By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
From the top of the spanking new steel-and-glass 14-story condo tower now open for inspection on Grove Street just off of Myrtle Avenue, you can see most of Bushwickthe landmarks of the neighborhood that was, and the one that's fast being remade, the sites of the bad old memories, even of some of the good.
This is the Brooklyn neighborhood's first major luxury residential construction project, but the marketers of the 59 condominium units for sale here steer clear of the name Bushwick as much as possible. Promotional materials aimed at luring hipsters with the means to buy a one-bedroom for $270,000, or a three-bedroom penthouse for $682,000 refer to "ever-expanding Williamsburg" or "East Williamsburg" as the building's locale. This despite the fact that the tower at 358 Grove Street is in deepest Bushwick; look it up on any map.
"This is the continuation of Williamsburg," insists the condo's frantic real estate agent, dashing about the sixth-floor sales office. "Look," he says, burbling the happy nonsense of a salesman, "people in the neighborhood are ready to take their lives to the next level."
What's at work here is straight out of the brokers' handbook: Link the property in buyers' minds to the worldwide cachet of that now-prosperous and booming neighborhood a couple miles west of here. "The Peter Luger Steakhouse is just a couple of blocks away," the agent says, leaning over an unfinished rooftop cabana. Actually, Peter Luger's is a solid eight subway stops away from here on the M train that rumbles along Myrtle Avenue. But no matter. There are some very solid marketing rationales for this approach.
For one thing, mention of Bushwick still summons up unfortunate images lodged in the collective municipal subconscious. Most enduring are the apocalyptic blazes that erupted 30 years ago this summer when, on the sweltering night of July 13, 1977, New York City's lights and power went out. Looting and burning the worst since the draft riots of the Civil Warbroke out in half a dozen city neighborhoods. Nowhere was it worse than in Bushwick, which had been lurching steadily downhill for years. Pummeled by the loss of its blue-collar, job-generating breweries and knitting mills in the late '60s and early '70s, the neighborhood underwent a wrenching racial transition as low-income blacks and Hispanics replaced fleeing Italian and German families. By 10 p.m., minutes after the lights went out and the subways froze in place, crowds began pouring onto Broadway, racing under the elevated train tracks to smash gates and windows of appliance, clothing, and sporting-goods stores, hauling away whatever could be carried: televisions, air conditioners, mattresses, shotguns. Looting continued into the next day before cops got things under control. There were 890 arrests in Brooklyn, most of them in Bushwick.
A few days later, things got worse: A massive arson blaze erupted on July 18 in an abandoned knitting mill at the corner of Knickerbocker and Myrtle avenues. It quickly escalated into an all-hands firethe biggest blaze in modern city history until 9/11. Even with 300 firefighters responding, the firestorm wiped out more than 30 buildings, leaving 250 families homeless and smoldering ruins that bespoke only urban hopelessness.
Later that year, Howard Cosell brought the South Bronx international notoriety when he announced in the midst of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning." But most New Yorkers understood that for a true picture of Dresden-like devastation, Bushwickthe old Dutch settlement on Long Island's western shoreshad no peer.
The devastation bred despair. Another reason not to invoke the neighborhood's name in a real estate sales pitch is its lingering reputation for that other urban scourge, drugs. In the firestorm's wake, drugs swept through local streets. Much of the merchandising was homegrown: Before he was famously gunned down in 1979 while dining on the back patio at Joe & Mary's restaurant on Knickerbocker Avenuehis cigar either clenched or planted in his teethBonanno crime-family boss Carmine Galante peddled so much heroin in Bushwick and other neighborhoods that he became an embarrassment to his own Mafia cohorts.
Those who challenged the lucrative trade suffered the consequences. From the upper floors of 358 Grove Street, condo purchasers will have a direct "view corridor" down Irving Avenue to Maria Hernandez Park. The once thriving drug supermarket had its name changed from Bushwick Park back in 1989 in honor of a 36-year-old community activist who confronted the local crack merchants. On the morning of August 8, 1989, Hernandez was shot to death while she was standing in her bedroom on Starr Street blow-drying her hair, about to leave for her job as an accountant in New Jersey. The shooterwho was never apprehendedfired five potshots through the bedroom's drawn blinds.
