Staying in Crown Heights, Even as It Gentrifies

When new owners bought her Crown Heights apartment building a few years ago, Lisa Mathis feared that she might be pushed out of not only her eight-unit rental building, but also the neighborhood.

But even as Crown Heights — and her building — has become a destination for New Yorkers priced out of trendier parts of Brooklyn, Ms. Mathis has found a surprising kinship with her new neighbors, rather than a clash between old and new.

Ms. Mathis, 57, grew up at 80 New York Avenue. She went to P.S. 138, played handball across the street and got her first library card at the Brower Park Library. And some years later, after her marriage broke up, it was to 80 New York Avenue that she returned.


The eight-unit building now has three rent-stabilized tenants and five renovated market-rate apartments. Credit Robert Wright for The New York Times

At first, she and her two children lived with her mother. Then the three-bedroom, one-bath apartment across the hall opened up. That was 12 years ago.

“I was so happy,” Ms. Mathis said. “It’s homey, peaceful, and my mother was across the hall. The kids were small then, and there were lots of meals that I didn’t have to cook.”

Rent was $1,200, which was “a lot,” said Ms. Mathis, a court clerk specialist at New York State Surrogate’s Court, but “you sacrifice.” When they moved in, she could afford only beds and curtains at first.


Two winters without heat affected Ms. Mathis in unexpected ways, like not being able to have Thanksgiving dinner for her extended family. Credit Robert Wright for The New York Times

“In my family, you have to get the curtains right away. You can’t have people looking in at you. Maybe it’s a Southern thing,” said Ms. Mathis, whose mother was raised in North Carolina.

Several months later, she bought a dining set. Several months after that, they got a couch. But if the rent was a stretch, it was worthwhile. She loved the hardwood floors and the dining room, which is divided from the living room by pocket doors. And the building felt like home, with her mother across the hall and her aunt living upstairs.

So did the neighborhood. “I see faces that I grew up around,” Ms. Mathis said.

The only thing she lacked was a lease, but over the next decade the rent never went up. Then, in late 2014, the building sold to new owners, Mendel and Chananya Gold, who offered tenants buyouts to get them to leave. Those who stayed endured months of construction as the other apartments were renovated.

Name: Lisa Mathis

Age: 57

Occupation: Court clerk specialist in New York State Surrogate’s Court, where she runs the administration department.

Rent: Formerly $1,200 a month, which Ms. Mathis learned was more than the legally allowable rent when she discovered the unit was rent stabilized. After reaching a settlement with the landlord addressing the overcharges, Ms. Mathis now pays less, but said she was not at liberty to disclose the terms.

The cost of living Brooklyn in the 1960s and 70s: “When I was growing up, Manhattan was expensive. We talked about, ‘Oh, you’d have to live up in Harlem to afford it.’ But in Brooklyn, it used to be that you could always find a place. It might not be the poshest place, but you could find one.”

On the changes in Crown Heights: “There have been changes for the better, and that’s good, but not when you’re pushing people out.”

Getting to know the neighbors: Ms. Mathis said that the hardship in the building has brought the tenants closer. “The first winter, a gentleman from upstairs knocked on my door with hand warmers. He said, ‘Do you need a space heater?’”

Reached on the phone, Chananya Gold said, “No comment. No comment at all.”

Ms. Mathis didn’t want to move. Her son, Derek, a graphic designer who is now 26, was living with her, and she suspected that her daughter, a college student, might need to move back in when she graduated. She also knew that her aunt, who intended to stay in the building, had a rent-stabilized unit, so she went to see a lawyer. (Her mother had since retired to North Carolina.)

The lawyer discovered that not only was Ms. Mathis a rent-stabilized tenant as well — lease or no — but she had been charged more than the legally allowable rent all those years. It felt like a victory. But before long, she realized that fighting for her right to stay was only the first of many skirmishes.

In the fall of 2015, the heat never came on. The landlord told tenants the heating system needed to be replaced, but the winter passed without heat — at least for the rent-stabilized units: The five market-rate units were renovated with working heat that was billed to those tenants.


Pocket doors separate her living and dining rooms. Credit Robert Wright for The New York Times

The heat didn’t come on in Ms. Mathis’s apartment the following year either, and a solution that involved installing furnaces in the rent-stabilized apartments didn’t pass muster with city inspectors. By now, Ms. Mathis has spent two winters in an unheated apartment, huddled under electric blankets.

“The first year without heat, my aunt was 79. To do that to someone of that age — I might have considered leaving if she wasn’t in the building,” Ms. Mathis said. “But she’s on fixed income and wouldn’t be able to stay in the neighborhood if she left. She and my mom were really close, so I felt like I have no choice but to stay and fight.”

She continued: “It really affects the quality of life not to have heat: It’s hard to clean. It’s hard to do anything. I like to cook and have family over, and I lost two Thanksgivings and two Christmases.”


The kitchen in Ms. Mathis’s three-bedroom apartment. Credit Robert Wright for The New York Times

There have also been frequent gas leaks, Ms. Mathis said, one of which revealed that one of the five market-rate apartments in the building had been paying for the cooking gas of the three rent-stabilized units. Another leak caused the building’s hot water and cooking gas to be shut off for a month last spring.

As a result of the shared hardships, the tenants — old and new — have banded together to file several lawsuits against the landlord, including for the illegal destabilization of the renovated apartments, which have been carved into four- and five-bedrooms that rent, per room, for nearly as much as Ms. Mathis pays for her entire apartment. And last spring, they organized a rent strike.

“God has been very benevolent in putting the people in this building together,” Ms. Mathis said. “Some are good at social media, some are good at writing, a few people are union organizers and some are arts-inclined — they made the signs that we put up in the window.”

Ms. Mathis is optimistic that she’ll finally have heat this winter, after reaching a housing court settlement with the landlord. Large metal heating ducts, installed the previous winter, hang from her hall ceiling, and the furnace that was once mounted inside her front door has been moved to the basement.

The years long ordeal has had one unexpected benefit. “We’re a very tight-knit building now,” Ms. Mathis said. “I don’t know if we’d have this kind of connection otherwise.”