In November of 2019, “Hunter” was evicted from 157 Broadway in Newburgh. For a little over a year, Hunter (his name changed at his request) had been renting a room on the top floor of the three-story residential building, paying $500 a month to split an apartment with up to three other men. But his landlord, John Boubaris, sold the building that March, and the new owner, “Newburgh SHG 1 LLC,” also known as Seraphim Equities, wanted everyone out. The family of eight on the first floor, another family of six on the second floor, and Hunter’s roommates were able to find alternate accommodations. But not Hunter.
“Everybody else there had a place to disappear to,” he says. “Some that didn’t actually had relatives that they could go live with for a while. Myself, I don’t have anybody. I ended up on the street.”
After putting most of his possessions into storage, Hunter took some essentials, a tent, and a tarp up to Snake Hill on the southwestern side of Newburgh, where he spent a brutal winter. Then, in the spring, came the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant that housing was even more difficult than usual to attain. Thus, for nearly a year, Hunter remained unhoused.
During that time, Seraphim Equities began renovations on 157 Broadway. From the chain-link fencing in front of the building, Seraphim hung a sign, complete with its logo of an angel on bended knee. “Please keep our community clean,” it read, the word “community” emphasized in color. It was an early appeal from Seraphim to the ideal of community, meant to obscure the gentrification that was actually underway. The company had been buying up property all over Newburgh, evicting the tenants, and renovating the buildings for wealthier prospective renters from out of town—all in the name of community.
Seraphim Equities is based in Great Neck, Long Island, and describes itself as “empowering communities and protecting investors.” The company also lists “buy and flip” and “identifying opportunities” among its areas of specialty. From 2019 to 2020, Seraphim purchased at least 19 properties in the City of Newburgh, all under various limited liability corporations named “Newburgh SHG,” but registered in the name of the real estate developer’s executive director, Adam Shayanfekr, and to the same mailing address in Great Neck. Four of these properties were purchased from John Boubaris, an infamous local slumlord. Altogether, the properties purchased by Seraphim represent at least 47 residential units.
“Our first round of acquisitions was delivered vacant,” says Megan Prives, head of marketing and creative at Seraphim Equities. “Other buildings had tenants in them that we discussed relocation plans with far in advance, before we even closed on the properties and well before the start of construction.”
Despite Seraphim Equities’ assurances to the contrary, public court records reveal that the real estate developer took legal action against multiple tenants. In January 2020, “Newburgh SHG 15,” the LLC which owns 224 Broadway, filed non-payment proceedings against three different defendants.
Hunter received his eviction notice from Seraphim Equities in August of 2019. He and his neighbors were originally given 30 days to vacate, but Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, which provides free representation to residents in civil court, was able to win them two more months. While LSHV would not comment on Hunter or Seraphim specifically, Rachel Simons, the attorney-in-charge, notes that tenants in Newburgh face stark challenges in obtaining housing.
“Tenants who are looking to move right now are very often stuck in place, because there are so few affordable apartments available,” says Simons. “Gentrification is happening in Newburgh and is part of the problem, but there are many other factors that have led to the affordable housing crisis in Newburgh, including the shortage of jobs paying a living wage, inadequate levels of public assistance for individuals who are unemployed or are unable to work, and a lack of new construction of affordable units.”
These myriad challenges kept Hunter houseless for nearly an entire year. When temperatures reached life-threatening lows, he was able to spend a few nights at local motels through an emergency social services program, but otherwise he was on up on Snake Hill or down in the streets of Newburgh throughout the entire winter and spring of 2019-20. Then, last summer, Hunter was outside of a gas station when he met Justin Quinones, a young evangelist with Living Waters Tabernacle, which was distributing food and clothing in the area. Hunter began attending Sunday service and Tuesday bible study at Living Waters Tabernacle, meeting Melvin and Jacqueline, Justin’s parents and church pastors.
“He explained his situation,” says Melvin of Hunter. “As pastors, as ministers, our goal is to try to help everyone we can.”
The Quinones family and their congregation came to Hunter’s aid. They first put him up in a hotel, while trying to find him a room. When that proved too difficult, they purchased a used camper, fixed it up, and surprised Hunter with it in September. He has been residing there since—not far from 157 Broadway, but nevertheless removed.
“I have no reason to be down there,” he says of his previous home.
