Seized From Its Owners, Brooklyn’s ‘Eco-Yogi Slumlord’ House Could Be Yours

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This article was originally published on by THE CITY

It was once a symbol of the cruelty of landlords in the pandemic’s panicked first months, the scene of a tense summer 2020 standoff between tenants and an owner kicking them out.

Now, what The Cut dubbed the “eco-yogi slumlords” house in Crown Heights is set to become the new home for a lucky winner of the city’s affordable housing lottery.

That’s because of a rare arrangement that let the city Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD) wrest the house away from the former owners, Gennaro Brooks-Church and Loretta Gendville. As part of a 2022 settlement with the state attorney general, the landmarked townhouse on Dean Street became public property.

Later that year, the house passed from HPD to the nonprofit preservation group Neighborhood Restore for $1. Then followed months of work, said Restore’s executive director Salvatore D’Avola, to make it ready for a yet-unknown first-time homebuyer who will take ownership of the four-bedroom, 2.5-bath house for just $678,000. The property also now includes a rent-stabilized one-bedroom rental in the basement.

“The person who is going to buy the whole house and then they’re going to have a rental unit and the rental unit is going to help them pay the mortgage,” said D’Avola, standing outside of the 1214 Dean Street home as it was in its final stages of construction this winter.

A First-Time Buy

Though Restore has renovated hundreds of homes, they usually get their properties through foreclosure. For example, the group recently renovated several buildings that came into the portfolio of the New York City Housing Authority in the aftermath of the 2008 foreclosure crisis.

But dealing with a property handed over through a settlement is a first.

“We’ve never done this,” said D’Avola.

The team at Restore took special care to maintain historic details in the house, like its eight ornamental marble fireplaces; original woodwork on the staircase, doorways, and entryway; and functional pocket doors.

A construction worker checks a saw inside 1214 Dean Street in Crown Heights.

The nonprofit Neighborhood Restore is overseeing the restoration of 1214 Dean Street in Crown Heights, December 7, 2023. Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“We had a choice of either doing it as a two-family or a three-family. We just felt that as a three-family it might be too small and too tight,” said D’Avola, walking up the house’s central staircase. “It’s better to do it this way because it gives the homeowner more space … It’s more open.”

The house is also in a historic district, so its facade conforms to aesthetic guidelines mandated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, with special wrought iron fencing and exterior colors that are historically accurate.

Like with many of the housing lottery’s rental units, the future owner of 1214 Dean Street must meet many qualifying criteria, including income restrictions, according to its NYC Housing Connect listing.

For the townhouse, only New Yorkers who are first-time homebuyers, have a minimum of four people in their household, earn between $124,006 and $217,448, and have a total asset limit of $281,000 will qualify. The future owner must also use the house as their primary residence and have 5 percent of the purchase price — or about $34,000 — for a down payment, according to the housing lottery listing.

‘Caught in the Crosshairs’

To Brooks-Church, the former owner who spoke with THE CITY by phone, the outcome is “bittersweet.”

“I felt overly punished for political reasons. That’s one side. The other side is that we’ve got an affordable house now that somebody who normally wouldn’t be able to buy is able to buy. And I think that’s amazing,” he said.

“It’s just a shame it was my gift,” he continued. “You know, I’m not a rich man. I mean, I’m still in debt from having to pay off all that stuff. They said we were an empire, you know? We never had an empire. We were struggling to keep it all together and pay the bills.”

In addition to giving up the house as part of the settlement, Brooks-Church and Gendville agreed to pay $250,000 in fines related to violations of the city’s short-term rental rules of the time.

Workers kept the original stair bannister while rehabbing 1214 Dean Street in Crown Heights.

Workers kept the original stair bannister while rehabbing 1214 Dean Street in Crown Heights, December 7, 2023. Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

He and Gendville, his ex-partner, owned several properties in the city and Brooks-Church freely admits he broke rules by renting out rooms on Airbnb because he didn’t agree with local short-term rental restrictions, he said.

But he adamantly denies he was a “slumlord.”

“During that time, you know, BLM [Black Lives Matter] was there, the Me Too movement was there, there was all this energy in the city after that summer cooled down. And then you had all these people energized and not knowing where to turn their energy towards, and so they turned it towards ‘defund the police’ and ‘abolish rent,’” he said. “And we just got caught in the crosshairs.”

He also denies the portrayal of the couple as “racist and insensitive” and “gentrifying people.”

“The truth is, I moved into Crown Heights because I liked the culture. People would ask me if I was lost on the street. I was the only white guy in the whole neighborhood,” he said of the early 2000s when he first purchased the Dean Street house. “I genuinely liked the culture. My girlfriend right now is Black.”

THE CITY could not reach any former tenants of the home. In reports from the time, residents said the owners showed up to the house without warning, demanded people leave, physically pulled tenants from rooms, and put their belongings on the street.

Slim Odds

Those who want to apply to the lottery for 1214 Dean Street have until March 20 to do so. To help would-be applicants, Neighborhood Restore will hold a virtual information session about the process on March 5 at 6 p.m. For more information about the event, visit the group’s website here.

The chances of winning the house in the lottery are slim.

D’Avola said his team has received 8,371 applications for a group of 18 homes it recently renovated within the NYCHA portfolio. That puts the odds of winning those homes through the lottery at 0.02 percent — or 465 applications for every one home available.

The chances are hardly better within the NYC Housing Connect rental lottery. A 2020 analysis by THE CITY found that 314 applications come in for every one apartment available for rent, or a 0.3 percent chance. However, the odds are six times worse for the poorest applicants, who face more competition for fewer available units.

Construction tools sat near an original fire place inside 1214 Dean Street in Crown Heights.

An original fireplace inside 1214 Dean Street in Crown Heights, December 7, 2023. Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Dean Street lottery begins as the city faces its lowest apartment vacancy rate — just 1.4 percent — in nearly 60 years, underscoring the especially acute scarcity of affordable housing in the five boroughs.

Looking through the top rear windows of the home, which overlook a land trust green space, D’Avola and the site’s project manager Francesco Mollica reflected on what the house will mean for its future residents.

“With the community garden, they’re never going to build there. So you’re going to get a lot of light,” D’Avola said.

“It’s really life changing, whoever owns it,” said Mollica.

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