A Crown Heights family battling eviction from the home they have owned since 1951 had a "crucial win" in court Monday, allowing them to legally stay in the house while they fight to prove they are victims of deed theft.
After 18 days of Brooklyn tenant advocates and neighbors keeping a round-the-clock watch at 964 Park Place to prevent any eviction attempts, Queen Afua Helen Robinson and her daughter Sherease Torain were restored to legal possession of their home by a Feb. 28 court order.
"Today is a good day," Robinson said Monday, as she thanked advocates for their help in kickstarting the "political machinery."
"It's an opening to come out of the landlord-tenant court with the support of the judge and all the lawyers who took part in this."
Deed theft allegations
The order comes more than six years after the family lost possession of the title of the house to landlord Menachem Gurevitch.
Without today's ruling, Gurevitch could have legally kicked the family out of the house thanks to winning a Feb. 8 warrant to evict.
The Robinsons were the first Black family on the block, they say, and both Torain and her mother were born in the property, which Torain's grandfather bought after fleeing Alabama in 1951.
Robinson and Torain say the deed was swindled from the family matriarch Ida Robinson six years ago, when she was 92 years old. Ida, now 98, is currently recovering from COVID-19 in hospital.
The family is now taking their deed theft battle to New York's Supreme Court.
According to a letter lodged in support of the Robinson's deed theft case by Brooklyn attorney Adam M. Birnbaum, the case bears the marks of a "foreclosure rescue scam," in which a company pretends to prepare "refinancing" documents to help owners at risk of foreclosure.
"The true owners, who are almost always Black and usually elderly, are not told that they are signing away title to their home," the letter says.
Over the past half-decade, Torain said she had approached countless organizations and law enforcement agencies to report deed theft, but no one had been willing to take up the complex case.
"There has been no process, there has been neglect from the bench and everyone has turned the other cheek," she said Monday.
"The problem is that we are Black women. We are disabled, we are Black and we are women. If that had not been the case, people would have done their job."
In Monday's order, Brooklyn Housing Court Judge Jack Stoller said it would be up to the Supreme Court to decide who legally owned the title to the house.
In the meantime, he was "loath to" end that course of action for the Robinsons by denying their motion to be restored to legal possession of the house.
Fighting to be heard
The order comes after tense scenes on Park Place over the last two weeks as the landlord's representatives tried to forcibly enter the property to evict the family.
Torain was admitted to hospital for surgery in early February, and returned to find the locks changed.
After taking up the case, tenant advocates from Crown Heights Tenant Union and Brooklyn Eviction Defense organized protests and physically blockaded the landlord from entering the property, even sleeping on the stoop overnight in frigid temperatures to keep watch.
At times, the situation bubbled over when landlords tried to forcibly reenter the home, including reportedly trying to break in through the roof.
On that night, the Robinsons contacted Councilmember Chi Ossé who went to the scene, and who then contacted New York Attorney General Letitia James, who also immediately went to the house, and later opened an investigation into the case.
On Monday, Ossé said the power of combining activism and local government had been proven by the ruling.
"I commend the Crown Heights Tenants Union for their tireless, months-long organizing, and thank the Attorney General for her partnership," he said.
"The first Black Family on this Brooklyn block, three generations later, can continue to stand their ground.”
Meanwhile, Crown Heights Tenant Union Cofounder Joel Feingold heralded a "victory," while adding that he and the family needed to get some rest, now.
"The movement has done the impossible," Feingold said. "Now, a long fight to return the deed."