Construction as Harassment: Playing Rough in Williamsburg

n 1988, I moved to a rent-stabilized apartment on the north side of Williamsburg. Apart from a few artists and the Polish, Italian, and Latino families who grew up on these streets, not many people wanted to live here then. A mountain of waste rose four stories high at the garbage transfer station on Kent Avenue. The abandoned warehouses on the waterfront were home to the homeless, dens to drug addicts, and offices for prostitutes. 

The occasional corpse turned up in the vacant lots. And if you didn’t like pierogies or pizza, there were no other dining options. But amid the bleakness, something else was brewing. Exceptional improvised art and happenings were popping up in lofts, warehouses, and other spaces. A wave of new residents began to enrich the neighborhood, and many unique small businesses followed. Old mixed with new, each with reverence for the other. An evolving, diverse community in balance.

The 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning ordinance set off a redevelopment frenzy that both co-opted and largely erased an era. Much of the old community and creative culture has been replaced by an art-directed backdrop and branded “luxury urban cool.” Rapacious developers and landlords have strived to dislodge longtime residents so richer people can move in, with “construction as harassment” their go-to method. 

I live in the middle of three six-unit, turn-of-the-century buildings that were sold for a total of about $500,000 in 1993. In the summer of 2010, my landlord decided it was time to see some return on his investment and simultaneously build his own personal Shangri-La—a seven-story one-man mansion that would replace one of the buildings. The plans submitted to the city Department of Buildings (DOB) indicated underground parking, a pool on the third floor, and a terrace on the roof of my building. 

His first move was to try to get me out. “Why just me?” I wondered. A close friend quickly pointed out that I was the one who knew my rights and would mobilize the other tenants to fight for them. With me out of the way, those remaining, including a 98-year-old woman and a retired Polish immigrant, would be easy pickings. He had no clue, however, that we were a de facto family. He told me we should talk about me getting “a place of my own,” but asked me not to say anything until he could speak with the others individually. I said I’d listen to what he had to say, but that it must be in front of all of us.

At a group meeting, he explained his plan to renovate the buildings and told us, “You are in my way, and I’d really like you to go.” To his credit he added, “Because of your status with the state, you do have the right to stay.” He then asked how much money we would need to move. 

He visited the 98-year-old a couple weeks later, sitting at her kitchen table and repeatedly asking her what he could offer her to move. She insisted that she was staying. The rest of us fell in behind her. 

The landlord went to plan B. In March 2012, he called me and said that the building next door would be coming down, and that “for our safety” we should move to the building on the other side, returning once the new building was complete. 

“If we leave, we’ll never get back in,” the 98-year-old advised. We held our ground. By that December, both of the other two buildings were empty, and two tenants had left mine. The weakening of the rent-stabilization laws in the ’90s allowed for the decontrol of these units. That left four of us occupying what was arguably the most valuable piece of real estate on the north Williamsburg waterfront. Two of us were rent-stabilized, and two rent-controlled. 

Game on. 

On Martin Luther King Day weekend in 2013, a notice was taped to my door stating that construction would begin that Tuesday. Within a month, all the vacant units in the three buildings were gutted. The house shook to its foundation. I was certain the chimneys would collapse, and that I’d soon come home to find a vacate order on the front door. 

In April, without notice, the roof was taken off under the guise of “asbestos abatement.” For the next year, we lived under a temporary “membrane” roof. I live on the top floor, and every time it rained I was ridden with anxiety about where the water would leak and what would get damaged. With no insulation above, the winter was excruciatingly cold. With the help of the People’s Firehouse Inc., a local community resource center, we formed an official tenants association and began working with Brooklyn Legal Services Corp A. 

We soon realized that the landlord had applied for construction permits from the Department of Buildings without having first obtained a “certificate of no harassment,” which was mandated under the 2005 rezoning plan. He had indicated on his applications that the building was unoccupied, so he didn’t need one. The DOB accepted this at face value and issued the permits without any kind of background check. 

When the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which issues the certificates, learned about this, it informed the DOB that the building was in fact occupied. Stop-work orders were issued in January 2014. That left my landlord with a bunch of gutted apartments he couldn’t work on or rent. He was livid. 

“What’s this certificate going to do for you?” he growled. “It’s going to cost me a lot of time and filing fees… Can’t we work something out?” 

Despite our objections, the certificate was granted in the summer of 2015. The buildings were immediately sold for almost $16 million. The deed transfer happened late that December, but the sale did not become public record for about three weeks. 

In January 2016, I noticed my rent check had not been cashed. I called the landlord’s office. I got a message saying that the office had moved and to call the new number. It was busy every time I called. I emailed my landlord and got no reply. Meanwhile, I noticed that the windows of the vacant building next door were blacked out with plastic sheeting, its doors bolted shut, and fire-escape ladders unbolted and or removed. Then, a stealthy crew of workers went in through a back entrance and demolished everything but the walls and beams. 

The stop-work order was still in effect and they had no permits, but it was the Martin Luther King Day weekend, when city agencies were closed. As I watched the workers in hazmat suits cut, hammer, and saw away the building’s entrails, I called 311 from my cell and explained it was an crime in progress, “an emergency,” and explained that if someone was sent now, they would catch them. They suggested I call 911. 911 said it was no emergency and to call 311 and report it to DOB. 

With no “real-time response” capability, DOB was not able to catch them in the act, which is required to issue a violation. Because its inspectors could not gain access, the complaints were closed out. The only violation it issued for the demolition was for excessive combustible debris in the back yard. 

The demolition stopped the day the deed became public record and searchable on the ACRIS-NYC online system. The new LLC owners announced themselves in a letter nailed to the wall outside my door, with instructions to send the rent to a post-office box. It was signed, “The Management.” 

To date, DOB has issued more than 30 violations in the three buildings, resulting in over $30,000 in fines—none paid. They include failing to monitor adjoining structures during excavation, violating stop-work orders, filing permit applications with material false statements (a felony), working without a tenant-protection plan, denying access to inspectors, and failing to notify DOB prior to earth work. In most cases, the fines were ignored, dismissed, or resolved by accepting the landlord’s certificate of correction. 

The work is still going on. Recently the project manager told me to be patient, because I’d soon be living in a luxury building. I don’t want luxury. I want my neighborhood and community back. 

In February, I was interviewed by the Regional Planning Authority for their study “Pushed Out: Housing Displacement in an Unaffordable Region.” I told them that even if you’re lucky enough to hang on, you end up displaced anyway, because all your friends, neighbors, and local businesses get pushed out. 

The study identified neighborhoods in the region that were at risk for displacement. Williamsburg was not one of them. Apparently there aren’t any low- to moderate-income people left to displace. 

It’s too late for Williamsburg, but not for the other neighborhoods that are in the crosshairs of “rezoning.” Protecting them starts with reforming DOB and ending construction as harassment.

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