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Originally published in Crain’s New York Business.

An influential Brooklyn lawmaker has kept his political home base in a Crown Heights apartment belonging to a community group he ran, in violation of occupancy regulations—and has done so for more than a decade, even when the unit was designated for low-income tenants.

State Sen. Jesse Hamilton’s latest campaign finance disclosures show a $3,400 rent payment to the Lincoln Civic Block Association, an organization based out of a small residential building it owns at 284 New York Ave. The senator identified that address as his campaign headquarters in a candidate questionnaire submitted to the good-government group Citizens Union when he first sought his central Brooklyn seat in 2014. The campaign made a $2,400 rental payment to the association that year, state Board of Elections disclosures show.

City records reveal that 284 New York Ave. is a three-family home containing just three units, all of them residential, with no office or retail space where a candidate might lawfully site a campaign headquarters.

Documents submitted by the Lincoln Civic Block Association to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development for the building’s annual registration in 2004 named Hamilton as the group’s “head officer,” and the legislator’s most recent disclosures to the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics—from 2016—identified him as its president.

Crain’s review of available public records indicates Hamilton led the association for the entire 12-year period between those dates and perhaps afterward, and that he used 284 New York Ave. as a base for his political operations and those of his allies. During that same period, he allowed the association’s status as a tax-exempt charity to lapse and failed to file mandatory materials with the state and city.

The group obtained its nonprofit status and the handsome building at the corner of New York Avenue and Lincoln Place long before Hamilton ascended to its leadership. It first purchased the property—its only holding in the five boroughs—from the state Department of Mental Hygiene in 1981. In 1990, it secured a mortgage to refurbish the building from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development through the agency’s Article 8-A program. The initiative offers financing exclusively to residential landlords unable to secure credit from private sources, and began in the 1960s as part of a larger public effort to restore decrepit housing stock in poorer precincts of the city.

Accordingly, the mortgage between the city housing agency and the association stipulated that “upon vacancy, each dwelling unit in the multiple dwelling(s) on the premises shall be available solely for occupancy by persons or families of low income.” The group did not fully repay the indenture, and escaped this requirement, until 2009.

That did not stop Hamilton from using the site as the headquarters of his unsuccessful 2007 campaign for the City Council seat vacated by now-Rep. Yvette Clarke. New York State Division of Corporations records show the account he created for the special election, “Family Values and Money Matters, People for Jesse Hamilton Inc.,” was based out of 284 New York Ave.—and city Campaign Finance Board disclosures show he paid Lincoln Civic Block Association $4,000 for “office rent” between November 2006 and February 2007.

The building seems to have soon become home to the Rosa Parks Independent Democratic Club, which Hamilton founded in 2006. State Board of Elections records show that, since 2010, the club’s address has alternated between 284 New York Ave. and Hamilton’s personal residence down the street on Lincoln Place.

The activities of the club and the block association appear to have intertwined. The latter’s website features prominent photos of Hamilton and his political allies. And a review of Twitter, Facebook and local blog posts by Hamilton and others, including judicial candidate Rupert Barry, turned up numerous notices for Rosa Parks club meetings in the second-floor unit of 284 New York Ave. (the same apartment where the block association holds its gatherings, according to a tenant), along with pictures and video clips of the senator and various local politicos inside and outside the building. In February 2015 the Brooklyn Democratic Party, for which the senator serves as secretary, convened a meeting of the local county committee “in the office of the Lincoln Civic Block Association at 284 New York Avenue, 2nd Floor”  according to a notice sent to members and posted on the party website.

Hamilton’s campaign account shows a number of payments to the block association labeled “political meeting,” ranging from $100 to $500.

When Crain’s visited the building, it appeared that the bottom- and top-floor apartments are occupied, while the second floor is vacant. Phone and address listings obtained through the web service Whitepages indicated the same: tenants’ names and numbers for the first- and third-floor units, but no residents on the second floor, which evidence suggests is the space improperly used for office purposes.

The Department of Buildings confirmed that under no circumstances can a permanent residential space (known in agency parlance as a “Class A” unit) like the three at 284 New York Ave. serve as an office, either to a nonprofit or to a political campaign.

Candidates Hamilton has backed for public office also appear to have made 284 New York Ave. a base of operations. Most recently, CFB records show the campaign of failed council candidate Pia Raymond—one of the senator’s protégés—paid Lincoln Civic Block Association $1,500 in August 2017 for “office rent.” A month prior, Ama Dwimoh, the Brooklyn district attorney candidate aligned with Hamilton and with his mentor, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, paid the group $750 in rent.

It is unclear when exactly Hamilton stepped down as president of Lincoln Civic, but the biography on his official Senate webpage refers to his service there in the past tense.

His political career may have blossomed during his tenure atop the block association, but the organization seems to have withered. The 2004 building registration for 284 New York Ave. was its last, and Lincoln Civic is now almost 14 years delinquent in filing the annual document with the city.

Moreover, in May 2010 the Internal Revenue Service revoked the tax-exempt status the group had held since the 1970s—the consequence of its failure for three consecutive years to submit the obligatory paperwork. This neglect of fiscal disclosures roughly coincides with Hamilton’s first use of the space at 284 New York Ave. for campaign purposes in the run-up to the February 2007 special election.

The group is similarly no longer registered with the state attorney general’s Charities Bureau, necessary for any nonprofit organization fundraising in New York.

Thus Lincoln Civic’s internal finances, including the disposition of the rents it collects from both Hamilton’s political activities and from the legal tenants of 284 New York Ave.’s other two apartments, are now concealed from public view.

Crain’s repeatedly asked the senator to allow an inspection of the interior of the building and to answer questions about the Lincoln Civic Block Association, the Rosa Parks Club and the various rental arrangements. The only responses received were text messages: one an auto-reply stating Hamilton was driving and, later, another stating, “I’m busy at the moment. Please text me.” Subsequent texts went unanswered.

Common Cause NY, a good-government group Crain’s consulted, called on Hamilton to relocate his political activities to a local storefront or office space where he might deal with the landlord “at an arms-length basis.”

“I think that this is a very disappointing abuse of the nonprofit controlled by Senator Hamilton, one that contributes to the housing crisis in the neighborhood that he represents,” said executive director Susan Lerner. “It smacks of self-dealing.”

Lerner highlighted the “murky” status of both Lincoln Civic itself and of Hamilton’s current role in the group as worthy targets for a state probe.

“If the association has not been filing the appropriate paperwork, we should find out what is its current form, what are its current activities. Is it getting any income?” she asked. “If rent is being paid to the association, what form does the association now take, and where is that rent going? I think these are legitimate areas for investigation.”

Hamilton aroused the ire of progressive activists when he left the state Senate’s mainline Democratic conference just before Election Day in 2016 and joined the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, which shared power with the Republicans. The IDC announced April 2 that it was folding itself back into the larger party delegation.

Hamilton’s Democratic primary challenger, local attorney Zellnor Myrie, plans to continue his campaign.

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