On Tuesday evening just a little after 4pm, nearly half of the tenants of 172 N. 8th street sat around a conference table at the People’s Firehouse, discussing their lives, their neighbors and their apartments. But make no mistake: This was no block party. On June 29th, just four weeks after the building was purchased by a new landlord who had begun illegally renovating the building’s basement in hopes of turning it into a storage space, an immediate stop-work order was issued by the Department of Buildings, followed by a vacate order: All 12 tenants were forced to immediately pack their belongings and vacate the premises without any indication of when they will be able to return.
“Every day it’s a different story,” said Peter Pawlak, an architect who has lived in the building for twelve years. “It’s an emotional roller coaster ride.”
The stop-work order, and subsequently the vacate order, is due to renovations that had not been approved by the Department of Buildings, which ultimately deemed the building to be unsound as a result of the excavation. The new landlord, Jamal Alokasheh, was immediately ordered to file for permission to cure the problem—provide structural steel beams and columns to replace the wooden girders, a job estimated to take five weeks, at most, especially with the stipulation that “no change in use, egress of occupancy” was permitted. However, after vacating their apartments and relocating to a variety of shelters in the neighborhood, tenants were informed of a note that had been posted by Aloka on July 10th, ordering all tenants to “remove their belongings and surrender the keys to the apartment,” threatening that “Any tenant who does not comply will force landlord to hire locksmith to open the door to the apartment AND all items in the apartment will be considered abandoned and removed at tenants expense.”
Of the seven apartments in the building, all are rent-regulated with the exception of one, which is rent-controlled, and twelve tenants have decided to organize against what they believe to be illegal dealings. After reaching out to the People’s Firehouse and North Brooklyn Development Corporation, the tenants were referred to Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, who will represent them in court.
“The concerns are primarily, while [the tenants] are out of the building, how will they protect their personal belongings? Also, will they ever have the right to return to their apartments?” said Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A attorney Roberto Marerro. “The landlord got permission to correct the structure, the damages were done during excavation done without a permit. Now he has permits, but only to the extent of doing what is necessary to make the building safe again. Experts have said this work should be done in four to six weeks.”
Not so, according to the landlord. The issuance of the July 10th letter and its contents has been deemed illegal by the tenants’ attorney, and thought to be part of a ploy to force tenants to forfeit their rights to their apartments by intimidating them into completely vacating the premises and turning in their keys. Also, according to those working on the case, implying that access into individual apartments is necessary for simple structural renovations suggests the possibility that the landlord—who, in his letter, stated that construction would take anywhere from “175 to 310 days,”—is attempting to make capitol improvements, which would result in significant rent hikes: Each tenant could potentially be expected to pay 1/40th of the cost of construction tacked onto their rent.
“Asking tenants to surrender their apartments is illegal,” Marrero said. “If the landlord can access each apartment and do major renovations, he can raise the rent drastically.”
In addition, according to several tenants, Alokasheh has been open about his desire to weed out rent-controlled tenants in favor of new ones who can afford to pay market-rate prices.
“I never thought I’d get home one day and wouldn’t be allowed back in the building, to find out that my landlord sold the building without us knowing it, the new landlord did illegal excavation,” said tenant Anna McCusker. “The new landlord is also making it very, very hard for us. He hasn’t apologized, or helped us at all. He is refusing to tell us when we can come back, and taking each of us aside and telling us who he wants to come back and who he doesn’t. He told me that he can’t have three rent controlled apartments, and that I shouldn’t join them because I’m one of the tenants he wants to keep. He said, ‘I can’t have them here, I don’t want them here!’”
Alokasheh declined to comment.
The tenants, all of whom have banded together to form something of an association, will appear in court on Monday morning to begin legal proceedings associated with the vacate order.
Though the circumstances surrounding 172 N.8th St. are fairly drastic, they aren’t completely uncommon. According to Joanne Koslofski, another attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, in rapidly gentrifying areas such as Greenpoint/Williamsburg instances of tenant harassment and illegal renovations are becoming more and more frequent. However, one of the points of agreement surrounding the 2005 waterfront rezoning was the allocation of $2 million, to be distributed over two years to nine community organizations, in order to create and support the Greenpoint/Williamsburg Collaborative Against Displacement—of which both North Brooklyn Development Corporation and Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A are a part—and combat unfortunate situations like this one.
“If the landlord wants to be a criminal, we can’t stop him. We can’t stop a mugger!” Marerro said. “But he should know he’ll have to pay the consequences.”
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