It’s hard to imagine how anyone could get pissed off about ice cream. It’s pretty delicious stuff on its own, but when ice cream comes free, it’s capable of turning almost any New Yorker with a broken-AC situation into a sedated, softly smiling master of chill. But the tenants at 325 East 12th Street– owned by Brookhill Properties, a real estate company founded by notorious landlord Raphael Toledano, who’s currently under investigation by the State for tenant harassment– have been moved to a level of frustration that can’t be solved with tasty bribes. That’s why, when they started receiving invitations to attend an ice cream social bought and paid for by Brookhill, the tenants organized an ice cream protest.
“They haven’t had gas since May, and you answer that with an ice cream social?” SaMi Chester of Cooper Square Committee, asked incredulously. “I don’t think so– we’re not interested in that.”
Both Cooper Square and Stabilizing NYC (an organization that helps fight “predatory equity”) agreed to join the Toledano Tenants Coalition in protest. The coalition represents tenant associations from more than a dozen East Village buildings owned by Raphael Toledano, and some of these residents had received invitations to an ice cream social happening outside 325 East 12th street, a building that has been without gas service for two and a half months, and planned to oppose it. Yesterday, as they were getting down to “ice cream time,” Chester said, “I’m hoping that I can serve him up some nice Rocky Road.”
He was referring, of course, to Raphael Toledano, one of the biggest players in the East Village. In the last couple of years, Toledano’s quickly amassed an enormous portfolio of older buildings, many of them in disrepair and home to rent-stabilized units and longtime tenants. Since then, he’s developed a reputation for being “a very difficult human being,” as Chester put it.
Earlier this summer, Toledano, who says he’s deeply religious and never finished his first year of high school, told a reporter at The Real Deal, “I’m worth a fuckload of money, bro.”
This might be more hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that Brookhill’s recent East Village portfolio expansion was quickly followed by accusations of tenant harassment by way of construction, and even verbal abuse. The State’s investigation, which centers on Goldmark Property, another company owned by Toledano, is looking into whether or not they “threatened tenants with police raids, evictions and the shut off of essential service,” according to The Real Deal.
“So folks are angry, and this is just another of the many things that this particular landlord has done with people in terms of tenant harassment, lawsuits, unbelievably high lead levels, high asbestos levels, no cooking gas, unauthorized buyouts,” Chester told us. Earlier this spring, several of Toledano’s East Village buildings underwent testing by the Department of Health and turned up high levels of lead, one’s that “far exceeded” the EPA’s safety standards.
Stories of dangerous conditions and construction mayhem like these might ring a bell– Icon Realty Management applies similar tactics, according to many longtime tenants and Cooper Square. In fact, Icon’s launched a PR campaign of their own– but instead of ice-cream, the real-estate company’s commissioning street art in what seems to be an attempt at placating the community.
While it appears that Icon’s at least trying to make amends with their tenants– by appointing a Chief Safety Officer, for example (although Cooper Square maintains that he’s nothing more than a figurehead)– Toledano’s known for allegedly intimidating his tenants with threats and high-pressure buyout proposals. “I believe that the real reason [for the harassment] is that he wants rent-stabilized tenants out, so he can move market-rate tenants in,” Chester said.
(Toledano, on the other hand, penned an op-ed for The Villager last fall, and insisted that: “As a business owner I learned early on that treating customers — in my case, tenants — with respect and decency is most important in order to gain their trust.”)
Harassment tactics have become the norm in the real estate industry, as Cooper Square’s Brandon Kielbasa told us recently. In response, local elected officials, tenants associations, and organizations that represent embattled renters like Cooper Square, formed the the Stand For Tenant Safety Coalition to oppose the rampant construction-as-harassment practices of bad-acting landlords, many of whom are aiming to deregulate affordable housing units in order to kick up their rent rolls.
And it’s not just tenants living in rent-stabilized units who say they’re experiencing harassment. “There have already been some cases of buildings where he’s had market-rate tenants come in and sign the lease without telling them there was no gas at their apartment,” Chester explained.
