Eve-Lyn Williams’ battle began in 1963 when she became the first person of color to move into the 265 Hawthorne Street apartment building in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Williams was able to get into the building because of a recommendation from a friend of the super.
This is the story of a courageous woman who wouldn’t be forced out of her apartment despite the tremendous ordeals she endured: malicious attempts from the non-profit that was supposed to help her; being arrested; catching a viral infection; and, being declared a mentally disturbed person.
Her decades-long battles also offer lessons and a template for how others can win against unscrupulous landlords or management companies and end up owning their own apartments.
Williams said, “My first apartment in 265 Hawthorne was a $75 per month studio where, sleeping on the floor, I stayed for seven months. After depositing $500 to establish credit at Citibank and still being denied credit, I persisted and eventually was loaned $2,000. With this money I was able to buy furniture and move to a one bedroom apartment for $125.”
Williams is a very community-minded person involved in various groups and attended Housing Preservation Development (HPD) workshops. She became aware that the building’s landlord was warehousing apartments – half the building’s apartments were empty. When the complexions of the tenants changed, the delivery of services changed. The landlord became a slumlord, and Williams became the unofficial spokesperson for the tenants who protested, she said.
She had a six-month-old baby at the time; yet Williams had no working stove and a deteriorated refrigerator. She had already informed other tenants to withhold rent until they received abatements for lack of services. She took her case to court and won $800, the amount she had withheld in rent payments. This win marked the beginning of her emergence as a strong fighter for tenants’ rights.
Williams encouraged other tenants to fight back. She gave calendars to building tenants and told them to mark the days they were without heat during the winter months; they then added up these days and went to court and demanded abatements on their rent.
At some point, the landlord stopped paying the mortgage and was forced to turn the building over temporarily to a new landlord. Williams said the new landlord came in threatening tenants for withheld rents. The landlord didn’t like it that she was educating tenants about their rights.
But she was there to stay.
In 1986 the building experienced a devastating fire, black smoke bellowed throughout the building, and Williams’ apartment was damaged. The fire destroyed part of the roof and 23 apartments were completely destroyed. This was a 71 unit building. Marty Markowitz, then the State Senator whose jurisdiction covered her district, was able to get Con Edison to put up a generator for lighting.
Reporters from NBC and ABC had to walk on planks to get to the apartments to cover the story. “The Landlord was paying crack heads to remove the tarp put up by the fire department which prevented water from seeping into the apartments”, Williams remembered. This was just the beginning of the harassment to force tenants to vacate the building.
Williams drew up a petition and encouraged the tenants who were temporarily forced out after the fire to go to court and fight to keep their apartments. Several elected officials helped: Markowitz, his housing director, Gloria Robinson, along with then Assemblyman Clarence Norman, his housing aid, Quinn Allen, and Carolyn Sanders from the then Mayor’s Office. Community organizations and churches also helped and Williams’ involvement with the People’s Alliance Community Organization helped her secure $250,000 for renovations to the 23 apartments that were destroyed.
Through the efforts of the supporters working with Williams, after a two year struggle, around 1989 the City finally agreed to offer the tenants cooperative ownership apartments for $250 through the Interim Program. However, the deal did not go through because the tenants did not meet the required 50% participation.
Williams was the first to receive a newly-renovated apartment.
Williams said, “They say that lightening doesn’t strike the same place twice, but it did for us.” In 2007 the landlord lost the building again, for owing over $11 million for non-payment of taxes. At the time, Williams was taking courses with HPD, working with neighborhood kids while working full time. The year before she got the renovated apartment, in 1988 she had an accident on the job which left her almost paralyzed.
In 1992 there was another challenge; Williams was diagnosed with cancer. She still offered to assist the landlord with collecting rents. The landlord was not making repairs and Williams offered to manage the building pro bono in order to help the tenants. When the city took the building in 2007, there were no tenants in arrears due to Williams’ management.
Williams was the “on site pro bono manager” until 2007 when a letter was posted in the building notifying the tenants of the opportunity to secure the building as a “low income coop” where they would pay $2,500 to buy their apartments through the New York City Housing Third Party Transfer Program. Several steps had to be taken before tenant ownership. The first step was to secure signatures to solidify the tenants getting the building. Markowitz, Caroline Sanders and other community groups provided references. Williams went door to door to get the support of tenants for the purchase of the building.
