On Feb. 28, a family in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights won a major step in the battle to regain legal ownership of their residence: A court ruled that, for now, the family will be allowed to stay in their home.
Sherease Torain has been an active organizer with the Crown Heights Tenants Union (CHTU) since early 2020, bringing neighbors into struggle, battling evictions, and fighting to protect and expand New York’s now-expired pandemic eviction moratorium. When the moratorium lapsed on Jan. 15 of this year, Torain, along with her mother Helen Robinson and her grandmother Ida Robinson, were swiftly and illegally locked out of their home while Torain was in the hospital for surgery.
Ida Robinson and her husband purchased their home at 964 Park Place in Crown Heights in 1951. At that time, the Robinsons were the first Black family on the block. In 2015, Ida was tricked into a “refinancing opportunity” by capitalists and their lawyers that ultimately robbed her of the deed to her house, according to Joel Feingold, a member of CHTU. The family then legally became tenants in their own home. Soon they stopped paying the illegitimate rent, and their new landlord Menachem Gurevitch subsequently began his campaign to evict them.
Deed fraud is common in New York City, particularly among poor, Black, and elderly residents in rapidly gentrifying areas. And northern Crown Heights, where Torain and her family live, is a hotbed of gentrification. An estimated 19,000 Black families have been displaced from the neighborhood between 2010 and 2020. These scams have not paused during the pandemic. Crown Heights, along with other Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, remain major targets for deed fraud as home prices in these areas skyrocket.
For years now, Torain and her family have been fighting for their home alongside organizers and community members. CHTU and Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED) rightfully restored the family to their home after the illegal lockout attempt, and have maintained a 24/7 stoop watch for 18 days leading up to this recent victory, including staving off the landlord and a crowd of over 20 in a confrontation on Feb. 14.
Due to this non-stop organizing, Torain’s case has come to the attention of City Councilmember Chi Ossee and New York Attorney General Leticia James. James at first attempted to convince the Sherease family to cut a deal and give up their home, but the family stayed firm. Eventually, the Attorney General coordinated for the family to have pro-bono representation while they continued to fight their case in the courts.
Feingold credits the “resolve, ferocity, and willingness to fight” from the Robinson family and their companions for their recent victory. Torain and her family are continuing to litigate a separate case to reclaim the stolen deed. In the meantime, community organizers plan to continue to work with the family and to stand against any new attempts to force them from their home of 70 years.
Direct action and solidarity are essential for change, and eviction defense is no exception to this rule. The public pressure coming from the direct action of Torain, her family, and housing organizers is what led the courts, elected officials, and public figures to take notice and take action on their case. Ongoing organizing and solidarity will be essential not only to keep Torain’s family in their home, but to fight back against racist deed thefts across the city, and to put a halt to the escalating eviction crisis.
Crown Heights Tenant Union is a coalition of neighbors building tenant power to end the cycle of displacement and rent overcharges. There are over 40 buildings in their union, and they provide tenant support, community education, housing court support and more. If you are looking to get involved, visit their website or contact them by email.
Brooklyn Eviction Defense is a coalition of tenants in solidarity with tenants facing eviction, harassment, and housing insecurity. If you are in the area and would like to get tenant assistance or otherwise get involved in stoop watch, eviction defense, Know Your Rights outreach, or more, visit their website, contact them by email, or call at (917) 982-2265.