Residence Evil

Stop-work orders don't stop bulldozing in Williamsburg

What bothers Ana Jaramillo the most is that her daughters, who are 7 and 9, remember it all. Faulty excavation at a construction site next door to their apartment on Havemeyer Street in Williamsburg tore gashes in their home and rendered it unstable. The building where Jaramillo and her husband had been tenants for 10 years was ordered closed and sealed off. That was in June. The Red Cross sheltered the family of four in a motel. In July, the Jaramillos were consigned to a city shelter for homeless families.

Jaramillo, 35, a kindergarten teacher working on a master's degree at City College, made the best of it. She continued working and studying and brought the girls back to Williamsburg to carry on their schooling at Northside Catholic Academy. The family had its own unit in the Harriet Tubman shelter in Harlem. Jaramillo wasn't used to the atmosphere there. So her husband, Luis, who had just started a security job at Kennedy Airport, quit to be around for his wife and girls to feel safe.

It went on that way until November, when the Jaramillos got an apartment in Sumner Houses, a Brooklyn housing project. "It was around Thanksgiving time," Jaramillo said. One of the girls asked, "Mommy, are they going to take this house away from us also?"

Josephine Peluso in front of her former building
photo: Ken Stein
Josephine Peluso in front of her former building

"No," said Jaramillo. "They said, 'Mommy, is it going to fall like the other house?' I said, 'No.' They had questions. . . . I thought it would be less traumatic for them. . . . The first time we ate here, those were the questions they had. They'll have that with them."

This is one more example of how the levees protecting many a New Yorker have been breached by a storm of real estate development. The city needs new housing, just as it needs water. But it doesn't need a flood of dangerous construction or rising rents to displace its own residents. The protections against these hazards are as suspect as the Gulf of Mexico levees.

The city department of buildings is one of the weak bricks in the wall. "Forget about it," said Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who held a news conference February 24 outside 22 Havemeyer Street, the construction site next to Ana Jaramillo's apartment. "How can anybody have any confidence in them?"

Here's one measure of that: Last year, there were 1,609 complaints that stop-work orders the buildings department issued were violated. Upon learning that, Lentol said, "It sounds to me that they are unable to enforce the law."

A computer-assisted analysis by the Voice of city records finds that most of the time, inspectors find no construction going on by the time they arrive—but there are violations in about 10 percent of the cases. The numbers raise serious questions about public safety: If stop-work orders don't stop unsafe construction, what will?

Almost never does the buildings department refer a complaint to police, who can make an arrest. Buildings department spokeswoman Ilyse Fink said it happened once last year with a charge in Queens. She said the agency routinely sends copies of stop-work orders to police. But police spokesman Detective Walter Burnes said police wouldn't move on a case unless the buildings department sought assistance.

Fink said the buildings department is moving forward on various fronts to improve construction safety. The agency—which critics have long said is dangerously understaffed—has gotten more employees in recent years, Fink said.

In his news conference, Lentol called for a fund to be created to provide for people who are displaced by faulty construction and for a task force to scrutinize applications for excavations. Fink said the buildings department is working on similar ideas.

Mike Choi, the developer at 22 Havemeyer, did not return a phone message asking his reaction to the news conference. When the Jaramillos were forced out in June, the buildings department had issued a citation charging that work was done without the proper permit. A stop-work order was issued. Records show that in August, a citation was issued charging a violation of the stop-work order; it was later dismissed without a fine. In an interview in January, Choi said everything was resolved.

Not for Ana Jaramillo, who said she has to reassure her daughters that their new apartment is built firmly. Nor for Josephine Peluso, 77, who owns the building where Jaramillo was a tenant.

On President's Day, I chanced to find her standing outside her boarded-up building on Havemeyer Street, her Yorkie leashed to the fence. She told me that she now lives in an apartment down the block, having given up her two cats to qualify. But she spent her afternoon standing in front of her real home. "I was born in that house," she said.

 
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