During daylight hours, the park is pretty tame these days, thanks in part to a program the city launched a couple of years ago called the "Bushwick Initiative." The program, arranged by Bushwick's longtime political heavyweight, State Assemblyman Vito Lopez, has attempted a coordinated attack on crime, sanitation problems, and ailing housing in a 23-square-block area near the park. Some progress is already in evidence: On the first Saturday of June, an artists' group called Bushwick Open Studio held a parade through the neighborhood, celebrating the new art being created in the lofts and studios along Bushwick's western fringe. The parade route went right past Maria Hernandez's old house on Starr Street and ended at the park. That's the kind of thing that cheers the hearts of the promoters of 358 Grove Street.
Like it or not, artists are the shock troops of gentrification. By dint of their willingness to adopt urban spaces abandoned by industry, to live alongside the kind of poverty that would otherwise terrify the middle class, they inevitably soften up the neighborhood for real estate's juggernaut (often eventually displacing themselves; ask any former Soho pioneer from the '70s). It happened on the Lower East Side and Williamsburg; it's happening in Harlem and even in parts of the South Bronx. Now, step by stepor stop by stop, since the burgeoning hipoisie have largely followed the path of the overcrowded L train through Brooklynit's arrived in Bushwick.
Not that that's a bad thing, by most measures. A neighborhood that ranks in the top 10 poorest areas of the city, that has the highest rate of asthma hospitalizations and the most serious housing-code violations, can use all the help it can get. New investment means new residents, new stores, new jobs. And, whether city fathers choose to admit it or not, it means much closer municipal attention to crime and the quality of local life. For those who already own a modest piece of the rock, and who held on through the bad years, rising real estate values also yield a once-in-a-lifetime bonanza, a hike in net worth that trickles down to the rest of the family, providing a nice cushion against an otherwise fickle economy. When the price of limestone two-family homes in Windsor Terrace, a central Brooklyn neighborhood once considered Park Slope's poor cousin, topped $1 million a few years ago, the Irish-American families who had bought them in the '60s on a wish and a prayer danced in the streets, celebrating their impossibly good fortune.
The people directly in harm's way, however, are those clinging to the lower rungs of the economic ladder: renters who never came close to raising a down payment for their own home, let alone a sparkling new condo with granite counters and backsplash. For those living in buildings of fewer than six unitsthe cutoff for rent-regulation protectionsit's just their hard luck: Eviction is usually as simple as a lapsed lease and a new rent set far beyond the pocketbook of the current tenant.
But those in rental buildings of six apartments and overroughly half of Bushwick's housing stockare supposed to enjoy the full protections of the law. They're entitled to basic services like a paint job every few years, regular visits by an exterminator, and a locked front door, not to mention security against illegal rent hikes and harassment. But try telling that to the avid buyers now answering the clarion call of a new hot real estate market in, of all places, Bushwick. In the past two years, residents and community groups say, new landlords have flocked to this once woebegone territory, their apparent mission to empty and re-rent these now valuable propertiesregardless of the rulesas fast as possible.
Although no one's keeping score, there's a huge displacement going on here of working families who are otherwise entitled, under statutes, regulations, and common civic decency, to hold onto their homes. As old a story as gentrification has become, it's still a double-edged sword that can cut ruthlessly at the poor unless tempered by tough enforcement of housing codes and rent rules.
"It's happened so fast," says Roberto Marrero, a Legal Services attorney who has handled housing cases for the poor in Bushwick and Williamsburg for 10 years. "Rents were all around $600; that was what owners got. Then all of a sudden, in the last couple years, they doubled. Everywhere people looked, owners were asking $1,200like that was the magic number all of a sudden." Even if the rent hike is well above the maximum set under state rent-stabilization guidelines, owners just take the chance that they won't get found out, Marrero says. "If no one challenges it for four years, it's legal."
