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At first, the Spanish-speaking residents of 54 Greenwich Street didn't know what to make of the crackdown at their cavernous brick apartment complex in Hempstead.
It started in June, when building inspectors from the village began walking the dimly lit hallways, crossing once-grand mosaic floors and mounting the grim stairs to the upper stories. In the early morning hours, officials knocked on doors, waking the occupants so they could conduct surprise inspections and count the number of people inside.
In the weeks that followed, the tenants received certified letters from their landlord, accusing them of overcrowding the apartments and illegally installing partitions to make extra rooms. For the Latino residents, many of whom fled civil war and death squads in Central America, the unannounced visits and certified mail proved they were being spied on by the powers that be.
Then, in August, the landlord sent the most threatening letter of all: an eviction notice that packed a special wallop for people whose legal status to stay in the United States may be in doubt. "It has been brought to the attention of Management that you may be harboring illegal Aliens. If this proves to be true this behavior subjects you to Civil and Criminal penalties, as well as eviction from the subject premises," read a letter from Parkoff Management, which tenants said was mailed to at least a half-dozen Spanish-speaking residents, many of whom are from El Salvador. "In view of the above, Immigration and Naturalization Services [sic] has been contacted regarding same."
A. Richard Parkoff is identified as a partner in Greenwich Arms Co., the "landlord/owner" of the building. He's also a developer who has been talking with Long Beach officials about putting up a huge oceanfront hotel complex. Parkoff didn't return repeated calls from the Long Island Voiceseeking an explanation of the letters to the Greenwich Street tenants, but the tenants themselves said the matter is easy to understand. They contended that Parkoff began sending the letters after they complained about problems in the building, including leaks from rainwater and bathrooms. Fearing retaliation, some of the Spanish-speaking renters declined to talk to the Voice. Those who did wouldn't give their names.
One tenant detailed trouble with a dripping ceiling that was recently repaired. "I called them to come and fix it," the tenant said, "and it was at that time that they started to scare us."
The most scared person of all, however, may be the landlord himself. Building inspector Robert Grams said the village inspected the premises after receiving complaints about overcrowded apartments and flimsy partitions from people who live at 54 Greenwich. Grams said his department wrote citations in June for 14 units at the complex, putting Parkoff on notice that he'd better fix his property fast. "God forbid there was ever a fire in there," Grams said. "When you overcrowd a place like he has there, everything goes wrong. It affects the people who are trying to do the right thing."
Grams said Parkoff has since been in touch with village inspectors at least weekly, updating them on his efforts to solve the problems. Grams said his department has given the landlord time to come into compliance so tenants don't end up on the street.
Though Parkoff wasn't talking, his Manhattan lawyer, Cory Weiss, described the landlord as being "very dilligent" about taking care of his buildings. Weiss said that Parkoff was in fact moving rapidly to bring 54 Greenwich up to code and that the tactic of mentioning possible illegal aliens was probably just a way of getting renters' attention. "Sometimes if you say something to certain people," he said, "they act quick."
For now, Hempstead officials are being patient, but they're also acutely aware of the risks that come with cramming too many people into apartments carved into little rooms.
In May, an overcrowded building in Huntington Station caught fire. Fueled by dividers made of sheets, towels and cardboard, the flames roared for three hours, turning what had been home for more than 30 Salvadorans into a tomb for a 37-year-old man, a woman and her 5-year-old daughter. Many of the occupants were undocumented immigrants. The building, owned by Harvey Vengroff, wasn't zoned residential, and residents had complained about problems with heat and hot water. Still, they elected to stay, then ended up burying their neighbors ["Where Slumlords Live," May 13].
Since the Huntington fire, Long Islanders who share apartment complexes or neighborhoods with immigrants have protested what they say are dangerous conditions. A demonstration in August targeted a Farmingville house occupied by Mexican men. The Sachem Quality of Life Foundation claimed that 20 people lived in the one-story home, but a fire department inspection revealed only 10. According to reports in Newsday, Sachem Quality of Life compiled a list of some 40 overcrowded dwellings in Brookhaven where undocumented immigrants live. "They're going to end up with another Huntington Station on their hands," one protestor told the paper.
Immigrants aren't the only people on LI who suffer in crowded dwellings, yet they draw most of the attention. The fact that do-gooders get riled primarily about places where Spanish-speakers live has caused some advocates to question whether the protesters are really just trying to keep foreigners in check.
Patrick Young, an attorney with the Hempstead-based Central American Refugee Center (CARACEN), said he has seen neighbors in Freeport and Elmont threatening to alert immigration officials as a way to take revenge on people they don't like. Young said the feds are typically more concerned about businesses that hire undocumented workers than about landlords who rent to illegal refugees, but that does little to help Spanish-speaking tenants feel better. "We've even had people come in here who are completely frightened, even though they had legal status to be here," Young said. "It's still an easy way to frighten folks."
Tenants at 54 Greenwich were quick to point out that it sometimes took them months to get repairs, yet inspectors rushed in when people complained of overcrowding by immigrants. Last year, one tenant even made a video of the garbage-filled, rodent-infested basement and waited, tape in hand, at the village hall until she got officials' attention. "I sat for two days at the mayor's office, until he would see this," said Kelly Holman, a white, English-speaking mother who acts as a kind of in-house advocate for Latino tenants and other renters in the building.
Holman said Mayor James Garner got the basement cleaned up pronto. She has also been successful at getting new appliances from the landlord and prodding him to fix problems in other renters' apartments.
Spanish-speaking tenants said they've had much less luck dealing with the landlord on their own. One compared their plight with that of immigrants throughout Long Island, where the disadvantaged many line the pockets of the property-owning few with regular rent checks for decrepit apartments. "In this country, the landlords, they don't like Hispanics," the renter said. "At the end of the month, they love the money."