Rubble With a Cause

Redevelopment woes: Williamsburg residents yanked out by their roots

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.

Out in the cold: The Owens family (clockwise from left: Pam, Daniel, Roger, and Joseph) in front of their vacated home
photo: Kate Englund
Out in the cold: The Owens family (clockwise from left: Pam, Daniel, Roger, and Joseph) in front of their vacated home


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  • 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.

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