They needed a non-profit agency as sponsor who would become temporary owners of the building until the project was completed. The HPD sent a list of non-profits to choose from and the tenants went with Pratt Area Community Council. After Pratt became the sponsor and temporary owner, everything changed, Williams said.
Williams was told that she could not be involved because she was the Tenants Association president, and had a disability problem. Williams recalls Debra Howard, executive director of Pratt Council saying “and, you are not that young anymore.” The relationship between Williams and the Pratt Council was difficult to say the least. She was constantly harassed by the Council who probably hoped she would become frustrated and just leave, she said.
Specifications were drawn up on how the building was to be renovated. The specs put together with the Pratt Group were changed without their knowledge, Williams said. According to Williams, Pratt proposed to put a family of four in a studio. They wanted to change one bedroom apartments into two bedrooms, and two bedroom apartments into three bedrooms.
The nonprofit even attempted to make Williams lose her disability benefits by offering to put her on the Pratt Council payroll, she says.
As a result of Williams’ spinal accident on the job, her bathtub became a medical necessity for use in a doctor prescribed regiment. The original tub was removed during the renovation and was supposed to be returned after the work was completed. The tenants were not allowed a walk-through after the renovations as is customary. When Williams inquired about her missing tub, she recalls a Pratt official saying: “The tub may be in Santo Domingo.”
When she offered to buy a new tub, she was told that she needed a structural engineer; she paid $700 for one who gave her certification that her original tub measured up. She was then asked by Pratt to produce a doctor’s approval which she did. Finally she was told she couldn’t install the tub till she purchased her unit.
She had many other problems including living with a faulty radiator. The temperature in Williams’ apartment ran between 93 to 95 degrees. “White suits turned brown; my skin dried out and I became ill. The venetian blinds actually melted from the heat,” she recalls, showing some she’s kept as proof all these years. She paid a private plumber to disconnect the radiator.
Williams said the reason behind many of the problems was that Pratt had a conflict of interest. (Pratt is no longer involved with the building. Their role ended on April 23, 2018. The Pratt Council has since dissolved and this reporter made unsuccessful attempts to reach officials who were once associated with the Pratt Council).
Pratt Council fired the management company, Neighborhood Restore. Instead of being the sponsor and temporary owner, Pratt also folded in the role of manager.
After Hurricane Sandy, Williams had to relocate to have her apartment renovated. She went to a basement apartment in the building. She refused to leave the building knowing full well that neither she nor the other tenants would be able to return. The basement apartment had flooded, resulting in mold and became home to giant-sized rats. As a result, Williams was diagnosed with mold virus.
After the renovations were completed, Williams filed a claim for reimbursement for storage fees for her furniture. The claim was denied. Moreover, Pratt accused her of occupying two apartments. The police were called and actually handcuffed and dragged Williams out of the building based on Pratt’s accusations. Williams said “I was accused of being crazed and dangerous.”
Williams was taken to Kings County Hospital as a mentally disturbed person. She has the paperwork to substantiate her claim, and still bears the marks from the handcuffs on her wrist. A fellow tenant and family member were able to have her released. “The reason I didn’t sue was that it would have been too much on me. My primary goal was to save the 69 tenants and myself from being homeless” Williams said.
Meanwhile a lawyer named David Morisset worked pro bono to untangle the legal maze that was preventing tenants from closing the deal for ownership. He succeeded, after eight years.
In 2018, the tenants purchased their apartments for $2,500. The monthly share is only 30% of their income. For Williams it was the culmination of a journey that started in 1963. “I have always given all thanks to the All Mighty God for giving me the knowledge, wisdom, understanding and love of my Prospect Lefferts Garden community and the residences of the building to see this project come true,” she said. “We vow to make this project an example of what can be done when you stand up and fight back.”
In addition to people who helped in the early stages — like Markowitz, Norman, Jr., and lawyer Morisset; Williams said she’s thankful to Carmen Martinez who wrote the building’s first bylaws; the 71st Precinct Police Department; and, State Senator Jesse Hamilton and Councilman Mathieu Eugene who signed on to start the Third Party Process.