Since moving into a third-floor apartment on Elm Street this spring owned by a nonprofit landlord previously known for stabilizing the Edgewood neighborhood, Adam Kelley has repeatedly asked the property manager to repair several unhinged windows, a brown water stain in the ceiling and a mouse infestation.
Kelley said he hasn’t been able to get the problems fixed — despite the fact that, in his case, the handyman lives just two floors below.
Kelley is among a number of renters in New Haven’s Edgewood neighborhood who said they have watched the landlord let historic properties fall into disrepair.
While fending off suspect fees and eviction threats, the renters have been dealing with sewage backups, rotting staircases, buckling walls, felled trees and other issues that the landlord has taken months to fix. And they aren’t even sure whether they’ll be able to stay long-term, as a federal court case threatens to shift control to a new owner.
Through a consortium of six nonprofit organizations, the 53 rental properties, many of them multi-family houses, are all controlled by Daniel Greer, a prominent rabbi who built an Orthodox community and renovated dozens of homes around a yeshiva at Elm and Norton streets. The renovations preserved historical homes and for years helped stabilize and strengthen a diverse urban neighborhood that had been in decline.
Then two former students accused Rabbi Greer of sexual abuse. And the dream began collapsing.
In a civil case last year, a jury awarded $21.75 million in damages to Eliyahu Mirlis, who said Greer molested him from 2002 to 2005. Greer is now facing criminal charges for the alleged sexual assault after police found that Mirlis accurately described details of Greer’s naked body.
Out on bond, Rabbi Greer is fighting in court to keep control of his 53 rental properties, which are primarily concentrated on Elm, Norton, Pendleton and Ellsworth Streets, along with the yeshiva, his home and two pieces of undeveloped land, cumulatively appraised by the city at $13.47 million.
Serena Neal-Sanjurjo, who runs New Haven’s anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative (LCI), said her agency is keeping an eye on the situation: “We are currently undergoing inspections of residential properties. We are monitoring and responding to referrals as they are received.”
Meanwhile, the Board of Alders just helped Greer seek more money — government-approved money — to flow through the six nonprofits, in the form of state Neighborhood Assistance Act grants.
Greer did not respond to efforts to obtain comment for this story. Antonio Ponvert, Mirlis’s attorney, declined to comment.
Greer’s attorney, David Grudberg, told the Independent that the suggestion that Greer “is neglecting these properties is dead wrong, and is very upsetting. He’s devoted decades of his life to reviving the neighborhood and will continue that good work. Even his harshest critics recognize the great work he’s done.”
Grudberg said problems reported to LCI have been relatively minor compared to problems found at many other properties in town. And the nonprofit entities that legally own the properties have invested “many thousands of dollars” to upgrade them.
“That commitment remains as strong as ever,” Grudberg said. “Any suggestion of decline, or lack of interest, is simply false.”
Abandoned by friends and family and former students and stalwarts of the religious services at his yeshiva, Greer is refusing to surrender. He found new students from out of state to learn at the yeshiva. He’s fighting his criminal case and possible long prison sentence. He’s fighting orders to turn over property from the civil case. And he’s struggling to keep his “village” intact.
For people living in the Edgewood neighborhood, a lot hinges on that last effort.
On The Precipice
Beginning in the 1980s, Greer bought up neglected historic homes and renovated them, while keeping nuisance businesses out of the Whalley Avenue commercial corridor and exposing johns who patronized street prostitutes in the area. He and his organization even launched an armed “defense” patrol with the Guardian Angels to combat crime. His success inspired people in other neighborhoods to do the same. His son Eli Greer worked hard in recent years to manage and maintain the group’s rental properties to anchor the neighborhood and reverse past decline.
Since Rabbi Greer’s legal problems surfaced two years ago, his sons left the organization. Now some tenants report a marked difference after the sexual abuse scandal roiled the close-knit religious community centered at the yeshiva. They say that upkeep has largely stopped.
“He’s one step above a slumlord,” said one renter.
As with many of the dozens of other neighbors whom the Independent interviewed, the renter requested anonymity to speak about his housing conditions because he feared retaliation. Several of Greer’s tenants have been served with eviction papers and taken to housing court. In some cases, they missed a payment, but in others, their 12-month lease simply ran out.
Tenants said that they struggle to get problems fixed. “It’s on the list,” they said they hear repeatedly.
“It’s stressful,” one said. “They raise the rent and do no improvement.” Another described it as “frustrating” and “exhausting.”
Kelley said that it usually takes “several follow-up calls” before anything gets done. For the $900 rent in a pretty neighborhood, he says he can deal with all the problems, though he plans to move out when his lease is up.
