Rangel and Neighbor Have Similar Rent Problems, Very Different Outcomes

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Last summer, Congressman Charles Rangel took some bad press because it turned out that the wealthy Harlem pol had four rent stabilized apartments in a 135th Street residential tower.
Naturally, the disclosure sparked some outrage. Rent stabilized apartments are supposed to go to longtime, lower income residents of a community, not high-profile, moneyed quasi-celebrities.

Despite a fair amount of controversy, Rangel was allowed to keep three of those apartments, two of which had been merged. The third is on the same floor, but separated from the other two by a stairwell. He had been using the fourth apartment as a campaign headquarters.

Contrast that with the story of Carlton Ford, who is facing eviction May 14 from his rent-stabilized apartment in Rangel's building at 40 West 135th St., which is known as Lenox Terrace.

Like Rangel, Ford was also accused, accurately it turns out, of having more than one rent stabilized apartment -- one in Rangel's building and a second in the Bronx.

But unlike Rangel, who was allowed to keep three of the apartments, Ford lost his Harlem pad, was subjected to a painful three year legal ordeal, and lost his wife, who left him and took two of their daughters to Baltimore.

And also unlike Rangel, Ford, a former real estate property manager, had a good excuse: he was desperately ill. Even so, no one is listening to his pleas -- not the management company, not the building owners, and not even a housing court judge.

"This whole thing is about gentrification," Ford says. "The owners of the building want people out so they can charge higher rents, and they don't care what the circumstances are."

The Ford case, agrees retired NYPD detective Carlton Berkley who is running for City Council, is yet another example of the move to push lower income residents out of a gentrifying section of Harlem.

"They are trying to turn 125 into a major business district, and increase rents and that will force out people who just can't afford it," he says.

Berkley blames locals politicians like Rangel for failing to protect lower income residents. "Our political leaders are really selling Harlem out," he says.

Hampton Management, the company that handles tenant issues at Lenox Terrace, is owned by a real estate group called the Olnick Organization.

A call to the management company's lawyers was not returned. But the Voice did speak with Jennifer Fillapelli, an official at Hampton Management.

"There's not going to be any comment, call the attorney," she said.

Rangel, worth as much as $1.2 million, was paying about half the market rate for the four apartments, at a time of great scarcity of units for people of low to moderate income. He angrily defended his tenancy, telling reporters, "I don't see anything unfair about it, and I didn't even know it was a deal."

Eventually, however, the congressman decided to give up one of the apartments to dampen the controversy. But no one stepped forward to help Carlton Ford when the Olnicks decided to evict him from his apartment.

Ford moved into the two-bedroom apartment at 40 W. 135th in 1991. By 2008, he was paying just $649 a month for the apartment.

Ford and his wife Mary were wed in 1987, but they did not live together for the bulk of their marriage. She officially lived in the Bronx with the children, while Ford resided in the 135th Street apartment.

In 2002, Mary moved in with Carlton at the Harlem apartment, and the children followed them, including Belinda, now 25, Tracey,  now 17, and a third autistic daughter, Carla, 21.

In February, 2006, Carlton Ford was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with encephalitis of the brain. He was in a coma for 10 days.

For the next eight months, he went back and forth from the hospital to a nursing home, while receiving treatment for the virus, which causes serious seizures. He was unable to work.
Noting that the combination of his illness and his daughter's autism would be difficult for the family to absorb, Ford decided to take a separate apartment, also rent stabilized, on Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx.

"My health and my daughter's medical condition made it too difficult for me to live with them," he says. "When she acted up, it triggered my seizures."

Concerned that his wife and family might have an issue with the management company in his absence, Carlton first asked Hampton to place his wife's name on the lease in November, 2006. That request was denied.

On January 26, 2007, Hampton commenced the eviction effort, claiming that Ford was not living in the residence. At the time, Ford owed about $2,600 in back rent.

Hampton found out because Ford told Fillipelli that he was in a rehab nursing home as a result of the brain infection.

Belinda and Mary appeared at all the court dates because of his illness and hospital appointments.

In February, 2007, Ford says, Fillipelli told him that after the outstanding rent was paid, she would put Mary Ford's name on the lease.

Ford repaid the outstanding rent in March, 2007, but Hampton Management refused to place Mary's name on the lease, and instead, brought "holdover" proceedings in court.

A "holdover" proceeding is essentially an eviction action. The case dragged on in court for two years.

In June, 2007, Ford's lawyers argued that Mary Ford was entitled to stay in the apartment because she was Carlton's wife and lived there for more than two years.

Mary Ford tried to assert those "successionary" rights, a concept under the law which allows close relatives to remain in rent-controlled apartments when the primary leaseholder has departed.

"This apartment has been my only home since 2002," Mary Ford wrote in an appeal to the court. "My children and I ask that you allow us to stay in our home."

A judge rejected the Ford's motion to dismiss the eviction case.

On Oct. 31, 2007, Ford again asked the court to grant those rights.

But Hampton's lawyer, Eliot Cherson, used the couple's own admission that Carlton had moved out to argued that Mary had no right to stay in the apartment.

"I lived there six years, my daughter graduated from high school there," Mary Ford says.

"We've been there all those years and they refused to take my rent, and refused to give me lease. I thought they were very mean about it."

On March 25, 2008, in a terse one-page ruling, judge Ruben Martino rejected the Ford's request to keep the apartment. Martino accepted Hampton Management's contention that there was no record that the Fords asked for Mary's name to be placed on the lease. Martino ignored Ford's illness in making his ruling.

In a subsequent ruling Sept. 16, 2008, Martino allowed the Fords to remain in the apartment through the end of April, 2009.

But it was all too much for Mary Ford. Unable to handle the strain of the dispute, Mary left town and moved to Baltimore, taking two of their daughters. She divorced Carlton. The third daughter, Belinda Mackey, 25, a state correction officer, remained in the apartment.

"It's been very upsetting," Mackey says. "It seems like they just want to kick us out so they can rent the apartment to someone else for more money."

In March 2008, Ford filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights Commission, alleging that Hampton and Olnick had discriminated against him because of his race and his disability.

On December, 26, 2008, Ford finally received the response to his complaint from the management company. Their lawyer Cherson argued that Ford was not living in the apartment because he was living in the nursing home.

Cherson didn't acknowledge that the only reason Ford was in the nursing home was because he was ill.

In February, long after the Rangel scandal hit the newspapers, Cherson offered Ford a settlement. If he repaid $14,000 in back rent by May, 2009, agreed not to sue the company, and not talk to the news media, he could remain in the apartment.

Ford refused to settle.

Hampton went to court again, this time arguing that since the Fords owed $16,000 in back rent, they should be evicted. The judge agreed.

"The whole irony of it is that I had offered to repay the rent, but they refused to accept it while the court case was going on," Ford says..

In March, 2009, the human rights division rejected Ford's claims and closed the case. The entire reason for dismissing Ford's disability claim was that a commission investigator found one other disabled tenant still in the building. The resulting report didn't acknowledge that Ford had been ill.

Then, the commission sent Ford a "customer satisfaction survey." Ford decided not to fill it out. Big surprise.

On April 6, 2009, Ford filed an appeal of the human rights decision with state supreme court. He's still hoping for a last minute reprieve.

The eviction takes effect on May 14. Photo (cc) TimothyJ.

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