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An action in support of an art collective in Fort Greene in Brooklyn (photo by RJ Maccani)

Tenants of a 40-year-old collective house of artists and activists in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood claim that they have endured months of landlord harassment and illegal attempts to force them out of the building.

On the evening of September 11, about 60 housing activists, elected officials, and community members rallied outside the building on South Elliott Place in solidarity with the tenants. The protesters held speeches, carried banners, and symbolically barricaded the building’s entrance with a sign that said, “No Eviction Zone.”

Located among Fort Greene’s prime real-estate, the rent-stabilized building is one of the last remaining affordable living spaces for artists and activists in the area. In the late 1970s, the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) declared the building as “Single Room Occupancy” (“SRO”) for people with low income. Since then, it has operated as a collective house for artists and organizers. The current six tenants of the three-story building include a filmmaker and photographer, a musician, a writer, a designer, an herbalist and gardener, and an organizer and educator.

Located among Fort Greene’s prime real-estate, the rent-stabilized building is one of the last remaining affordable living spaces for artists and activists in the area (photo by Lucas Shapiro)

In the fall of 2015, the building was purchased by Judith Grunbaum, a real estate investor based in Montreal, Canada. A few months later, Grunbaum brought an owner’s use eviction case against all of the tenants, saying that she intended to move into the building. In June of 2020, a housing court judge dismissed Grunbaum’s case. The tenants say that since then, Grunbaum and members of her family have used tactics of “surveillance, intimidation, and harassment” to try to dispirit them and force them out of the building.

In a statement to Hyperallergic, the artists allege that the owner’s son, Samuel Grunbaum, entered the building without notice on September 2 and placed a padlock on one of the building units, illegally locking a tenant out of their room.

Sanjeevan Tharmaratnam, who has lived in the house for four years, described the experience as “absolutely horrifying.”

“We tried to explain to Samuel that this was an illegal lockout, but he didn’t care,” Tharmaratnam said in the collective’s statement. “He pushed passed those of us who were objecting and put a lock on the door. There was no court order, no marshal, just a rogue landlord escalating his campaign to scare and intimidate us — during an eviction moratorium of all times.”

The state’s eviction moratorium, instated at the start of the COVID-19 crisis in New York, was extended until October 1.

Inside the 40-year artists collective in Fort Greene (photo by Sonny Singh)

The artists also alleged that in June, Samuel Grunbaum, along with about nine workers — some of whom were not wearing masks — entered the building to install five “invasive” surveillance cameras inside on all floors of the building. The cameras, the tenants say, were placed to record the building’s interior hallways.

Sonny Singh, a member of the Bhangra brass band Red Baraat who has lived in the house since 2012, told Hyperallergic that the surveillance cameras were installed outside the bathrooms and bedrooms of the building. “They capture us going in and out of bathrooms and what time we go to bed and wake up,” Singh said. “This is a clear invasion of our privacy and our right to live without intimidation and surveillance by our landlord.”  

In an email to Hyperallergic via YHT Management, which oversees the building, Judith Grunbaum denied the allegations, saying: “No tenant has been locked out of their room, nor have any cameras been installed in any private areas.”

One of the was illegally locked out of a room, the tenants say (courtesy of the Fort Greene collective)
A surveillance camera outside one of the building’s bathrooms (courtesy of the Fort Greene collective)

Photographs provided by the building tenants show an installed padlock and a notice explaining that the room was sealed because of the presence of an “unauthorized occupant.”

“These sorts of techniques are designed to force the tenants to leave and surrender their rights,” said Stephanie Rudolph, an attorney who represents the tenants, in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic. “The landlord has no legal means of physically evicting the tenants so she decided to take matters into her own hand.”

After failing to convince YHT and the Grunbaum to remove the lock, the artists contacted the community affairs department of their police precinct, which allowed them to break the lock in the presence of an officer.

“Legally, the landlord is not permitted to affect their own evictions,” Rudolph explained. “Only a court can order a city marshal to evict a tenant or an occupant.”

The tenants also claim that the landlord has been neglecting the building as another tactic to force them out. They say that the building is falling in disrepair with leaks, crumbling walls and moldings, holes in the floor, and a rodent problem. In 2017, they filed a Housing Part (HP) action in a housing court against Judith Grunbaum. The building was placed into the York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s (HPD) Alternative Enforcement Program for several months after inspectors found more than 150 code violations on the premises.

These days, the shared feeling between members of the collective is one of fear and anxiety. 

“I constantly feel on edge,” said Singh. “When I hear footsteps in the hallway or the front door open and close, my heart starts racing. This no way to live.”

However, the tenants are adamant about preserving the collective’s 40-year legacy and carrying it into the future.

“We refuse to be intimidated and refuse to live in fear,” Singh added. “This our home. We have the right to be here, and we are not going down without a fight.”

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Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...