Supporters of Maple Street Garden hold up a sign at Maple Street Garden: “Gardens are worth Saving!”

A large solidarity group is supporting Maple Street Community Garden in its fight against eviction. At the last hearing in Housing Court on April 1st, 2015, a group of approximately two dozen supporters stood in solidarity with the gardeners from Maple Street, who are currently preparing for their next appearance in court on May 4th, 2015.

Maple Street Garden at 237 Maple Street in Prospect Lefferts Gardens is threatened with demolition by the current owner of the property, Housing Urban Development LLC (HUD LLC). The private developer has a name that sounds like a federal agency, apparently chosen to cause confusion, and a history of subprime lending and irregular title transfers. The principals behind the LLC are brothers Michael and Joseph Makhani. Both have been previously convicted of forging notary signatures and of a foreclosure scam in Queens. On April 6th, 2011, HUD LLC acquired the property from Brooklyn LLC (BK LLC), another LLC they set up. Since the Makhani brothers first acquired the property in 2003 under the name BK LLC, it has been sitting vacant and filling with garbage. The home that used to be on the lot burned down in 1999, a few years after its elderly owner who had lived there since 1968 passed away, apparently leaving no will and no heirs. After the fire, the house had to be demolished by NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development at public expense.

In 2012 residents, led by the Maple 3 Block Association, organized and transformed the once trash-strewn vacant lot into a multipurpose garden and community space.

“The gardeners converted an abandoned, trash-filled empty lot into an attractive green space that is open 24/7 for anyone who wants to come in and enjoy it,” says Tom LaFarge, an active Maple Street gardner. “The city needs more places where its diverse population can meet for collaborative work and relaxed conversation.”

On September 23rd, 2014 representatives of HUD LLC tried to put a sudden end to this successful community project.

Maple Street Community Gardeners are joined by supporters to hear their story during an Endangered Gardens Bike Ride organized by 596 Acres and Public Space Party on April 18th, 2015

Maple Street Community Gardeners are joined by supporters to hear their story during an Endangered Gardens Bike Ride organized by 596 Acres and Public Space Party on April 18th, 2015. Photo via 596 Acres.

“A crew of workers came in with a truck and began to dismantle the garden, getting as far as wrecking one raised bed. An alert neighbor called the cops, who came at once and stopped the destruction,” recalls Mr. LaFarge.

The Makhani brothers arrived on-site and the police demanded to see proof of ownership, but the papers they produced were inadequate, according to the police officers. The Makhanis and workmen left.

On October 18th, 2014, the gardeners found a notice in the garden, signed by an unidentified HUD LLC signatory, and entitled “TEN DAYS NOTICE TO LICENSEE TO VACATE.” That notice was the beginning of a battle that is now playing out in two different Kings County Courts. The gardeners are standing their ground against the attempts by the Makhani Brothers to illegally evict them.

On Monday, May 4, the Gardeners will appear in Housing Court to continue to resist eviction. HUD LLC is kept from interfering with the property until the case is resolved.  Simultaneously, the gardeners and Paula Z. Segal, Maple Street gardener’s attorney and founder of 596 Acres, are working with elected officials to initiate a potential condemnation.

Simultaneously, they are filing a motion to intervene in an action in Kings County Supreme Court in which HUD LLC is seeking an order declaring them the proper owners of the property.

“Even though HUD LLC is aware of the gardeners presence, some their names, how to locate them to summon them to court, and that they will be impacted by the outcome of the suit, they failed to include them in the Supreme Court quiet title action,” says Paula Z. Segal, the gardeners attorney. “They are moving ahead against only the deceased former owners and heirs that they have never been able to locate. This is sneaky and we are now asking for the court’s permission to enter the case as well since its outcome will clearly affect the gardeners rights in relation to the lot that the garden is on.”

Cheryl Everett and Beverly Lewin, two homeowners in East New York who are also currently involved in a lawsuit against the Makhani brothers, came to Maple Street Garden’s Housing Court case on April 1 in support of the gardeners. Under the name H.P.D. LLC – incorporated with the same initials as the City agency “Housing Preservation and Development” – the Makhani brothers sold the properties and worked directly with a lender who provided subprime mortgages to homeowners in East New York. The houses were built with various defects, including, but not limited to, cracks in the foundation, inadequate insulation, leaky roofs, inadequate sized sewage pipes, warped flooring, undersized heating pipes to boilers and risers, and ceilings separating from walls due to moisture from leaky roofs. Facing foreclosure, 15 of them filed a lawsuit against H.P.D. LLC in 2008; the case is still in litigation in Kings County Supreme Court.

“The Makhani brothers made that purchase sound like a good deal, they tricked me into signing. The mortgage turned out as a balloon mortgage that I can’t afford, they should have never offered it to me in the first place,” says Cheryl Everett. “After the agreement was signed and problems became obvious, it was impossible to get hold of the Makhani brothers, they just took off.”

There are currently several gardens under threat. Among the supporters at Maple Street Garden’s last Housing Court appearance were organizers from Bushwick’s Eldert Street Garden, Jason Fischman and Kim Anderson, who currently are in a similarly precarious situation.

“For those of us without a private garden, community gardens are all we have,” Kim says.  “When we work in our community gardens, we take back our fundamental right to work the land, and call a piece of earth our own. And we do it together.”

Eldert Street Garden has been active since 2009 on a vacant lot that was donated to a non-profit daycare for the use of a children’s garden. Five years after having transformed the once derelict lot into a flourishing garden, mysterious workers showed up to clear the property. The garden property has been transferred to a private developer without the consent of the New York State Attorney General’s office.

“The question is whether the sale was legal at all,” says Kim. The law states that any time a non-profit transfers its assets, the Charities Bureau of the Attorney General’s office needs to approve the transfer for consistency with the nonprofit’s mission and purpose.

Roger That Garden in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is also fighting against its eviction as a result of a recent sale of the property to a private developer, TYC Real Estate. The successful garden and thriving community space opened in 2009 on a lot that sat vacant for several years after a derelict building was torn down in 2006. Last year, TYC Real Estate purchased the deed for $10 from the man who used to own and operate a hardware store on this lot before abandoning the buildings.

Eldert Street and Roger That have already survived their own attempts at illegal eviction through lock-outs meant to stop the gardeners from gardening. Even though the illegal locks have since been removed, they still remain threatened.

What connects these gardeners is their struggle to retain to access to land that they have worked so hard to restore to useful life on behalf of their communities.

The Maple Street Community Garden case is on Monday, May 4th at 10:30am, 141 Livingston Street, Room 603, Brooklyn.

Contact: Paula Z. Segal, Esq. (646) 276-3865

More pictures available upon request.

Maple Street Community Garden hand-painted sign

Photo via 596 Acres.

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