Angel Vera, a housing organizer for Make the Road by Walking, a community group whose offices are located just down the street from the new condo tower, says he encounters the same scenario over and over. "The landlord wants the building and not the tenants. They'll wait them out as long as they have to, not giving heat, hot water, or other services."
Yolanda Coca, a tenant organizer who lived down the street from Maria Hernandez when she was shot, and who still makes her home on Null Street, says she's been swamped by families trying only to get the law enforced. "They are living in terrible conditions and still facing eviction," she says. "It breaks my heart."
Frayed wood-frame and brick apartment housesoccupied residences that a few years ago had few takers on the open markethave seen their sales prices ginned up to $500,000 and more. The high price tags are a speculator's gamble that existing tenants can be bought out of their leases for a couple of thousand dollars ($5,000 for those stubborn enough to demand more), or that they simply won't want to stick around with no heat, hot water, or basic services. There's also the pressing sound of a clock ticking. The new investors are desperate to make their score, locking in new tenants and high rents quickly before the great New York real estate bubble finally bursts.
That's another view from the top floors of 358 Grove Street: blocks of ailing three- and four-story buildings where a desperate but largely invisible hand-to-hand combat is under way, a disputed turf that right now is up for grabs. "I have a crystal ball," the condo sales agent confides to a pair of potential buyers, young white men who would fit right in at a Bedford Avenue café. "Bushwick is about to explode. Three years from now, you won't even recognize this neighborhood."
The mixed blessings contained in that message are most apparent to Father John Powis, who served for 37 years as pastor of the nearby St. Barbara's Roman Catholic Church, whose bell towers on Central Avenue long dominated the local horizon before the new tower rose. Built by wealthy German beer barons at the turn of the last century, St. Barbara's still draws hundreds to Sunday mass. Most parishioners are low-income residents, many of them immigrants. Powis was supposed to take retirement three years ago. Instead, he stepped down from the pulpit to form a community advocacy group that he calls the Bushwick Housing Independence Project. At 73, he trudges regularly to the city's Housing Court, clutching his red appointment diary, and holds nightly meetings with embattled tenants.
"I call it 'the assault,'" he says, standing earlier this month amid the bedlam of lawyers shouting into cell phones and babies wailing that is Housing Court in Brooklyn. "I've got nothing against fixing up the buildings and new people moving in. But these people," he adds, gesturing at a tenant he is there trying to help, "the ones who were here and who worked through the bad timesthey've earned a right to hang on."
That's the second battle of Bushwick, one being waged 30 years after the neighborhood was ravaged by the city's worst firestorm.
One of the assault's targets is Isidro Uribe, who has lived with his wife in a six-family, three-story walk-up at 133 Menahan Street for 15 years. In March, Uribe, 51, got up in his first-floor apartment to see who was ringing his buzzer. Beneath him, rotten floorboards under an old carpet crumbled. One foot went directly through a hole in the floor. Uribe hung there, one foot still on the first floor, the other perched on the gas meters in the basement. "I was split like a ballerina," he recalls; his groin was mashed against the broken floorboards.
The potential for an accident shouldn't have been a surprise. City housing-code violation records show that inspectors cited rotting floors throughout apartment 1R as early as 2005. All told, there are an astonishing 259 violations listed against the building, two-thirds of them classified as hazardous or "immediately hazardous."
A few weeks before Uribe's fall, his wife, Altagracia, had her own accident, slipping on broken tiles on the bathroom floor and fracturing a rib when she fell. Like the floorboards, inspectors had also noted the broken tiles years before. "Properly repair with similar material the broken or defective ceramic tile floor in the bathroom located at apartment 1R," the inspector instructed in June 2005.
The current owner of 133 Menahan Street says his tenants are the ones at fault here. "Tenants want to make trouble for me," says Yuda Furth, when asked about the problems. He had fixed the floor, he adds, only to have "tenants break it again."
