacate the space to make room for a gourmet supermarket, which the property owners have authority to do under the informal lease, which they claim they were “bullied” into signing.
“I was bullied into signing a lease that doesn’t even uphold much of my own rights,” said DonChristian Jones, a founder of the space on the corner of Park Place.
Jones said he had a “handshake agreement” with the landlords, who are listed as 705-711 Franklin LLC on city property records, to let them use the storefront until Summer 2021 at a minimum, but that the property owners have gone back on that deal.
Throughout the pandemic, Public Assistants has served as a multi-faceted community and mutual aid space for Crown Heights — offering food, a community garden, a mural residency program for local youth, bike repairs and free bikes, tailoring, and a non-commercial space for local artists to gather and support each other.
During the height of the summer’s protest movement, the space served as a hub where demonstrators made protest signs, and during the holidays, organizers held a toy and coat drive that served 83 families in the neighborhood.
“Every day we essentially are open for anyone to consult with us, and if they have an issue we can address or help them with, we attempt to,” said Jones.
The organizers spent over $20,000 to renovate the dilapidated storefront into a usable space, which their landlord, who could not be reached for comment, will take advantage of in leasing the space. The mutual aid organization does not expect to be reimbursed for the costs.
“All the sweat equity, labor, and the resources and money that have gone into making the space what it is now, that could have been spent otherwise on programming,” Jones said.
Stacey Sheffey, a longtime resident of Park Place who owns a home next to the storefront, watched as Public Assistants breathed life into a once-desolate corner. While the management company let the sidewalk fill up with trash and go unshoveled after snowstorms for years, the Public Assistants team kept the street tidy and added colorful murals to its plain walls.
“They added some life, my other neighbors say the same thing too,” Sheffey said. “It was a great experience, and still was to this moment. I would be sad if they don’t get the chance to stay.”
While they hope the ongoing commercial eviction moratorium will keep them in their space a few months longer, they are fundraising for an eventual move, which they hope will still be within Crown Heights.
“We want to desperately stay in this neighborhood, and so if that means we have to move, we will,” Jones said. “In a perfect world we would love for some anarchist philanthropist to swoop in — but we are going to go full force in fundraising.”
A source familiar with the agreement however disputed that a handshake agreement was ever made, and that the idea of staying in the space until summer was little more than “optimistic talk.”
The source, who asked not to be named, pointed out that Public Assistants never had a lease and used the space for free, and that the biggest sticking point between Public Assistants and their landlords was the amount of days notice they would be given to vacate the space, and their lack of liability insurance.
Public Assistants was given 30 days to vacate the space on Jan. 21.