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Fight Over Manhattan Apartment and Surveillance Cameras Lands Tenant’s Guardian in Court

Published: July 15, 2015

Publication: The New York Times

By Colleen Wright

Ruth Berk in her home since 1961: a rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment. CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times 

As her legal guardian, Arthur Schwartz is responsible for the care and well-being of a 91-year-old woman named Ruth Berk.

But recently he noticed someone else was keeping a watchful eye over her, too.

Last month, Mr. Schwartz said, he decided to look into claims by Ms. Berk’s daughter that cameras were peering down on her mother’s apartment, a rent-controlled two-bedroom in Greenwich Village, from the hallway outside her door.

Using a stepladder, Mr. Schwartz examined five holes slightly larger than the size of a hole punch drilled into the molding lining the hallway ceiling, angled toward the apartment door. Peering through were small cameras hooked up to an entanglement of wires.

Mr. Schwartz said he took the cameras and, after keeping them in a drawer for a couple of weeks while he was on vacation, delivered them to the attorney general’s office, hoping that it would investigate the landlord for tenant harassment. Instead, he found himself in Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday facing charges of grand larceny after the landlord, which has been trying to evict the Berks, in part for nonpayment of rent, complained to the police about the removal of the cameras.

Arthur Schwartz, the legal guardian of Ms. Berk, at the New York Police Department’s Sixth Precinct station house in Manhattan this month. CreditMichael Appleton for The New York Times 

“All I did was abate the harassment and turn evidence into the attorney general,” Mr. Schwartz said after his arraignment. “It’s preposterous that I have to go through this.”

On any day, New York courtrooms are filled with fights between tenants and landlords, and some landlords have recently been arrested and accused of trying to force tenants out of their below-market-rent apartments.

Matt Mittenthal, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, which has a unit devoted to tenant harassment, said on Tuesday that he could not confirm that the office had the cameras. Mr. Mittenthal added that it was unclear if the presence of the cameras in the hallway was improper, and that the office could not speak publicly about whether it was looking into the matter.

Lawrence Wolf, a lawyer for the landlord, BLDG Christopher L.L.C., declined to comment on the eviction case or about why the cameras were installed outside the apartment.

Ms. Berk has lived with her daughter Jessica in her rent-controlled apartment on the 15th floor of 95 Christopher Street since 1961. The apartment has large windows in two directions as well as a terrace with a view of the northern Manhattan skyline. Her monthly charge is frozen at $783.19, and a city program for senior citizens pays the landlord some amount each month, but the apartment’s total monthly rent was not available on Tuesday.

But if the Berks were evicted, the landlord could start charging more. According to the real estate website, a comparable two-bedroom apartment on the 15th floor recently rented for $7,050 a month.

The view of Manhattan from Ms. Berk’s apartment. CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times 

Mr. Schwartz, a lawyer and longtime neighborhood Democratic Party leader, became Ruth Berk’s guardian during an attempt, ultimately successful, to have her released from a nursing home. He said the Berks had faced at least 12 eviction actions over the last couple of decades.

The Berks acknowledged that they are tens of thousands of dollars in arrears on rent, but said they had withheld payment because of damages in the apartment that the landlord would not permanently fix, like leaks from the roof and peeling paint. Their eviction case is pending.

A judge recently ordered an assessment of the damage inside the apartment, which was when Mr. Schwartz spotted the cameras, and repairs have been made. The apartment appeared to be in good shape during a visit this week.

Outside the apartment, the holes were still visible in the molding, as were the wires that Mr. Schwartz said the cameras had been connected to. A similar hole was visible outside an apartment on the sixth floor, but it was unclear if a camera was behind it.

Jessica Berk, 56, a former publicist currently on disability, said she noticed the cameras about one year ago. She claimed the landlord was gathering evidence to try to evict her and her mother. She and her mother have no income outside of Ms. Berk’s Social Security and Jessica Berk’s disability payments, and she estimated that she had spent up to $20,000 on lawyers since the 1980s. Asked why she bothered with it all, she said: “Why would we give up a two-bedroom, rent-controlled penthouse apartment?”

The criminal complaint said that the cameras caught Mr. Schwartz handling the devices before he disconnected them. He questioned the complaint’s estimation of the cameras’ value at $4,000, saying he found similar cameras online for $83 to $123 each. Neither the police nor the landlord’s lawyer would elaborate.

Mr. Schwartz was released without bail, His next court date is set for Oct. 15.

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