TENANT ADVOCATE OR LANDLORD CHUM?
RENTERS CHALLENGE NONPROFIT HEAD

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Lawrence Hilonowitz is known in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene as a dedicated fighter for landlords. He advises them when they are in housing court and sends letters to their tenants. His work would scarcely be unusual, if not for one thing: He’s also the executive director of a group called the Kings County Tenants’ Coalition.

“I see Mr. Hilonowitz in housing court all the time, and I’ve never seen him working with tenants,” said tenant lawyer Ronald Languedoc of South Brooklyn Legal Services (SBLS), who in August received a letter on behalf of a Brooklyn landlord signed by Hilonowitz that sarcastically referred to one of SBLS’ clients as a “genius” and another as a “moron.”

In a recent letter to a separate tenant who had filed a rent-overcharge complaint, Hilonowitz, who said he was “retained” by the landlord, wrote: “An apartment your size can easily rent for well over $1,000 and even close to $2,000 per month. You are fortunate, and Greedy.” He ended the letter by warning the tenant that he will defend against the “frivolous complaint,” as well as file a lawsuit against the tenant for damages if he continues his case.

Hilonowitz scoffs at the notion that he favors landlords. “That’s an absolute, bald-faced lie!” he yelled, when reached by phone at his Clinton Avenue office. “I have always been a tenant advocate!” He said he had been involved in tenants’ rights work ever since the
1980s, when he organized the Flatbush building he was living in. That work spawned the Kings Highway Tenant Association, which was incorporated by Hilonowitz in 1996 as the Kings County Tenants’ Coalition.

Hilonowitz estimates that “practically 99.9 percent” of his cases are in support of tenants, and that when he works with landlords it is simply to “mediate” a solution. One tenant, Guillermo Ramirez, describes Hilonowitz as a “brilliant mind” who assisted him when he received an eviction notice earlier this year. “Normally, people are scared when they go into housing court, but Larry was terrific in explaining the entire process,” he said. Hilonowitz helped him avoid eviction, receive money from Catholic Charities, and win a rent-overcharge complaint. “He is a person that knows the law inside out,” he concluded.

But tenants facing Hilonowitz tell a very different story, and numerous documents obtained by City Limits show him doing much more than simply “mediating” for landlords.

Last year, Hilonowitz moved his office into the basement of 316 Clinton Avenue, where the rent-stabilized tenants had filed a case against their landlord for attempting to dramatically increase their rents. Hilonowitz, who is not being charged rent for his office space, became the landlord’s agent, and began sending letters to the tenants—even after a judge ruled against the landlord in the rent case.

Two tenants who have lived in the building for more than 20 years spoke to City Limits under the condition of anonymity, citing concerns of retaliation.

“Our harassment has been terrible,” said one of the tenants, arguing that Hilonowitz’s actions have created an environment of “total intimidation.” To support this claim, both tenants showed City Limits numerous letters they have received from the Kings County Tenants’ Coalition.

In one, when Hilonowitz claimed to have discovered several empty cat food cans in the trash, he promised to install a closed circuit camera to “catch the morons” who had failed to recycle and pursue eviction proceedings against them. In another letter, after a tenant complained anonymously to the Department of Buildings (DOB) about renovation work, Hilonowitz wrote that the “idiot” needed to “get a life” and “some therapy,” and that he had already sent the legal department of the DOB the name of the “suspect” whom he believed had lodged the complaint.

“He has told me, ‘Well, if you don’t like it, you should just leave,'” said another tenant. “But his actions have only brought the tenants closer together, and we are more determined to stay. We’re not going to let him push us out.”

The Coalition is one of 35 groups in New York City that receive federal funding through the Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP) of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which helps tenants pay items like back rent and utilities, and is administered by the United Way of New York City. Kathy Walling, United Way’s vice president of communications, said the Coalition had been funded by EFSP for the past six years, and last year received $17,300, of which 1 percent—or $173—could be used for administrative costs.

Itala Rutter, director of EFSP in New York City, said the only complaint she had heard about Hilonowitz was during a meeting of social service organizations, where a woman charged that he was assisting landlords. “I asked him if that was true, and he said no,” she said. “Some people looked into it, but they didn’t find any evidence.”

–Gabriel Thompson