Questions about where our local City Councilmember Mathieu Eugene actually lives have swirled since 2007, when he had to run (and win) twice after it emerged that he lived in Canarsie, not in District 40.
Eugene’s current official residence is a three-bedroom apartment on Argyle Road between Church and Caton (pictured above), in the area where electoral law requires him to live. But questions have continued. The Caribbean press, in particular, has voiced allegations about his personal life that we aren’t sure are relevant to his job; we do care, though, whether he lives here, so we asked reporter Sebastien Malo to look into it.
What he found: Eugene’s housing troubles are far from being over. In particular, people in both neighborhoods still say he lives there. What’s more, he enjoys extraordinarily cheap rent from a notorious landlord on Argyle Road — but he sometimes doesn’t pay rent at all.
A Neighbor to Many
Residents both in Ditmas Park/Flatbush (Eugene’s official residence) and Canarsie claim Eugene is their neighbor.
When asked one recent day, residents on Argyle Road confirmed the Councilman was their neighbor.
Florencia Chang-Ageda said Eugene lived just two doors down. “As far as I know he lives here,” she said. “His kids go to school from here.” Residents of surrounding apartments said they regularly ran into Eugene when entering and leaving the building in Flatbush. “I see him around,” said lobby neighbor Ricky Jimenez, 27, adding that the Councilman always said ‘hi.’ “People know that he lives here,” said a second neighbor, a 29-year-old woman who asked to remain anonymous. A third neighbor, meanwhile, said that she saw the Councilman often when she comes back from or leaves for work. “He says ‘hi,’ ‘good morning,’ ‘good night,'” the woman said, also asking to remain anonymous.
Eugene is also a familiar face in Canarsie, miles to the east of his City Council district.
“He’s just next door if you want to talk to him,” said the immediate neighbor on the second floor of the red-brick apartment buliding on 87th Street in Canarsie (pictured above) that the Councilman has owned with his wife since 1999.
In fact, five out of the seven Canarsie neighbors interviewed seemed equally adamant that the Councilman was still their neighbor, though all portrayed him as being there on and off, and offered different accounts of his living arrangement. All were reluctant to openly talk about his housing situation.
Speaking from across the street of the Councilman’s apartment, a neighbor who said she knew Eugene personally declined to answer questions, but couldn’t keep her teenage daughter standing next to her from commenting, “Yeah, he still lives here.” Another neighbor commented on Eugene’s continual coming and going by saying Eugene “comes around, not every day, but he’s around.” He asked to remain anonymous because he said he did not want to get involved in political debates. The man said he has lived on 87th Street for 18 years, and recalled the day Eugene first moved in.
Eugene, for his part, denied that there’s any ambiguity. “It’s baloney,” he said of the lingering claims that he lives in Canarsie, adding that he rented the apartment to an individual he was unrelated to. “This is my house; I gotta go to take care of it,” he said to explain his frequent visits to the apartment building. “I can do whatever I want there,” he added.
Lawsuits on Argyle Road
Eugene may be able to do what he wants as a homeowner in Canarsie; he’s had more problems as a tenant in Flatbush.
Even with the possible help of his rental income at the Canarsie space, the Councilman seems to have been unable to pay his own rent at his Argyle Road apartment. That’s the picture that emerges from three civil court cases that were filed against the Councilman since 2007.
In each, the plaintiff is an entity tied to the Pinnacle Group, a New York company that owns the building. The real estate giant has grown infamous in recent years for its aggressive methods, and for allegations that it has harassed unwanted tenants.
A look at the two most recent cases’ filings at the Civil Court in Brooklyn shows Eugene failing to pay his rent in May and June 2009, as well as in February and March 2010. As for the first case in 2007, which we could not access, an analysis of the value of the claim suggests Eugene was being sued for failing to pay the first three months of the lease he signed when relocating in Flatbush shortly after his election there. In both most recent cases Eugene swiftly remedied the situation, making the payments, and reimbursing small legal fees.
Perhaps more intriguing than the Councilman’s rent paying pattern is the remarkably cheap rent asked by Pinnacle.
For a three-bedroom apartment, the Councilman paid a mere $1,085 per month in 2009 and 2010, according to the court documents. And he would have been paying $1,083 per month in 2007, according to our calculations based on the amount claimed in the court case filed that year.
The below-market price rent could be explained by the city’s rent stabilization rules, to which the apartment is subjected, according to the court documents. Rent stabilization limits the price a landlord can charge a tenant for rent. However, the rent of Eugene’s three-bedroom should normally have risen after each new lease — each year or every two years — by a maximum few single-digit percentage points under the rent stabilization rules. That does not appear to be the case.
Contacted over the phone, the Rent Guidelines Board explained that rent stabilization imposes a limit to rent increase, but landlords can chose not to increase the rent at all.
Neighbors renting smaller rent-regulated apartments in the same building for more money reacted with surprise at Eugene’s low rent.
One neighbor who asked to remain anonymous said that his wife had been on the lease of their two-bedroom apartment for some 20 years, and that the couple paid $1,300 per month. That’s more than Eugene pays for his three-bedroom. “It’s a little cheap for the neighborhood,” he said. “It does sound a little odd.” Another neighbor said she paid just over $1,000 for a one bedroom apartment in the same building where Eugene rents. She moved into the building in 2009.
We reached out to both Pinnacle and Eugene for comment numerous times, and will update if we get a response.
Update: Asked to comment, a spokeswoman for Eugene’s office did answer repeated questions about the low rent of the councilman’s Flatbush apartment. On the question of past lawsuits, she said that the councilman was “unaware of any pending lawsuit.”
Three candidates will compete against Eugene during the District 40 Democratic primary, scheduled for September.
• Saundra Thomas, a Ditmas Park West resident, and a former community relations official at WABC-TV, announced her challenge last month.
• John Grant, a resident of Crown Heights who currently works as a New York Transit Authority road car inspector, has been campaigning since February (after mistakenly announcing on his Twitter feed that he was running in District 30 instead of 40).
• Midwood resident and former City Council attorney Sylvia Kinard has also joined the race.
We’d like to thank Alyssa Katz of the New York World for her help in reporting this story.
About the author: Sebastien Malo is a multimedia journalist based in New York City. He is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Sebastien’s work has appeared in publications such as The New York Daily News, The New York World and La Presse (Canada). He was previously a staff journalist at the Beirut Daily Star in Lebanon.