A Brooklyn Housing Court judge has ordered a Greenpoint property manager to relinquish authority over his badly damaged apartment building and has appointed a city-approved administrator to oversee the building’s repairs.
The ruling, which was handed down on Monday, February 2, comes more than a year after tenants at 300 Nassau Avenue went to court alleging that the property manager, Joel Israel of JBI Management, intentionally damaged the building and ordered invasive construction work — which resulted in a broken bathroom floor and a rodent infestation — with the intention of forcing them out of their rent-stabilized homes.
In December 2013, tenants discovered that the basement’s boiler, hot-water heater, water line, gas meters, and electric meters had been destroyed. The absence of basic utilities prompted the city to issue a so-called vacate order, forcing them all to find temporary residences. They have been waiting for Israel to complete the repairs ever since.
That hasn’t happened.
In her ruling, Judge Marina Cora Mundy wrote that Israel and his company “failed to fulfill their obligation to maintain premises fit for human occupation.” The judge has forbidden Israel from setting foot in the building until the court order is lifted. In the interim, a city-approved administrator will take charge of making the building habitable.
Adam Meyers of Brooklyn Legal Services Corp., which represents the tenants of 300 Nassau, says the new administrator will “make sure we obtain the permits and actually plan to make the repairs.”
Adds Meyers: “I would like to see tenants back in the building within six months to a year.”
“It has been a long, excruciating battle, but we didn’t give up,” Catalina Hidalgo, one of the tenants, said in a press release. “We can all finally sleep a lot better.”
Hidalgo had spoken at length about the case for an in-depth Voice story, “How to Stop the City’s Worst Landlords,” this past fall.
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Meyers contends that the damage to the building was a tactic employed by the landlord and Israel’s management company to push out the rent-stabilized tenants. “The landlords had the means, the motive, and the opportunity,” he tells the Voice.
But Israel’s lawyer Glenn Spiegel says the ruling doesn’t prove his clients intentionally destroyed their own building.
“The court never found any basis for concluding that the landlord damaged the premises. The court determined only that an administrator be put in place to effectuate the repairs,” Spiegel wrote in a statement responding to the Voice‘s request for comment. “My client’s intention has always been to fix the building so their tenants can safely return to their homes.”
Meyers is skeptical of any claim that Israel and JBI Management wanted to fix the building for their tenants.
“The court also found that thirteen months since litigation began, the landlords made no meaningful effort to start the repairs,” he says. “I guess we can interpret that how we like.”
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The New York City Housing and Preservation Department will pay the initial fees for the repairs, then hand off the costs to the building’s current owner, a company called Salmor Realty 2, and place a lien on the building.
New York City Council Member Stephen Levin, who represents the Greenpoint and Williamsburg neighborhoods, calls the decision “very welcome news.”
The ruling occurred a day before another win for tenants’ rights, Levin adds: In his February 3 State of the City speech, Mayor Bill De Blasio promised that the city will now pay legal fees for tenants living in rezoned areas who are harassed by their landlords.
“[The Greenpoint] case is a prime example of why legal services for tenants are needed throughout gentrifying areas,” Levin maintains. “This is one of the most egregious cases we’ve seen, for sure, but there are certainly more subtle forms of harassment.”
According to Meyers, about 90 percent of tenants in housing court are not represented by a lawyer. That means their cases often result in agreements favorable to landlords. “On one side of the table there’s a lawyer who does this 50 times a day,” Meyers says. “And on the other side you’ve got a tenant scared out of her mind.”