When Eugenia Patskina was informed last February that her new landlord would refuse to renew her lease on the comfortable studio apartment in the Manhattan Beach section of Brooklyn, the then 88-year-old woman became so overwrought that she had to be rushed to a nearby hospital in an ambulance.
Patskina, who has occupied her studio since shortly after arriving in America from Moscow in the early 1990s, is legally blind, and suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and declining kidney function. She depends on longtime friends and neighbors in the two-story red brick apartment building she calls home to take her out for short walks in the evening after her Medicare-provided caretaker goes home for the night. If forced to move to a new
> apartment in a different area, Patskina fears, she will be homebound in the evenings and with no one to turn to for companionship.
The plight of Patskina and of other residents of the 25-apartment building at 35-45 West End Ave. began early last year when the building was purchased for $4 million by the nearby Mesivta and Yeshiva Gedolah of Manhattan Beach. The yeshiva’s principal and trustee, Rabbi Joshua Zelikovitz, who is also the rabbi at the Manhattan Beach Jewish Center directly across the street, immediately informed the residents that he planned to convert their building into classroom space for the yeshiva, which already holds title to two other buildings on the block. Therefore all of them would have to move as soon as their one-year leases ran out.
Zelikovitz reassured the building’s most vulnerable residents — Patskina and seven other elderly Russian immigrants with Section 8 subsidized units for which they pay an average of $100-200 a month — that he would help them locate alternative affordable housing in the neighborhood.
Yet over a year later no such apartments have been found. Residents charge that the rabbi and his real estate agents have offered them only a handful of possible apartments, all of which were either filthy and decrepit or could be attained only by paying prospective landlords a bribe of some $10,000-$20,000, which landlords in the area customarily demand before accepting Section 8 tenants, according to city housing advocates.
Meanwhile, Zelikovitz has filed eviction notices against most of the tenants of the 16 apartments that are still occupied while refusing to accept the rent payments they have sent him.
“The rabbi promised at the beginning he wouldn’t evict me, but now I have received an eviction notice,” said Patskina, who said she is unable to sleep these days out of fear of imminent eviction. She added, “I am Jewish and assumed all my life that rabbis were kind and compassionate. Never could I have imagined that a rabbi would deny me the right to live out my last years in dignity.”
Unlike the residents of an adjoining apartment building just down the block at 59 West End Ave., who vacated en masse after the Mesivta took over their building five years ago and refused to renew their leases, the occupants of 35-45 have banded together to resist Zelkovitz. The tenants believe the rabbi does not really plan to expand the Mesivta after he empties the building of its tenants. Instead, they believe he wants to sell both properties and a large parking lot in between them at a huge profit to developers who will likely knock down the buildings to make way for luxury condos.
“We are filing a motion of discovery in Brooklyn Housing Court because we have strong reason to believe [Zelikovitz] has an ulterior motive in his plans for this building,” said Jonathan Twersky, a Legal Aid lawyer who is representing the occupants of 35-45. “He promised to turn 59 West End Ave. into classroom space when he took it over, but appears to be using it primarily as a dormitory [for some of the yeshiva’s students].”
Twersky noted that a section inserted into the New York State Rent Stabilization Code in 1982 allows not-for-profit agencies to take over residential properties and refuse to renew the leases of existing tenants if they use the building for educational or charitable purposes, but not if such properties are subsequently used for residential purposes.
Michael McKee, the treasurer of Housing PAC, said that allowing not-for-profits to take over residential buildings and expel their tenants, a tactic employed by universities like NYU and Columbia as well as by many Brooklyn yeshivas, represents “a huge loophole that ought to be repealed. To allow any landlord, even if he is representing a not-for-profit, to eliminate affordable housing is unconscionable at a time when such housing is in ever shorter supply in New York.”
Pat Singer, president of the Brighton Neighborhood Association, a community group that supports the tenants at 35-45 West End Ave., is convinced that the Mesivta intends to flip its buildings on West End for condos, a plan she believes is reflective of “a rapid construction of luxury buildings in Brighton and Manhattan Beach that is driving middle-class people out of the neighborhood. Rabbi Zelikovitz has no rachmones [mercy] to frail elderly people who have nowhere else to go.”
Kenneth Lazar of the New York City Buildings Department confirmed that inspectors from his agency went to 59 West End Ave. on three separate occasions over the past year after hearing complaints from neighbors that the building was being used primarily as a dormitory, but were refused entry to the facility.
According to Lazar, “The building was supposed to be a multi-dwelling building, but was apparently converted into a dormitory. In 2006, an application was finally filed to change the building’s designation to a synagogue, yeshiva and dormitory, but it was disapproved [rejected] by this department.”
Zelikovitz refused to speak to The Jewish Week, but his attorney, David Berger of the Brooklyn-based law firm of Tenenbaum and Berger, insisted that the Mesivta has done nothing wrong.
According to Berger, “The Mesivta’s original plan was to turn 59 West End into a school building, but then they realized it couldn’t accommodate the growing student body so they decided to buy 35-45 and use it as the yeshiva building instead.” Berger insisted Zelkovitz has no plan to “flip” 35-45 West End into a condo once the residents have left. “If he did that the former tenants could sue him retroactively” for violating the proviso that they can only be removed if the place they lived is actually used for educational or charitable purposes.
Yet Berger contended that Zelkovitz does have the right to sell 59 West End to developers despite the same stipulation because “the former residents of 59 West End left willingly after the Mesivta took it over. So he is free to sell the building to Donald Trump if he desires.”
Michelle Brunelle, 55, a longtime resident of 35-45 and the principal organizer within the building of resistance to Zelkovitz, has contacted several local politicians about the situation but has received little response. She attributes the lack of response to the political power of the Manhattan Beach Jewish Center (MBJC), where an influential real estate developer, Rubin Margules, is president.
The only politician who has tried to find alternative housing for residents of 35-45 West End is State Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Sheepshead Bay), who said he found his hands tied by the vagaries of Section 8 program regulations. Cymbrowitz recently introduced a bill in the State Assembly to eliminate the loophole allowing not-for-profit organizations to take over residential buildings and expel their tenants, but acknowledged that even if his bill passes, it will not be possible to apply it retroactively to protect the residents of 35-45 West End Ave. Still, Cymborwitz said, “A landlord may legally do as the rabbi is doing, but he has an ethical and moral obligation to his tenants.”
Margules sees the situation differently. “No matter what the tenants seem to think, the building belongs to the Mesivta and not to them,” Margules said. “It looks like the tenants are playing tough. They won’t take [alternative apartments] that don’t please their fancy tastes.” Margules added that Zelikovitz is “a very honorable person who has behaved toward the tenants in a menschy manner.”
Yet according to Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, president of the New York Board of Rabbis: “Any person connected to a Jewish value system has a responsibility to the poor, and, by that token, a landlord has to be concerned about the welfare of elderly people living in Section 8 apartments. The growth of the yeshiva must be coupled with sincere efforts to relocate these people. Wholesale removal is unacceptable.”