By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
City records show that investors listing the same address and suite number on Lee Avenue in Williamsburg (it's actually a rented mailbox, one of hundreds at the location used by many Bushwick landlords) bought both properties in late January. They paid $330,000 for 163 Harman Street and $350,000 for its twin across the street, 166 Harman.
The tenants of 163 Harman watched as their neighbors departed, one by one, though not without a fight. According to court records, actions were filed last year to force the former owners of 166 Harman to fix over 67 violations. The rebellion ended, neighbors confirm, after the new owners offered them modest sums to leave.
Watching warily across the street is Jessica Vides, 33. She grew up in 163 Harman, moving there with her parents in 1977, shortly after the fire."When we moved to Bushwick, every building on our block was burned down," she recalls. "I remember looking out my third-floor window, and that's all I saw."
Slowly, the empty lots filled in. Up the street, a chunk of the sprawling 1,000-apartment Housing Authority project called Hope Gardens, a low-rise development, was built in the 1980s, covering whole blocks of once-blasted earth and credited with helping to hold the neighborhood together at its lowest point. Hundreds of one- and two-family homes followed, most of them built under the city's Housing Partnership program and helping to bring new homeowners into the community.
But Vides and her neighbors got no such help. Their building started to slip after an old Italian family that owned it for more than 30 years, providing modest but necessary upkeep, sold it in 2002. The building passed to a speculator named Ronald Lewis, who, a year later, quickly fell into foreclosure. The residents then spent three years in limbo. On paper, at least, their improbable owner was an Ohio savings bank that had foreclosed on Lewis. But tenants say no maintenance was provided, and they had to pay directly to the utility company to keep the lights on and to beseech the city for help with heat and hot water.
Vides, with two daughters of her own and a stepdaughter, and trying to work her way through college, joined local community groups, including the one launched by her pastor at St. Barbara's, Father Powis. She rounded up her fellow tenants and got them to form an association to demand repairs. But when the new owners arrived this year, they didn't want to talk about those matters. In fact, they didn't even want any rent.
In April, the landlord, whose corporate name is Keter Residence LLC, filed a lethal Housing Court motion known as a "holdover proceeding" against each of the tenants. It essentially means the landlord wants your apartment, without you in it. To get it, however, he's got to show you've either violated your lease, have become a nuisance, or repeatedly failed to pay your rent on time.
But unlike their windfall at 166 Harman Street, the owners may have to wait awhile for their next score. Vides and the association have hired private attorneys, who have told Keter Residence LLC that it needs to take care of some 70 outstanding violations or face its own penalties. The city's housing department agrees: This month, spokesman Neill Coleman said, the city will file a comprehensive action compelling the owners to make all necessary repairs. It will also demand stiff civil penalties.
There's almost a plodding routine to the landlords' efforts to empty out the current residents of 920 Bushwick Avenue and its sister building around the corner at 1075 Greene Avenue. Together, the two brick six-story buildings contain 52 apartments, making them a bigger catch than the smaller six-unit walk-ups that line the side streets. In 2005, a group of investors bought those two properties, plus another of the neighborhood's largest privately owned apartment houses, a 53-unit building a block away at 946 Bushwick Avenue. They paid a total of $7.7 million for the three properties, making it one of the largest recent private transactions in the neighborhood.
All three buildings have logged lengthy and troublesome histories: Inspectors have tagged them collectively for a total of 538 violations, two-thirds of them considered hazardous.
The routine generally goes this way: Tenants ask for repairs for leaks, moldy walls, broken windows, and rat holes. Landlord agents suggest that the quickest solution is to take a few thousand dollars and find a nicer place.
Arlene Carraro, 30, a single mother, went to the landlord for help with holes in her ceiling and possible lead paint in her third-floor apartment at 920 Bushwick. The answer, she says, was delivered by Thomas Lefhowitz, one of the managers who is often in the building. "He didn't want to fix for us Hispanics," she says she was told. "He wants us out."
Hector Rivera, 45, says he got a similar response. He has lived at 920 Bushwick for 25 years and currently shares a $550 two-bedroom unit with his brother. When he asked Lefhowitz, he was told that a buyout would be quicker and simpler. "The man offered me $5,000 to move to a smaller apartment," says Rivera. "Another time he offered me $10,000. How can you offer me $10,000 and not repair my apartment?"
Part of the answer is that this slice of Bushwick Avenue offers potentially tasty pickings for landlords looking to attract a more upscale crowd to their apartments. Although it's a few blocks from the all-important subways, the street is the closest thing the neighborhood has to a broad, leafy boulevard. Down the avenue are Beaux-Arts mansions built for the industrial magnates of bygone days. The elegant 1853 South Bushwick Reformed Church albeit somewhat tattered and in need of a new coat of paintstill stands at Bushwick and Himrod Street. There are rows of handsome brownstones and brick row houses along the avenue that are already selling for more than $700,000.