With her belongings hastily packed in garbage bags and piled high in front of her apartment, Edna Greenaway was evicted last week. Her landlord, Hope Community, a nonprofit housing developer in East Harlem, closed the door on a cascading string of events that began with a simple paperwork error.
“This is so lousy,” said Greenaway, a middle-aged Antiguan immigrant as she stood and watched a city marshal slap a lock on her apartment door, with many of her belongings still inside. “I was only supposed to pay $223 a month. How did this happen?”
For nearly two years, the landlord and Greenaway battled over how much rent she should pay. In 1999, Hope Community took over her apartment building at 311 East 111th Street as part of the city’s Neighborhood Redevelopment Program. As part of NRP, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development awards city-owned buildings to nonprofit developers, setting the monthly rent at 30 percent of the tenant’s income. In Greenway’s case, that was $223.
But when Hope Community submitted its NRP paperwork to the city, it indicated that Greenaway lived with Gary Dean, a friend whose name was on Greenaway’s original lease. With his income added to hers, the city fixed the rent at $375 a month.
Greenaway claims that when she signed that first lease back in December 1998, a Hope Community representative told her she needed a co-signer on the lease because her income was too low. So she asked Dean to put his name and financial information on the lease. But, say both Greenaway and Dean, he never lived there, and even Hope Community does not allege that he did. But the group won’t budge off the $375 rent.
That initial mistake was quickly compounded. Greenaway missed a 60-day deadline to appeal her higher rent, which was then filed with the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, making it the apartment’s official rent.
“It’s quite a trail of errors,” said Greenaway’s pro bono attorney, David Hershey-Webb of Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben & Donoghue. “DHCR relied on HPD; HPD relied on Hope; Hope relies on that first lease. Why can’t someone stop and look at the facts?”
For its part, Hope Community is sticking to its legal argument: They have a legal lease that says two people live in that apartment, so it must be so, unless a court tells them otherwise. “Her case has been reviewed by DHCR, HPD and the [Housing] Court Judge, giving her ample opportunity to prove her rent was erroneously calculated,” said Hope Community’s executive director, Mark Alexander in a written statement.
That’s not quite accurate. Greenaway and Hershey Webb never had the chance to dispute the rent in Housing Court because she couldn’t afford the nearly $2,000 she owed in back rent–her only income is workers’ compensation and disability checks. (The 1997 Rent Deposit law says tenants must put back rent in an escrow account before they can appeal their case before a judge.) So Greenaway lost her appeal on that technicality.
For Dave Powell, an organizer with the Metropolitan Council on Housing who supported Edna’s losing battle to keep her apartment, it’s Hope’s refusal to take a step back and address the specifics of the dispute–how much should Edna’s rent be–that’s most frustrating. “If you’re a community based organization, your first priority should be to right the wrong, not some technicality,” he said angrily. “Make the rent what it should be.”