Often, management appears to send hired hands from the neighborhood, rather than professionals. A hole in Kelley’s wood floorboards was puttied over, leaving an unsightly splotch in the hallway. One couple said a plumber put their sink in backward, mixing up the hot and cold taps.
“They say they’ll refer complaints to the ‘Maintenance Department.’ There is no Maintenance Department,” one tenant said. “They’re always talking about it as if there’s other people, but there’s nobody qualified running it.”
The deferred maintenance became painfully obvious to tenants this winter, as storms battered their houses.
At one property, a wooden fence warped, almost coming loose in places. But that didn’t surprise the tenant. A section of fencing had toppled into his neighbor’s yard more than a year ago. (It was still blocked off with orange netting last week.) Someone did come to attach metal posts to the most topsy-turvy sections. Compared to the concrete-reinforced posts a team had labored over years ago, this new work looked shoddy. The workers said they’d be temporary, but they haven’t come back.
Other tenants, including Kelley, reported that their windows don’t fit their casings, blasting them with icy air in the winter. The handyman tried to secure Kelley’s windows by hammering nails into the wall to keep them from falling in. One household tapes over the windows with sheeting, melting the plastic with a blow-dryer to seal out the wind.
Sometimes, the problems are more extreme, but residents say they’re still not handled with urgency.
In one case, a broken pipe caused sewage to leak throughout the basement of 830 Elm St. As soon as tenants discovered the half-inch of toilet paper and feces pooling on the floor, they called management. A full day passed before someone showed up to clean the floor and fix the leak.
But their repairs didn’t hold. Waste slowly seeped out again. But this time, no one showed up to for six weeks. The renters told management they were leaving. Last week, a worker was cleaning the place up for new tenants to move in.
“It’s a tragedy for the neighborhood and for New Haven,” one resident observed.
The most recent action taken by city government came Thursday when LCI sent Greer an order to fix code violations at a multifamily property at 211 Norton St., across the street from his yeshiva.
Based on an inspection by LCI’s Rick Mazzadra, the order gave Greer 21 days to “remove and replace exposed or worn wiring” and “install [a] missing junction box” in the basement of 211, where tenants had complained of breathing problems. It gave him a deadline of “hours” to “rid all mold” in the basement, where Mazzadra found molded drywall.
The order also gave Greer hours to fix a water leak in the foundation and “around [the] main stack” of a sewer, which had resulted in damp conditions in the wall. He was ordered to remove molded drywall, replace it with new drywall, and repair the mold damage.
In August 2016, a child was lead poisoned in another part of the multi-family house, according to another city notice. A Health Department inspector found lead in 135 areas throughout the apartment. Paint was cracked and chipping in the kitchen, along the front hallways, around a door to the basement and on the exterior walls. The soil around the house was also toxic. Greer cleared the property a year and a half later, getting a release in May 2018.
In November 2016, after another kid was poisoned at a Greer property at 157 Maple St., another Health Department inspector found lead in 106 areas throughout the apartment. The department ordered a full abatement, but the property was never officially cleared.
After those crises, Greer had a lull for almost a year and a half, until another order letter went out just in the last week, based on a June 4 LCI inspection at 799 Elm St. The inspector found that the walls were crumbling at 799. Throughout the second-floor apartment, the drywall had molded and stained, and in the bathroom, it had started to come down, with tiles falling into the shower stall. During the check-up, LCI also found that Greer didn’t have a license to rent the property.
Several tenants said LCI recently requested permission to enter their apartments for routine inspections. But in many cases, the agency’s visits have been rescheduled, pushed back month after month.
Almost all the tenants that the Independent interviewed acknowledged that Greer’s properties provide an affordable alternative that for now is still in better shape than major landlords Pike International or Mandy Management usually offer in the area. Some said they have no complaints at all.
Shalima Abdalla used to live in New York City before her job with a medical contractor brought her to New Haven. A self-described “housecat,” she said she appreciates that her Elm Street apartment is far quieter and more spacious than anything in Gotham for a much lower price.
You can always find tenants with complaints if you speak to enough people, said Greer attorney Grudberg. And maintenance problems are to be expected: Spring rains caused the sewage back-ups, and “mice problems are common in the spring. Qualified pest control contractors are brought in as necessary to address those issues.”
Grudberg said the rabbi has five and a half full-time staffers taking care of the properties. They’re on top of the problems, along with licensed outside plumbers and electricians. The live-in maintenance person is a relatively new resource, he said. He said overall vacancy rates remain “low,” with a quarter of the tenants having lived in the buildings for at least a decade and two-thirds for at least three years, he said.
