Rubble With a Cause
Redevelopment woes: Williamsburg residents yanked out by their roots
by Paul Moses
The Village Voice February 3rd, 2006 12:52 PM
Roger Owens was putting his one-month- and three-year-old sons to sleep on November 14 when firefighters banged on the door of his home on Diamond Street in Williamsburg. "You have a minute to get out," Owens said they told him. With his wife, Pamela, and their children, Owens dashed out the front door to a jarring streetscape of spotlights, fire engines, and hundreds of onlookers. He soon learned that the city had ordered his home vacated because construction of luxury housing next door had so damaged an adjacent building that it threatened to fall down on his own three-story frame house, which has been in his family since 1890, through five generations. "It was frightening," said Owens, a retired police officer. Such is life in the rezoned world of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, where even the most rooted property owner can wind up homeless on a minute's notice and where longtime tenants, both residents and businesses, are subject to massive rent increases, eviction, and harassment. Last May's deal between the Bloomberg administration and City Council to rezone the Brooklyn waterfront neighborhoods for a Manhattan-like string of luxury skyscrapers has superheated the area's already hot real estate market—but city officials have yet to follow through on millions of dollars in protections pledged for tenants and businesses displaced by rising rents. A $2 million fund is supposed to help tenants and aid in the battle against the sort of building abuses that drove Owens from his home. Now, the fine print looms large: The money is to come from sale of air rights over an MTA bus garage. But first the city has to find room for a new depot, the MTA says. City officials wouldn't predict how long that will take. And, as reported, a $4 million fund to help displaced industrial businesses relocate isn't available yet. The Bloomberg administration and City Council are "at an impasse" in talks on how to spend the money, said Councilman David Yassky, who is pushing for some of it to subsidize workers' health costs. "I am very frustrated by this," he said. "We did this rezoning eight months ago and these resources still are not out there."
Administration officials also have expressed frustration that the money hasn't been distributed. But neither side sounds as frustrated as Herb Engler, who has written a torrent of letters and e-mails seeking money from the fund to relocate his company, Penn State Fabricators, which is due to be forced out by a housing developer on February 28 after 36 years in Greenpoint. "At this point I am not only fighting for my own existence, but for those that are presently working for me," Engler wrote in a January 27 e-mail to all councilmembers, ". . . We are being forced to possibly close the company, and those that are responsible DO NOTHING."
Peter Gillespie, executive director of Neighbors Against Garbage, said local groups are reorganizing to press for the money promised in the rezoning deal. "The devil's in the details," he said. "If these promises aren't fulfilled, this rezoning is going to be a disaster for the community."
Neill Coleman, spokesman for the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said he couldn't give a timetable on when the money for helping tenants will be available. He pointed to the rezoning deal's provision for affordable housing—one-third of the new units, with half of those for community residents. In addition, he said, the zoning is being revised to require builders to get a certificate from HPD certifying that they had not harassed tenants. But the tenant fund is awaiting action from the MTA on the bus site, he said.
Jacek Bikowski, who counsels about 80 tenants a week who face the loss of housing, said the money to fight tenant harassment and illegal building is needed now. "By the time we get the money . . . most of the people who are about to be evicted will in fact be evicted," said Bikowski, who works for North Brooklyn Development Corporation and the People's Firehouse. Bikowski said the tenants he sees—often elderly Polish-speakers earning under $800 a month—don't want to leave and so are bunking with other seniors, curtaining off rooms. "This is their community and they have doctors and churches and friends," he said.
While the rezoning will create affordable housing, it's not soon enough for tenants like Marie Ditizio, 70.
She said she is under court order to get out by June 30 from the apartment where she's lived in a two-family house on North 7th Street for the past 28 years. With rents running at least double the $600 she's paying now, there is nothing she can afford. "I don't know what to do," she said.
The real-estate tumult has been so tough on the elderly that it has forced some to move in with out-of-town relatives or to a nursing home. This is what happened to Phyllis Mascia's two sisters-in-law. All three widows were evacuated from their apartments on Havemeyer Street on June 15. The Buildings Department issued vacate orders for the Mascia family's building and another one two doors down because excavation done to put up new housing at 22 Havemeyer Street caused cracks in the neighboring buildings. Work was being done in violation of a previous stop-work order, according to city records.
Mascia, 67, said the "Golden Girls," as she dubbed them, were separated. A 90-year-old sister-in-law moved to a nursing home, and another, age 87, moved in with her son on Long Island. Mascia found a studio apartment down the block.
The developer, Mike Choi, had wanted to buy the two adjacent buildings, Mascia said. "He had been trying to buy our two buildings before this incident for years, and even afterwards he had the audacity to say, I'll give you $450,000 for the property and you can live in the [new] building," Mascia said. "What a nerve. . . . I said, `You don't understand, Mr. Choi. We're not landlords. We're not developers. This is our home. This is our castle." Asked if he had offered to buy Mascia's building, Choi said he didn't know. But, he said, he has been allowed to continue building at 22 Havemeyer Street and the problems have been resolved.
Ilyse Fink, spokeswoman for the Buildings Department, said the developer was fined $4,960. She said a vacate order was lifted on Mascia's building but one remained in place on another next to the construction. Mascia said she didn't know the vacate order was lifted until after a local official (alerted by an inquiry from the Voice) told her. "The Buildings Department doesn't know what it's doing," Mascia said, adding her building was beyond repair.
The delayed city funding, noted Bikowski, would help neighborhood groups stop such abuses. "We need to research what's going on, follow up on every development, check records of landlords' harassment," he said. "We would increase the cooperation with the Department of Buildings."
In the meantime, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, a Greenpoint Democrat, has proposed legislation requiring developers to create escrow accounts to reimburse those displaced by faulty construction.
Owens said that ultimately he casts blame for what happened to him on the city for allowing such rapid change and then doing little to help those it hurt. "I have more anger for the city than I do for the builder," he said, adding that the builder, at least, found him an apartment. The pressure is not likely to ease: Owens said he got an unsolicited offer for his home even after it had just been ordered vacated. "Somebody came up to me that night," he said. "I said, `Listen pal, this isn't my investment . . . it's my home.' "