City reaches $2.25M settlement with Crown Heights “eco-yogi slumlords”

dean street
Tenants of 1214 Dean St., and landlord Gennaro Brooks-Church.
Photo by Ben Verde

The city has reached a $2.25 million settlement with a notorious pair of Crown Heights slumlords who attempted to evict tenants during the pandemic in violation of the state’s eviction moratorium, and who reportedly operated an illegal hotel operation for several years.

The $2.25 million settlement against Gennaro Brooks-Church and Loretta Gendville — “eco-yogi slumlords” as the mayor’s office deemed them — is the largest in city history relating to illegal short-term rentals. The terms of the settlement will compel Brooks-Church and Gendville to turn over their brownstone at 1214 Dean Street, valued by the mayor’s office at $2 million, to be converted into affordable housing, and to pay $250,000 in fines.

“During a period of unprecedented global struggle, Brooks-Church and Gendville callously forced New Yorkers from their homes,” said Attorney General Letitia James, whose office prosecuted the case, in a statement. “We have long seen these types of harmful housing scams, especially in Central Brooklyn, where people make a business out of unfairly and inhumanely pushing others out of their homes. Let this serve as a warning: any landlord who mistreats and tries to unlawfully evict renters will face the full force of my office and the law.”

Brooks-Church and Gendville, formerly romantic partners, were an almost comically stereotypical representation of white, liberal gentrifiers in Brooklyn over the last decade. Brooks-Church is a self-described “eco-builder,” having turned his own brownstone into a “water-neutral” space by building a pond and water-absorbing garden on the property. Gendville, meanwhile, owned a vegan cafe called Planted Community Cafe, as well as a chain of yoga studios and spas called Area Yoga, as well as children’s stores called Area Kids.

The pair frequently popped up in local news reports as emblems of a changing Brooklyn. But underneath the surface, those who knew them say, the pair were Dickensian hyper-capitalists obsessively concerned with the bottom line in their real estate empire.

The couple are alleged to have operated an illegal short-term rental operation from 2016 through 2020, pocketing $1.4 million from 5,600 guests, across fourteen homes in nine different buildings. On one hand, guests could rent one of their brownstones on Airbnb for as much as $800 per night, while on the other, at 1214 Dean, tenants who had often fallen on hard times were able to rent single rooms (in violation of the parcel’s zoning designation) for $1,000 a month. Tenants at 1214 Dean were not on formal leases, and the landlords reportedly ordered tenants to not let housing inspectors in the door.

During the pandemic, some tenants did not pay rent — for which they now had legal protections under the moratorium — for several months, to which the landlords allegedly agreed. They later recanted and demanded back-rent, and ordered their tenants to move out. While Brooks-Church initially claimed the pair were selling the house, it later turned out that they themselves intended to relocate to the building as the pandemic interrupted their income stream and debts piled up.

The four tenants living there said that they had reached an agreement with the landlords to vacate by a certain date, but before that took place, in July 2020, the couple arrived at the dwelling unannounced and barged into tenants’ units, screaming at them to leave and calling them squatters. The attempted eviction was illegal not only under the moratorium then-in-place, but would have been illegal even before the pandemic as well, as Brooks-Church and Gendville did not have a court order authorizing the eviction, which is supposed to be undertaken by the city’s Sheriff.

When word of the evictions got out, dozens of protesters showed up outside the house to attempt to stop the eviction. A disheveled-looking Brooks-Church stood sentry in his doorway as protesters called him, among other things, a villain from a Charles Dickens novel. The landlord eventually left the scene, but called in locksmiths to change the locks, an endeavor that proved unsuccessful. 

The city’s Law Department ordered a cease-and-desist on the evictions within days — after several days of occupation by protesters attempting to stop the evictions — and filed suit against the landlords in November. The following month, the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement filed a separate suit against them over their illegal short-term rentals at nine buildings across Brooklyn. The pair were separately sued by the four tenants they attempted to evict — that suit was also settled on Wednesday.

“The matter was settled without the need for protracted and expensive litigation and without any admission of liability,” said the pair’s attorney, Kenneth Fisher, in a statement. “It was a good outcome.”

This story has been updated with comment from an attorney for the landlords