Future Ownership In Doubt
Whether they like their living situation or not, all Greer’s tenants could soon have new landlords, depending on a complex legal battle that’s unfolding in two courthouses.
To satisfy the $21 million judgement against him, Greer originally proposed a payment plan of $195 a month, drawn from rent at an investment property in Newport, R.I., plus a quarter of his weekly income. A federal judge called that proposal “wholly inadequate.”
“It creates serious doubt that such an installment payment plan would facilitate payment of the judgment,” said Judge Michael P. Shea, who presided over the civil trial in Hartford. Shea ruled that Mirlis can seize Greer’s bank accounts and foreclose on the yeshiva building at the corner of Norton and Elm streets.
Greer is now trying to hold onto his school in state court. He’s offering a “cash bond” for the property’s value to prevent a strict foreclosure that would immediately turn the property over to Mirlis. Mirlis’s lawyer objected that Greer failed to disclose the dollar figure of the bond, whether it matched the value of the yeshiva, and who’d guarantee its payment. Superior Court Judge Walter Spader has not yet set a hearing date.
But the fate of the 53 rental properties is less clear. Greer’s lawyers maintain that the nonprofit housing corporations, which were initially named as parties in the civil suit but removed before the trial began, are totally independent entities.
Mirlis’s lawyers are trying to find out if that’s true. If not, they might be able to persuade the federal judge to turn over the properties.
On June 5, Mirlis’s attorneys deposed Greer to find out more about his personal wealth and connection to the nonprofits’ finances. They also questioned who sat on the nonprofits’ boards, where their income came from, and how much money their assets are worth.
Greer’s attorneys objected to most of these questions, saying they exceeded the scope of discovery. Then they filed a motion to seal the deposition’s 29-page transcript, arguing the release of “private financial information” could lead to “harassment.”
According to federal tax filings, Greer’s six nonprofits — Edgewood Corners, Edgewood Elm Housing, Edgewood Village, FOH, Yedidei Hagan, Yeshiva of New Haven — hold $8.11 million in assets. Last year, they pulled in $2.68 million in revenue and sent out $2.77 million in expenses.
Greer has since sought permission from alders to take in donations this year to fix up his properties, looking for help with $1.45 million in capital improvements. He sought approval for the credits from the alders from all six nonprofits to qualify for state Neighborhood Assistance Act status, which he can use to solicit private donations from corporations that would then receive equal credits on their Connecticut income taxes.
Primarily focused on energy conservation, Greer’s applications say he plans to repair siding, provide insulation, buy new furnaces and add thermopane replacement windows at the apartments. He also applied for help with similar upgrades, like new air conditioning units and lighting fixtures, at the yeshiva and his Whalley Avenue offices.
In total, Greer is seeking $900,000 in support.
Under the Neighborhood Assistance Act, corporations can collect state tax credits for philanthropic contributions to approved local nonprofits. (If the donations go toward energy conservation, like at Greer’s buildings, the corporations can collect a 100 percent credit, while other causes, like job training or child care, give only a 60 percent credit.) Each year, the city draws up a list of the New Haven agencies that qualify, which is then sent to the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services to receive part of an approved grant.
The Board of Alders indeed approved such credits last month for all six Greer agencies. Without asking any questions about where the money will go.
Over the years, Greer has, at times, played an active role in politics and government. In the 1970s, Greer led a successful campaign to force the United States to pressure the Soviet Union into allowing Jewish “refuseniks” to emigrate here and start new, freer lives. He later crusaded against gay rights in Connecticut and filed suit against Yale University over a requirement that students live in coed dorms.
Previous coverage of this case:
• Suit: Rabbi Molested, Raped Students
• Greer’s Housing Corporations Added To Sex Abuse Lawsuit
• 2nd Ex-Student Accuses Rabbi Of Sex Assault
• 2nd Rabbi Accuser Details Alleged Abuse
• Rabbi Sexual Abuse Jury Picked
• On Stand, Greer Invokes 5th On Sex Abuse
• Rabbi Seeks To Bar Blogger from Court
• Trial Mines How Victims Process Trauma
• Wife, Secretary Come To Rabbi Greer’s Defense
• Jury Awards $20M In Rabbi Sex Case
• State Investigates Greer Yeshiva’s Licensing
• Rabbi Greer Seeks New Trial
• Affidavit: Scar Gave Rabbi Greer Away
• Rabbi Greer Pleads Not Guilty
• $21M Verdict Upheld; Where’s The $?
• Sex Abuse Victim’s Video Tests Law