Court sides with Bronx mosque in foreclosure dispute
A West African mosque in the South Bronx is on the brink of wresting ownership of its building from a real estate developer following two rulings in the mosque’s favor by a state appellate court.
The decisions have turned the tide in a legal battle that pitted worshippers at the Futa Islamic Center, who are mostly recent West African immigrants, against local developer Bx Third Avenue Partners. The dispute centered on whether the mosque had been properly notified of foreclosure proceedings against it that resulted in the mosque’s building, located at 3400 Third Ave. in Morrisania, being auctioned off to the developer.
On May 5, 2009, a five-judge panel unanimously overturned the foreclosure on the mosque. On Oct. 1, the court denied without comment a motion by the developer seeking to re-argue the case. The decisions all but ensured that the Futa Islamic Center will remain in control of the building, unless an unlikely reversal is handed down by the New York State Court of Appeals. Along the way, the struggle to retain a house of worship has inspired a tight-knit West African community’s faith in a very different ideal: the United States system of justice.
“We are poor people, but praise be to Allah, the law prevails,” said Dr. A. Balde, a community leader and member of the mosque. “We thank New York City because they don’t look at race, they don’t look at color, they don’t look at money, they look at the law.”
Joshua Kimerling, the attorney who represented Bx Third Avenue Partners in the appellate court, did not return phone calls seeking comment on the case. Court documents list Kimerling’s client as Ron Gilbert, whose address in state property records is the same as the address provided by Bx Third Avenue Partners. Bx Third Avenue Partners does not list a registered agent or offer contact information.
The mosque initially lost the property as a result of what the mosque’s lawyer, Paul W. Siegert, described as a misunderstanding: its leaders’ mistaken belief that the mosque’s religious status meant that they did not owe city property taxes. As the unpaid taxes piled up, the Bank of New York purchased tax liens, and ultimately foreclosed and auctioned off the property in April 2008. But mosque leaders said that they had been unaware of the taxes and had not received notice of the impending foreclosure.
Siegert said that the initial failure to provide notice to the mosque was what doomed the developer’s bid to keep control of the auctioned property. “They lost the case because the foreclosure wasn’t served properly,” he said.
The mosque’s legal victory capped an emotional struggle for worshippers that included two marches on City Hall and a letter-writing campaign to Congress, said mosque President Ahmadou Diallo. For nearly a year following the foreclosure, the mosque had to pay $5,000 per month in rent to the developer, a sum that it collected largely through small contributions from its members. Since the May 5 decision, the mosque has no longer had to pay rent on the building, said Siegert, although the address remains listed as property of Bx Third Avenue Partners.
Diallo said that the court’s rulings on the dispute sent a message of acceptance and belonging to their community. “It was the first address we had in America,” he said of the building, which the mosque purchased in 2002. “Getting this building back is like, yes, we are here in America.”
According to Siegert, the developer has initiated its final opportunity for appeal, with the Court of Appeals in Albany. Siegert said the court had scheduled a Nov. 9 hearing to address the “purely discretionary” – and in his view, highly unlikely – possibility of considering the developer’s case. He estimated that it would take a month following the hearing for the court to decide whether it will hear the case.
But mosque members are confident that they have prevailed in the dispute, and are determined that the center will be the place for their community to take root and flourish in New York.
“We are standing on solid ground right now,” said assistant imam Mamadou Diallo. “It’s a celebration for us.”