Menachem Stark’s death and the media’s inflammatory response to it highlight a particular kind of anti-Semitism: the kind that can emerge as a result of the religious Jewish community’s involvement in real estate and the horrible living conditions in many of those buildings.
As a tenant organizer at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, I work alongside tenants citywide to form tenant associations and improve building conditions. I was shocked by the headlines describing Stark’s murder, but not surprised, unfortunately, by the shady business practices or lack of upkeep on the large stock of rent-stabilized buildings he was connected to in Brooklyn. That’s something I see all too often.
Through my work, I do a great deal of research to try and untangle the mess of who owns what property and who’s connected to whom in the real estate industry. And it’s not easy. Take 199 Lee Avenue, an address in the religious Jewish part of Williamsburg. It’s connected to literally hundreds and hundreds of distressed buildings. Entities with an address at 199 Lee touch all sides of any real estate deal — as owners, mortgagers, brokers — and it’s nearly impossible to connect the address to an actual person.
Stark’s death, and the resulting uproar, comes at a particularly interesting time for my coworkers and me, since we’re in the midst of planning a tenant-driven rally in Borough Park, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn. The rally is targeting a group of Jewish investors who are trying to flip two horribly distressed rent-stabilized buildings in Crown Heights. Like at 199 Lee Avenue, the investors are nameless — associated only with a P.O. Box in Borough Park that is associated with many other distressed properties in Brooklyn and Queens.
UHAB has been organizing for years with tenants at 230-232 Schenectady, which are in foreclosure. The buildings are actually falling down as tenants continue to reside in them. They are totally infested with rats, have leaks and mold, and there have been three electrical fires in the past two years. Oddly enough, the tenants actually won in their organizing campaign in March of 2012: the buildings’ mortgages were purchased by a tenant-approved non-profit group, The Mutual Housing Association of New York, which plans to rehab the buildings and keep them permanently affordable for current residents.
Now, though, the Jewish owner of the building (he actually illegally purchased it from another Jewish landlord) is further stalling the foreclosure. He’s attempting to market the buildings to investors, pay off MHANY, and make some money before he’s out of the deal. We’ve found out that their broker is Sanford Solny, but that’s about it. We know they’re from Borough Park, so basically we’re pretty sure they’re Jewish. Solny has essentially told us that he hopes for the deal to be “between friends” in the community. This deal is shady and morally wrong, much like the deals that Menachem Stark was involved in.
It’s entirely possible that the public will view our upcoming rally as anti-Semitic. But how else can we ask the nameless Jewish investors of Borough Park to stay out of 230-232 Schenectady?
The media firestorm around Menachem Stark’s death, along with the planned rally for 230 and 232 Schenectady, underscores the tension that results from poor living conditions and opaque real estate deals that happen behind closed doors in an already-insular community. Rather than fighting this in housing and foreclosure court, maybe the next step is to bring these Jewish landlords and real estate tycoons to the Beit Din, and really put their feet to the fire.