Despite the scores of outstanding violations in an occupied and rent-stabilized building, Furth and his partner, Moshe Mandel, forked over $410,000 last November, buying the property as 1274 M & F Management LLC. Within months of their takeover, three tenants were evicted.
Uribe says that Furth is often aggressive, but the threats come from an assistant who follows in the landlord's wake. "He says in Spanish, 'Move out! We're not fixing anything.'"
Tanya Morales, 30, has lived in the building since she was two years old. She met Furth when he and another man knocked on the door of her top-floor apartment one night after 9 p.m. "What do you want to do about the back rentleave or pay up?" Furth asked.
Morales explained that she didn't think she owed rent, since there hadn't been any maintenance at the building for more than two yearsever since the old landlady walked away. In the interim, Morales, Uribe, and other tenants had hauled the trash, chipped in to pay to keep the hallway lights on, and called the city's housing department for oil and boiler repairs.
Morales has kept her own apartment as pristine as she can. She has paid for a new hardwood floor, carpeting in the bedrooms, and new pipes under the sink. She painted the apartment and had a closet rebuilt. She could do little about the roof leaks, however, which allow water to pour through her ceiling as if it were a sieve. Her living-room ceiling is collapsing; a large, swollen plaster bubble hangs over the kitchen.
Furth was unmoved. He produced a legal document called "Assignment of All Rents and Leases," which entitles a new owner to any rent still claimed by the previous landlord. Based on his calculations, Morales owed him $12,039.30, even though the old owner hadn't been around. "I'm not leaving," Morales told him. "I can tell you that now."
In the ensuing weeks, Furth took to calling or dropping by late at night. In one visit, Morales says, the owner asked her: "How about I give you $4,000 to leave?"
Since December, she's been forced to attend Housing Court hearings seven times on the case Furth lodged against her, usually accompanied by Father Powis, whom she knows from St. Barbara's. To attend the hearings, she's had to use vacation days from her job as a case worker at a nonprofit agency assisting troubled, homeless men. She's worked for various social-service agencies since she obtained a bachelor's degree in human services from Boricua College, which has a branch not far from her home. "I love my work," she says as she sits on a bench waiting for her case to be called by the court's clerk this month.
Her 10-year-old son, Wilson, will graduate from grade school with honors this month. He's been accepted in the talented and gifted program at I.S. 383. "I am saving a vacation day so I can go to his graduation," Morales says. "I don't care what happens."
Asked about the problems at his new building, Furth says the issue is simple: His tenants don't pay rent. "They don't have any money. They don't want to work," he claims.
As for the hundreds of outstanding code violations filed by the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Furth is even less forthcoming: "That's between HPD and me. I don't want to discuss that."
HPD, however, had no problem talking about it when officials there were asked to take a look at the plight of 133 Menahan Street. This month, according to agency spokesman Neill Coleman, the city will move in court for an order directing Furth and his partner to cure all outstanding violations. Civil penalties will also be sought.
Carmen Melendez, 52, is the last person standing in her home of 14 years at 81 Bleecker Street, just down the block from St. Barbara's. All the other tenants in the six-unit building were either evicted or have fled in recent months. She's tempted to go as well. "I put my heart and my hard-earned money into making this a home," she says. "But now I am tired. I don't know if I can do it anymore."
Her money is clearly hard-earned. Melendez is a maintenance worker at the Sixth Precinct in Greenwich Village. She spends her days scrubbing floors and cleaning up after the police and their clientelea job that, at the end of the month, pays her $1,400 after taxes. She comes home to a building that hasn't seen any cleanup work in years. Paint on the entryway has long ago faded and chipped away; a thin front door hangs open and impotent. On the side of the building and above the rear yard, bricks are crumbling. A neighbor says that one fell recently, smashing a car windshield on the street. The holes in the brickwork are so large that sparrows and pigeons nest inside.