“A Mindful Approach to Beautification”
Last month, Seraphim Equities revealed what could be considered the next phase in its plans for Newburgh. On March 16, Josh Deitchman, a Denver-based artist, took to Instagram to announce the completion of his mural at 181 Broadway, which was purchased by “Newburgh SHG 3 LLC” from the Boubaris family a year prior. Deitchman described the mural, which depicts a young Black woman, as part of a larger project he was working on with Prives of Seraphim “creating and organizing a mural event for Newburgh.”
This event would be Hudson Valley Hype. According to a presentation created by Seraphim Equities for the Newburgh Architectural Review Commission, and obtained by The River, the real estate developer hopes to commission up to nine more murals as part of an annual public arts festival running from June 30 to July 4 “with the goal of consistently supporting local artists and existing communites [SIC].” Thus far, the Newburgh ARC has approved four of the seven mural applications submitted by Seraphim—although this does not mean the city has approved of the festival, as Newburgh’s director of planning, Alexandra Church, explains.
“The ARC has no purview over festivals or programming or anything like that,” says Church. “At this point, the city has seen no formal application for any festival.”
Seraphim Equities sidesteps the subject of gentrification in its presentation, reframing its initiative as “a mindful approach to beautification.” According to Prives, Hudson Valley Hype was developed by Seraphim in response to the Newburgh Arts + Cultural Study, which was commissioned by the City of Newburgh Arts and Cultural Commission.
“The Newburgh Arts + Culture Study, in conjunction with Lord Cultural Resources, which took place on December 5, 2020, highlighted some key points that the Hudson Valley Hype festival is looking to help achieve, such as prioritizing arts and culture in broader infrastructure projects and inviting businesses outside of the arts and culture space to be part of arts and culture,” she says. “We were looking for meaningful ways to get involved in Newburgh and the Newburgh Arts + Culture Study inspired us to look into arts programming.”
As per Seraphim Equities’ presentation, Hudson Valley Hype would be self-consciously styled after similar mural projects in other “cities to watch,” such as Denver, Detroit, and Medellin, Colombia, as well as other festivals like O+. Launched in Kingston in 2010 to provide artists and musicians with health care, O+ has nevertheless been criticized by local groups like the Kingston Tenants Union for being an engine of gentrification.
Similarly, when Seraphim proposes that Hudson Valley Hype will make Newburgh more “safe” and “welcoming,” critics were quick to ask: Safer and more welcoming for whom? Commenters on Deitchman’s original Instagram post criticized his appropriation of Black culture in service of a company that has displaced Black residents of Newburgh. Further criticism from the Newburgh LGTBQ+ Center, a local resource network for the queer community, and from Celebrate845, a collective of artists in the region, highlighted the role of Deitchman’s mural in Seraphim profiting off Newburgh.
“Their proposal is very concerning,” says Jamie Sanin, founder of Celebrate845. “They say things like, Hudson Valley Hype will ‘increase safety’—for gentrifiers and white folks, in my opinion—and empower youth—but not involve them—and promote the local artist community—but only with an unspecified amount of spaces for them to make the murals, and accept worldwide artists to make the rest. It is clear that they did not involve local artists or the Newburgh community at large.”
(Contacted prior to publication, Deitchman informed The River that he was no longer working with Seraphim Equities on Hudson Valley Hype for reasons he was unwilling to disclose.)
Criticism of the mural at 181 Broadway was so fierce that news of it reached the Quinones family, although they live beyond the city limits, in the Town of Newburgh, where the Living Waters Tabernacle also meets. Both Jacqueline and her husband mention that they plan on attending any future city meetings related to Hudson Valley Hype and will encourage their congregation to do the same. Jacqueline, in particular, questions the truthfulness of Seraphim Equities’ commitment to the community.
“What’s their true agenda?” she asks. “Are they coming over here to enhance Newburgh with the people inside the community? Or are they actually trying to buy out everything and move the people out of the community?”
For his part, Hunter has only just learned of Hudson Valley Hype and Seraphim Equities’ connection to the festival. But already, he’s seen through it. Hunter was born at St. Luke’s Hospital in Newburgh, spent his entire childhood in Orange County, and has watched the city change first-hand as a resident since 2013. He sees Hudson Valley Hype as just the latest attempt in a succession of efforts to displace Newburgh’s poor in favor of wealthier outsiders.
“It’s a marketing ploy,” he says. “Anybody who comes in knows and can see straight through it.”