Cora Dix-Austin, who was first elected to lead the seven-building, Mitchell-Lama affordable housing complex in 2002, was accused of taking bribes from January 2011 to July 2015.
During that four-year span, Austin participated in a kickback scheme involving $500,000 of co-op money meant for services, according to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.
In addition to her prison sentence, Austin was also ordered to pay $110,000 in restitution to the 2,702-unit co-op.
Last Wednesday morning in front of Brooklyn Supreme Court, the resident group Shareholders for the Betterment of Lindsay Park rallied in celebration of the outcome. Along with advocates, the shareholders spoke out about the practices Austin engaged in that ultimately hurt the housing co-op for 15 years.
In an interview, Gregory Louis, deputy program director at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A and an attorney representing the shareholders, said residents had been complaining about their co-op president to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) for a decade-and-a-half, only to be ignored.
“The signs of all these problems were evident, and HPD ignored them,” Louis said. “HPD should feel ashamed.”
The list of grievances from residents run the gamut from lack of repairs to weakening the democracy at the co-op board.
In a January 23rd letter from Nelson Jaime, president of communications with the shareholders group, to Judge Chun, the Lindsay Park resident said maintenance fees have increased 75 percent during Austin’s 15-year reign as president.
According to Louis, in the 37 years prior to Austin’s leadership, the Mitchell-Lama co-op had only increased maintenance fees by $300. For an affordable housing development that Louis called a “bastion of diversity” in the neighborhood housing African-Americans, Latinos, Jewish and Eastern Europeans from nearby neighborhoods, the growing costs were alarming.
In the letter, Jaime also detailed how Austin cut off access to community rooms used by seniors for activities and children for tutoring. He accused Austin of retaliating against shareholders who opposed her by issuing “bogus by-law violations” and even initiating eviction proceedings.
The buildings themselves still face ongoing issues. Jaime said the roofs are in “horrible shape,” and 28 elevators are in such disrepair that residents are constantly trapped in them. The facades of all seven buildings are also in dangerous condition, he said.
The housing co-op now faces a $110 million debt, $70 million of which had been incurred during Austin’s presidency, Jaime wrote. Louis added that Austin applied for a state loan that could have added up to $60 million more to the debt total, but did not get it.
Lindsay Park also dealt with oil spills because the tanks were not maintained, which added remediation and tank replacement costs to the debt.
“I can go on and on about the sad state of affairs, but they all highlight the core reality: while Cora was receiving thousands in a kickback scheme, our cooperative was falling apartment,” Jaime said. “We are literally paying for her crimes through the increased maintenance.”
There have also been long-standing allegations that Austin “bought votes” for the co-op board presidency by giving away apartments to allies, Louis said. Rather than putting her “proxies” on a long waiting list, Austin bypassed the waiting list for the highly coveted affordable housing units, he said.
As a result, Louis said shareholders have run for the co-op board presidency and lost.
“They’ve run against the board knowing they would lose because the fix is in,” he said. “They won the in-person vote but lost to the proxies.”
Though the list of accusations is long, Austin was ultimately brought down for corruption. According to Louis, she made a deal with maintenance workers who usually go into people’s apartments and tell residents they needed to fix two or three things.
Instead, Louis said, the workers would make up to seven repairs to “pad the bill,” and charge the bill to the co-op. The vendor would then give a share to Austin.
According to court documents, Austin was caught when a police investigator used a confidential informant. The informant, the owner of a company that had contracts to provide services for Lindsay Park, gave money to Austin in exchange for an agreement that the company “continued to receive such contracts.”
The shareholders organization has been highlighting the “financial hot mess” and other issues at Lindsay Park for years, Louis said.
They sued the co-op to get records and documents about its management. They hosted town halls to inform residents of their shareholders’ rights. They organized writing campaigns to HPD to bring their issues to the agency’s attention.
Louis said the city agency has been “asleep at the wheel” the entire time. The only reason why Austin was locked up is because prosecutors, starting with former Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, listened to the shareholders and hosted meetings with them.
“The real core ask for the shareholders is ensure HPD stops being asleep at the wheel, stop being part of the problem and exercise enforcement,” he said. “If all that came of this is Cora Austin was arrested, this would be a waste of time.”
Louis demanded that HPD follow the district attorney’s lead, listen to residents and take their concerns seriously moving forward. Every other person involved in the scheme, including the management company and other vendors who participated, should be brought to justice, he said.
“If you take one elderly African-American woman and throw her in prison and think that’s a solution, it’s not,” he said. “They’re going to put pressure on HPD and the mayor, the city government, to make sure they don’t lose affordable housing because of corruption. If that does not happen, none of this matters.”
In a statement, Councilman Antonio Reynoso said the sentencing of Austin proves that the lack of democracy and transparency at Lindsay Park is a reality.
“Although we applaud the work done by both Thompson and Vance, we must continue fighting for democracy and transparency,” he said, “knowing that Cora’s criminal actions represent only a small link in a long chain of corruption that has occurred at Lindsay Park.”
A HPD spokesperson said the agency takes the oversight of its Mitchell-Lama portfolio seriously, and that it has been cooperating with the district attorney during the investigation.
“HPD is also actively working with the board of directors to secure a much-needed loan to address the physical needs and secure the financial integrity on this coop,” the spokesperson said.