Inside the darkened hallway, Melendez faces another challenge: to carefully negotiate the stairs to her second-floor apartment. The steps are crumbling underfoot and the handrail is wobbly. In February, she tripped on a bad step and fell down the staircase. There was nothing broken, but she ached from bruises for weeks.
Her own home is a stark contrast to the disarray outside. She's filled an entire wall in her living room with pictures of her children and grandchildren, and decorated the kitchen with small plastic elephants and pictures of fruit and vegetables. The Virgin Mary gazes from atop a bookshelf. Still, she has stopped replacing the deteriorated linoleum tiles that cover the kitchen floor because the floor slopes so badly that they pop up all the time. Paint on a bedroom wall is peeling, making her fear for the health of her grandchildren, who spend most weekends with her.
The listed owner of her building is an individual named Owen Morrison, but he's a phantom to anyone who needs him. He's stiffed the city for all the taxes he's owed since purchasing the building in July 2005, and has failed to make payments on a $400,000 mortgage, prompting his bank to file for foreclosure. The city lists 188 open violations against the building and is still looking for $45,000 in back payments for the emergency repairs it has made there, as well as another $60,000 in outstanding environmental fines. The only phone numbers that tenants could obtain for Morrison turned out to be disconnected.
Last winter, Melendez said that she and the remaining tenants went without heat for 11 days, as the temperature outside hovered around 15 degrees. She used the oven to keep warm and rose before dawn to heat enough water on the stove to bathe.
John Cordero, 32, was the last person evicted from the building. Cordero, who suffers from epilepsy, grew up in 81 Bleecker, sharing a $550-a-month ground-floor apartment with his parents, then a third-floor unit with his brother. The brother split in January, saying he couldn't take the cold anymore. Despite his disability, Cordero has held down a job at a food warehouse for the past 11 years, advancing to assistant manager. "God willing, I can work," he says. He worked in the building as well, patching the fallen ceilings in his own apartment and doing maintenance in the hallway.
This spring, a man named Godfrey Autiaobong came around. He said he was Morrison's manager and demanded thousands in back rent from Cordero. The tenant tried to take his case to Housing Court but, like more than 90 percent of the tenants who appear there, he wasn't represented by a lawyer. Cordero was evicted on April 12. He moved back in with his parents.
Maria Cardona, who had lived at 81 Bleecker Street for 23 years, says she quit the building in November, fearing for her four-month-old baby's health. She got a signed promise from the landlord that he'd pay her $5,000. There were no apartments in the neighborhood for less than $1,500 a month, however, and she has yet to receive the promised $5,000.
When Autiaobong knocked on Carmen Melendez's door demanding back rent, she asked to see some ID. The manager balked. Melendez, who knows something about police work, called the cops and had him removed from the building. She didn't know who he was, she told them. Probably an imposter.
Currently, the landlord is insisting that Melendez pay $15,000 in accrued rent payments or get out. Melendez isn't sure where he got the figure, since her monthly stabilized rent is set at $450. Reached by phone, Autiaobong insisted that the landlord was repairing the building and providing all necessary heat and hot water. Pressed to explain the no-heat days this winter, he hung up. That same day, HPD had to provide oil to the building.
The city has had it with the mysterious Morrison as well. In September, city attorneys won an order to correct all violations at the site, plus $3,000 in penalties. Morrison paid the fine but didn't make the repairs. HPD officials say they are currently preparing a new motion seeking additional penalties.
At 1430 Putnam Avenue, a six-unit apartment house on Bushwick's east side, a man representing the new landlord appeared at the door of Gladys Melendez's apartment (no relation to Carmen) in January 2006. He said his name was Jack Zimmer, and then was brief and to the point, according to Melendez: "He said, 'I don't want your moneyI just want you out.'" Melendez, 61, a confident woman who has lived in her apartment for the past 25 years, gave her own quick answer: "I'm not leaving," she said.
Since then, she says, Zimmer has declined to accept her monthly $499 rent payment. As far as she can tell, however, he is still collecting the federal Section 8 payments that have long been made to help her afford the rent. Four of the six tenants in the building quickly departed after the new owner made his demands. That left Melendez and her friend Nereida Sanes, 59. The friends made a pact: They wouldn't leave, no matter what.
