On Saturday, a small crowd gathered outside 336 Starr St in Bushwick.

The building behind them had been destroyed by a fire, and a woman who had lived in one of the apartments for 24 years stood outside with her children.

Since August last year, Gloria and her family have been homeless, living out of one-bedroom while they wait on their apartment to be fixed.

On the sidewalk, she was joined by neighbors, tenant organizers, local politicians and community groups demanding her landlord Deodat “Rupert” Lawton fix the apartment immediately and provide Gloria and her family temporary housing until she can move home.

Protestors gathered in Bushwick to support tenants displaced by fire. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith for BK Reader.

Gloria was also joined by another family who rented from Lowtan, whose apartment a few blocks away was damaged by a fire just a few weeks after hers. Sam Mendez’s mother had lived at 62 Wyckoff Ave for more than 30 years, but like Gloria, Mendez said they were now homeless, waiting on Lowtan to repair their apartment.

Lowtan, who is ranked number 16 on this year’s annual Worst Landlord Watchlist, subjected tenants – especially those who had been in their rent stabilized apartments for years – to harassment, racial discrimination, poor building maintenance and threats of displacement for years, tenants alleged.

But Lowtan, who owns more than 280 apartments in the city, told BK Reader he was not racist, had never harassed or threatened to displace anyone and was in the process of investigating the fires with the insurance company so Gloria and the Mendez family could get back into their apartments.

Taking to the streets

The small crowd that started at Starr Street swelled to around 50 people marching from Gloria’s apartment, to Sam and his mother’s, to Lowtan’s office, ending at Nooklyn’s Bushwick location. All the while, protesters repeated tenant’s rights chants in Spanish and English, and attracted vocal support from passersby and local workers.

At Nooklyn, the group demanded the company stop working with Lowtan until he had taken responsibility for his homeless tenants. “Hey Nooklyn, stop working with crooklyn or get out of Brooklyn,” they called.

Along the march, Gloria, Sam and his mother, and members of community groups Mi Casa Resiste, Mayday Space and Brooklyn Eviction Defense spoke to the crowd, sharing their stories that echo many others in the larger narrative of development, displacement and gentrification in Bushwick and New York City. One that has only become more complex during the coronavirus pandemic.

Protestors gathered in Bushwick to support tenants displaced by fire. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith for BK Reader.

“Really what I want now is a temporary living space, because I can’t keep living in a bedroom with my family,” Gloria said, adding she was determined to get back into her apartment as soon as possible.

Gloria’s lawyer, who was at the protest, said the courts had ordered Lawton to make the house re-hospitable by Jan. 15, but work was yet to start. Lowtan, he said, needed to face consequences.

“I’m not leaving, not for $20,000 not for $50,000 not for $70,000, I’ll leave when God calls me,” Gloria said. “For my family I’ll do whatever I need to do, I’ll go wherever I need to go and I know I’m not alone.”

On Wyckoff Ave., Mendez’s mother stood on her stoop and fought back tears as she told the crowd in Spanish she had been in her home for more than 30 years, and she would keep fighting. “No nos vamos,” she said.

Outside 62 Wyckoff Ave. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith for BK Reader.

Mendez also took to the stoop to tell the crowd how the apartment above his mother’s had already been renovated and was back on the market. It was just the latest in Lowtan’s years long attempt to push his family out, he said.

“He relocated everyone in the building but my mother didn’t sell out.

“I’m happy we have fighting people behind us now, because everyone else was being bought out.”

Apartments to be returned, says landlord

But Lowtan maintains he is doing all he can to get Gloria and Mendez and his mother back into their homes, saying both apartments are under investigation with the insurance company and then he has to apply for plans and permits to start work – something he said was delayed due to the pandemic.

He told BK Reader he found it “truly disturbing” he was being called racist, and said he had never harassed or threatened to displace anyone.

“In fact, I identify as a person of color and I immigrated to this country and worked hard all my life to be in a position to own property,” he said, adding he grew up on Starr St.

“As a landlord, I never treat my tenants differently because of race or ethnicity.  Anyone who claims otherwise is simply lying.”

Lowtan said the recent fires had been difficult for everyone, and stated he had a legal responsibility to repair these buildings and return his rent-stabilized tenants to possession, “however, doing so is not a simple matter.”

“It involves the payment from the insurance company to fund the repairs, the obtaining of permits from the Department of Buildings, getting the Vacate Orders lifted, and the like,” he said.

“I am doing my best to get all this done and restore these tenants as soon as possible.  These situations are also in active litigation, so my attorney advised me not to comment any further on them at this time.”

Previous issues

Lowtan’s current legal issues aren’t the first he has faced as a landlord. In a recent housing court ruling, he was found guilty of denying heat to tenants in winter, and was fined over it. Over a decade ago, an appellate court found Lawton illegally raised the rent for families living in a rent stabilized building and then sued them for non-payment using a forged, notarized document.

Assemblymember Davila. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith for BK Reader.

Last year, at the height of the pandemic, he was also the subject of tenant organizing, which resulted in the Broadway Starr Tenants Union being formed of members from many of his buildings.

Bushwick Assemblymember Maritza Davila told protestors Lowtan had stood in her office before due to housing complaints, and community members and leaders were no longer going to allow his behavior.

“It comes with greed, it comes with disrespect for the people that have been here, that stood here to fight the fight to make it what it is today,” she said.

“This is something that’s been happening since we tried to build this community back up. I’m here to call on the District Attorney to make this a felony, put this landlord in jail.”

Part of a bigger picture a bigger picture

Mi Casa Resiste, one of the groups that organized Saturday’s protest, is dedicated to fighting displacement and criminalization in Brooklyn’s low-income communities of color.

For the organization and those protesting, Saturday’s rally was about more than Gloria and the Mendez family’s situations.

Protestors gathered in Bushwick to support tenants displaced by fire. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith for BK Reader.

“Over the last 25 years, how many families is Lowtan personally responsible for pushing out of Bushwick? How many playgrounds are missing grandchildren who were supposed to play there? How many community gardens are missing those who used to tend to them?” Mi Casa wrote in a statement.

Organizer Pati Rodriguez said the issues of today had to be orientated in a legacy of colonial violence and stolen land.

Protestors gathered in Bushwick to support tenants displaced by fire. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith for BK Reader.

“Bushwick has been a working class enclave for over a century, today Bushwick is inhabited by Black and Brown people, predominantly from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Ecuador and other countries in ‘Latin America’,” she told the crowd.

But now, she said, folks that had been able to afford housing in the neighborhood for years were facing average rents of $2,231 per month for a one-bedroom. All the while, the neighborhood had more folks living in poverty, unemployed, and living under severe rent burden than Brooklyn and citywide averages, and according to the Department of Corrections had a higher rate of incarcerated people, she added.

“In other words, gentrification destroys, displaces and locks up working class communities,” she said.

“That is blatantly racial violence and racialized war on the poor and yet Bushwick is amongst the neighborhoods with fastest rising rents and tops the citywide list for number of apartments being built; so then who are these new apartments for?”

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Anna Bradley-Smith

Anna Bradley-Smith is Brooklyn-based reporter with bylines in NBC, VICE, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @annabradsmith.

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