Prominent Brooklyn couple, Gennaro Brooks-Church and ex-wife Loretta Gendville, are being forced to turn over one of their rental properties after trying to boot tenants in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The city filed a lawsuit against the landlords in November of 2020 for harassing tenants living in their Crown Heights brownstone. Brooks-Church and Gendville reached a settlement with the city, requiring them to surrender the apartment complex. The city intends to turn the $2 million property into affordable housing units.
Tenant Harassment & Intrusive Occupation of the Property
In July of 2020, the well-known duo decided to move into their tenants’ apartment at 1214 Dean Street. Despite owning two businesses and six properties in one of the country’s most lucrative real estate markets—the landlords were apparently homeless.
As a result of the pandemic, some tenants had lost their jobs and stopped paying rent. Brooks-Church and Gennaro deemed it appropriate to move their belongings into the Crown Heights rowhouse tenant Angie Martinez shared with eight other roommates.
The landlords had called the police on their tenants, referring to them as “squatters,” demanding they be removed from the premises. Because of the moratorium on evictions in place during the pandemic, the tenants could not be forced to leave the rowhouse. On the other hand, because it was legally their property, the landlords could not be forced to leave either.
Vegan Brownstoners Turned Slumlords
It was a strange move on behalf of an ethically-sourced, environmentally-conscious, vegan power couple.
Brooks-Church owns Eco Brooklyn, a construction company focused on “bringing nature’s magic into your life,” according to its website. A self-proclaimed green builder, the 49 year-old real estate developer has previously spoken about sustainability at the Brooklyn Public Library. He was also an outspoken advocate for the Gowanus Canal Superfund site, one of only three Federal Superfund Sites on the EPA’s National Priorities List in New York City.
Gendville, a Chicago native who had moved to Williamsburg in her 20’s, owns Planted Community Cafe, a vegan restaurant in Carroll Gardens “putting vegan, whole foods, health, and the environment above all else.” She had also established a local chain of spas, yoga studios, and children’s stores called “Area.” The New York Times once cited her as a “mini-mogul.”
Long-Standing Reputation of Unethical Behavior
Referred to as “the Bonnie and Clyde of Brooklyn Heights” by a former Area employee, the intimidating occupation at 1214 Dean Street was hardly the couple’s first offense. Beneath their apparent success was a slew of questionable business practices.
Former employees at Area claimed that pay was low and rarely on time. Brooks-Church was known for unexpectedly appearing at the yoga studios in the middle of class. Yoga instructors were often asked to double as receptionists at Area spas, or gift wrappers at Area stores. “[Gendville] really thought that just because they worked for her, she owned them,” one former instructor said.
For those on the inside of the Brooks-Church–Gendville empire, the humiliating cruelty at 1214 Dean Street was not a one-off event. The pair had been accumulating wealth, properties, and prestige at a pace that could not be kept up in the middle of a global pandemic.
Many of those who had staked a claim in Brooklyn’s gentrification boom shortly after the recession in 2008, found themselves unable to survive the pandemic-induced bust in 2020.
Brooks-Church and Gendville were among the NYC elite that resorted to unethical business practices and inhumane treatment of tenants, in a desperate attempt to maintain money, status, and prestige.
Rental Violations & New NYC Bill Limiting Airbnb Rentals
In addition to losing their Crown Heights brownstone, the notorious couple was cited for running illegal Airbnb rentals out of 9 buildings. Towards the end of 2021, the New York City Council approved a bill requiring hosts to register with the city before renting out their homes on a short-term basis. Boston and Santa Monica, CA already have similar measures in place.
As one of Airbnb’s biggest domestic markets, New York City is an epicenter for short-term rentals. Although great for business, it exacerbates the housing crisis in NYC. City officials and housing advocates have been voicing their concerns over unregulated Airbnb rentals for some time now.
Hotel owners also have their fair share of complaints. Essentially wiped out by the pandemic, the hotel industry has been on its last leg—and blames online rental companies for their inability to recuperate.
The new bill passed by the council is meant to create more long-term rental options in the city, as well as alleviate stiff competition for companies in the hotel industry.
The Cost of Greed
Handing over the 1214 Dean Street property is just one of the sanctions placed on the real estate couple. They are also required to pay another $250,000 to the city. Half of this fine will go towards the Attorney General’s Affordable Housing Fund. The other half will be paid as penalties for their malignant business practices.
Attorney General Leticia James also slapped the audacious duo with an order prohibiting them from participating in the short-term rental industry ever again. James applied a similar measure in the Toledano case, where predatory landlord Raphael Toledano was banned from holding NYC real estate until 2027.
Aside from settlements with the city, Brooks-Church and Gendville also settled with former tenants, agreeing to compensate them for the illegal evictions.
“These landlords may have been sending a loving and peaceful message out publicly, but they were kicking tenants to the curb privately,” said Mayor Eric Adams in a prepared statement. “Today’s settlement sends a clear message to slumlords everywhere in the city: cruel and illegal behavior will not be tolerated, and, as long as I am mayor, you will never get away with putting tenants at risk.”
Perpetuating a deep sense of fear and desperation in an already scarce housing market, abusive NYC landlords shouldn’t be allowed to run wild. The city is doing its job in bringing them to justice and making sure to send a clear message to prospective violators.
Vivian Tejada is a freelance writer living in Cartagena, Colombia. She writes SEO blogs for real estate, travel, and hospitality companies. She's passionate about the future of work and helping female freelancers achieve time, location, and financial freedom. When she’s not writing, you can find her at the gym, a family cookout, or at brunch with her girls. Follow her on Instagram @viviwaves. You can also read more of her work on LinkedIn or Medium.