Melendez and Sanes were surprised to be getting so much proprietary attention all of a sudden. For four months last winter, they had no heat. The hot water still runs only for a few minutes, then peters out. There are no lights in the common area. In March, after months of nonpayment, the gas company yanked its meter from the basement (HPD replaced it after tenants called to complain). Infestation by mice is so heavy in Melendez's apartment that droppings have to be swept up daily. Melendez, who is not scared of the landlord, admits that she's afraid of the mice that dart about her kitchen and her bedroom. "They're playing with me," she says. "They're even in the bathroom cabinet."
Real estate records show that a corporation called Boro Equities LLC paid $400,000 for the property in January 2006, receiving a $330,000 mortgage from Washington Mutual. The mortgage includes standard language calling for the borrower to keep the property "in good condition and repair," including "cleaning, painting, landscaping, and refurbishing." The mortgage was signed by a Jacob Zimmerman, who listed himself as the corporation's managing member.
But there's little evidence that the owner has gotten around to the repair part. There are 74 open violations on the property, ranging from lead paint to rodent infestation. A city tab of $68,000 for emergency repairs is outstanding. Jack Zimmer disputes that amount, but he doesn't sound distressed at the figure. "How much? Nomaybe a few thousand," he says.
Despite the similarity between his name and the corporate managing member, Zimmer insists that he's not the owner. He says the sudden exodus of four of the six tenants was voluntary. "They all left because they wanted to leave," he says, adding: "And I offered them some money to help them move."
Melendez and Sanes have been represented in Housing Court by attorneys from the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Center, the neighborhood's largest social-service organization, which has Assemblyman Lopez as its powerful champion. Officials there decline to discuss their clients' cases.
So far, their courtroom victories have been modest. A few months ago, a judge ordered their apartments painted. Sanes, a quiet, church- going woman who wears her hair in a neat bun, held up a small bucket of paint to show what the landlord gave them. In June, Sanes was served with eviction papers; Gladys Melendez is expecting to receive hers any day.
Residents of 163 Harman Street need only look across the street to see the future: It's a mirror image of their own six-unit building, only empty. Apartments there are now being renovated and rented for $1,500 apiece, roughly triple what prior residents paid.
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.
A revitalized boulevard would be a source of pride to the residents of these big six-story apartment houses as wellexcept that, clearly, no one is inviting them to the party. In March, at 946 Bushwick, where city lawyers filed a no-heat/no-hot-water case against the owner in 2005, it took a crew of HPD workers to repair a roof leak that the owners had ignored. In the same building last year, the city had to plug a mysterious leak in a fourth-floor bathroom. The city is still waiting to be reimbursed for $25,000 in emergency-repair expenses it laid out to keep these three vital buildings habitable.
The city also has a date in court in July with the owners of 946 Bushwick, where it is seeking orders to correct outstanding violations and commensurate penalties.
Tenants at 920 Bushwick say they're unclear how many units the owners have succeeded in wresting from the current residents. But Daisy Matias, a feisty 29-year-old who has lived all her life in the building, says she's peeked into the remodeled apartments and marvelled. "People move out, and he makes some beautiful apartments. Then he jacks the rent up $1,000, $1,200, $1,800. The people that move in? They got the dough, you know?"
On a Monday evening last month, about 20 residents at 920 Bushwick Avenue gathered in the lobby for a meeting with Sister Kathy Maire, a soft-spoken veteran of housing organizing efforts who works with Father Powis's group, Bushwick Housing Independence. Maire was in the midst of talking about how to cope with the landlord's harassment when Lefhowitz, the managing agent, strolled into the building. He walked past the broken window in the interior door and the security camera whose snipped wires hang uselessly in a corner of the lobby.
He said he'd heard about the meeting and was concerned. "I hope you don't cause me any trouble," he told the nun. Maire smiled back.