Last fall, residents of 444 13th street organized demonstrations against Toledano, accusing him of maintaining “deplorable conditions,” and demanding that Brookhill restore their cooking gas and hot water. The tenants had begun keeping track of Toledano’s verbal abuse– the Times even put out a piece on their tactics of recording and documenting the pattern of harassment– and filed a lawsuit against the landlord in Housing Court. In May, the 444 13th street tenants came out ahead when Toledano settled the case for $1 million.
But not every building’s lucked out. Chester told us that tenants living at one Toledano property he works with, 95 East 7th street, were without gas for a whopping 245 days before it was finally restored, and he described gas cutoffs as an “ongoing issue” at many Brookhill apartments. “That’s a lot of days of eating- out when you could be cooking at home,” he pointed out.
The tenants at 325 East 12th street have been without gas for not quite as long (at two and a half months), but it still hasn’t been restored, and so the presence of an ice cream social out front of their building was infuriating. The fact that the invitations promised a special Ben & Jerry’s ice cream truck would be on site, added insult to injury. “It doesn’t seem like it would come from somebody who’s socially conscious like Ben & Jerry’s, so some folks started calling, and from there it went to, ‘You know what? Let’s just do a protest,'” Chester explained.
(According to a statement released by Cooper Square, no one at Ben & Jerry’s “was aware of a contractual agreement with Brookhill to furnish the ice cream.” But a Vermont spokesperson told them, “I wish I could be there demonstrating with you.”)
In July, the Toledano Tenants Coalition met with Brookhill representatives at the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, where they presented their landlord with a list of demands, which included requests to abide by laws protecting rent-stabilized tenants. “This [ice cream social] is the first thing we’ve noticed that they’ve done,” Chester said.
Yesterday, protestors from the Toledano Tenants Coalition gathered at the ice cream social spot. Kathy Berry, a resident of 325 East 12th street, told B+B: “I felt confused– we couldn’t eat anything for the last ten weeks or so, don’t waste your money with ice cream, fix the building instead.” She added that she was convinced the ice cream social was as stunt, as opposed to a genuine olive branch: “I think it was to make it look like he [the landlord] was being a nice guy, and doing something nice for the tenants.”
Jim Markowich, a resident of 233 E 5th Street, one of the buildings Toledano bought in 2015 that, months later, was found to have high levels of lead, attended the protest in solidarity. “[An ice cream social] might be appropriate if we had reached a point with the landlord where basic services were being provided, as a celebration, but right now we’re not on good terms,” he said. “It seemed ironic to us, maybe it was to tell people that there’s still no gas, but here’s some ice cream? It seemed like misplaced goodwill.”
At the last minute, Brookhill representatives moved the ice cream truck’s location to East 5th street between 2nd avenue and Bowery. B+B asked Courtney Knopf, Vice President of Brookhill, to explain the reasoning behind the sudden change of plans. She explained that the new location was “shadier” and more suitable for ice-cream eating. But Knopf refused to comment on the protest. “We just want to be nice and get everyone together,” she said. (B+B is awaiting additional comment from Brookhill’s PR representatives.)
This is not the first time that Toledano’s tried to make amends with tenants by providing them with delicious food stuffs. Prior to the settlement with tenants at 444 East 13th Street, the landlord sent fruit baskets to the building’s residents who had been without gas and hot water for more than a month. (Many of the tenants are Mexican immigrants, and they claimed that Toledano’s company, Goldmark Property, had threatened them with deportation.)
And then in September, after Brookhill Properties purchased 327 East 12th Street, residents there told EV Grieve they’d received boxes of chocolates as a “welcome package.”
Even if there’ve been many instances of Toledano laying the BS on real, real thick, tenants and their advocates at the protest yesterday said that they were still seeking an amicable solution. “It’s just about getting it all worked out, but you can’t pull the wool over people’s eyes,” Chester said.
Luisa Rollenhagen contributed reporting.