An aborted Jan. 5 hearing in a Lawrenceville harassment case saw one woman arrested in the street and a state Senator trying to pay for her eviction from the neighborhood.
It was just the latest skirmish in what has been a year-long effort by community group Lawrenceville United to get landlords to deal with tenants arrested on drug or violence charges. The program, says Lawrenceville United leader Tony Ceoffe, has resulted in more than eight evictions. The group bases its complaints strictly on police reports of drug activity or violence, he adds. "We do get cooperation ... on most occasions" from landlords, says Ceoffe.
On Sept. 25, 2005, Ceoffe says he sent Richard Burge a letter about a Keystone Street property Burge owns and rents to Mazell Holiday. The letter, provided to City Paper, details "alleged drug activity" at the house.
The letter is based on police investigative reports on the arrest of Baron Noaks and Holiday's juvenile child on Sept. 24 inside the house. Each was charged with possession of a controlled substance (crack); intent to deliver a controlled substance (crack); criminal conspiracy; and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Similar letters have led to at least six Lawrenceville evictions of tenants whose rent is subsidized under the federal Section 8 voucher program, Ceoffe says. Section 8 requires program tenants to lose their subsidies for, among other rule violations, "Any drug-related criminal activity on or near the premises."
Mazell Holiday is a Section 8 renter.
Ceoffe's group would be happy to see targeted tenants move elsewhere, he says. "It's not our intention to take somebody's subsidy away," he explains. But he isn't troubled when his group urges the eviction of tenants who have been arrested for, but not convicted of, a crime. "It's the federal guidelines -- they're in place for a reason," he says. "What led up to that [arrest]? Would there be any community outcry if that [eviction] happened?"
Burge, who lives in Turtle Creek, says he never received Lawrenceville United's letter about his Keystone property, and only saw the police report for the first time in November. But he did mistakenly receive a letter from Ceoffe with negative information about a tenant of another landlord on Keystone Street, he says. Both letters end with the boldface sentence: "Please keep this correspondence in confidence as our members [sic] safety may be at risk."
Ceoffe says he received an anonymous death threat in the mail after he sent Burge the letter about his Keystone house. The threat, viewed by City Paper, quotes Ceoffe's line about "members safety," down to the missing apostrophe.
"[Y]our day is coming very soon," the letter says, "and when it ends you will know it's the end because you will feel the wrath of God coming against you and it's not going to be a thing you could do about it because you are setting up his children to get put out of their homes ..." The letter ends: "P.S. Every time you close your eyes I hope and pray that you see yourself in a crisis."
The letter was unsigned, but it resulted in harassment charges against Burge's tenant, Mazell Holiday. About 30 members of Lawrenceville United gathered on Jan. 5 to attend Holiday's hearing in the Bloomfield office of District Justice Ron Costa Sr. But Holiday never made it to the front door. She and her mother, Ida Folkes, were crossing Liberty Avenue at 1 p.m. when two uniformed and one plainclothes officer met them in the middle of the street and arrested Holiday on drug charges. Costa did not confirm whether they were related to the Sept. 24 arrests; county records do not list Holiday's charges, but say a preliminary hearing is set for Thu., Jan. 12.
Holiday and Folkes' troubles were hardly over. Despite the hearing's cancellation, Costa called Folkes, Burge and the Lawrenceville United members into his small hearing room for a meeting. The group included state Rep. Don Walko and state Sen. Jim Ferlo, both of whom represent the area.
Neighbors on Keystone are scared of local drug activity and don't want to leave their houses, Ceoffe told the judge.
Folkes admitted the street housed a problem. "A lot of times I go out there and tell them to leave the corner," she said. "They'll move on a little bit and then come back." But she denied ever seeing drugs on any of her relatives in the house.
Burge told the group he had begun the eviction process "about a month ago" by notifying his tenants after he received the police report, but was now hesitant about proceeding. "I have never had a problem" with Holiday's family as tenants, he said, in their 20 months in the Keystone house. Nor, apparently, had the Section 8 program, which kept subsidizing the family's rent, Burge reported. His tenants' attorney "told me to proceed with caution," he added. "If I push them out too soon, I could be guilty" -- that is, potentially subject to a lawsuit.
Similar hesitation finally got the better of both Ceoffe and the officials in the room.
"I guess it's going to take someone getting shot or killed" before there's an eviction, Ceoffe said.
"That should be enough to move forward with the eviction," said Costa about the police report.
"Ninety-five percent of people getting Section 8 are deserving of the Section 8 voucher," said Ferlo, stepping forward for the first time. "Section 8 is a sidebar issue. ... We're talking about conduct here. The past behaviors of absentee landlords is not going to be tolerated. The anti-social behavior of tenants as well as landlords will not be tolerated."
"You're going to file [the eviction] today?" Costa asked the landlord.
"How much is it?" asked Burge.
"I'll pay for it," said Ferlo. He handed Burge two $50 bills to pay the $96 filing fee. Burge eventually filed the eviction notice himself, returning Ferlo's money.
"From this point forward," Lawrenceville United member Susan Banahasky told Burge at the end of the meeting, "understand that we all care."
"I was in Mazell's house for three hours after that" meeting in Costa's office, Burge said in an interview the next day. It was in "immaculate condition. I just think if that were a drug house, it would have looked worse." Lawrenceville United's "aggressive" effort had actually given him doubts about taking action against his tenant, Burge added. He was, he said, even collecting the names of other landlords who thought neighborhood activists might be harassing them.