(Part I of a Series)
By Vira Lynn Jones
This article is a frantic scream for help in exposing my three-year fight with the New York City Housing Preservation and Development Agency (HPD). The battle has left me both emotionally and mentally scarred, but I refuse to feel defeated. The sad reality is, I may lose my house. In October 2001, HPD slapped an $86,000 lien on my four-family Clinton Hill home for a violation that existed on the property when I purchased it in 1996.
Despite the fact that the real estate developer and former owner, Alfred Basal of Aviv Development, failed to install the sprinkler system or fire escape that is required for a four-family house, the NYC Buildings Department issued him a legitimate Certificate of Occupancy (Cof O) which assured that the house was violations-free. This document satisfied the bank in setting my closing date.
The original lien was nearly $100,000. After some pressure on my part, it was reduced a few thousand dollars; yet, I have since paid more than $12,000 towards the installation of a fire escape (something that should have been done by Mr. Basal and enforced by the Buildings Department). The $86,000 looms, like a dark cloud. Years of protest against having to pay for the mess created by the developer and the Buildings Department has been to no avail. Meanwhile, other homeowners in Clinton Hill, Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant have shared with me similar horror stories of the pressure wrought by groups, associations and city departments to move, to vacate, to sell and even to give up the homes and apartments that they worked all their lives to keep and pass on. Gentrification is a nice word but in the hands of the unscrupulous, it is a benign cancer. The evil form of it is festering not only in our local New York City neighborhoods. It is growing throughout America, in urban areas where hardworking homestead owners of African descent are losing all that they spent years to build and grow.
Some of us will not surrender without a fight, and I am one of them. I worked two full-time jobs for five years to purchase this brownstone. Financial considerations forced me to go out and look for a building; I was tired of paying huge rents for small apartments. Yet it was my heritage that inspired home ownership as a life goal. My parents were of a Southern background and they were obsessed with owning land. My father always said, “You don’t sell it, you pass it on.”
HPD officials told me that the agency is not in the business of taking possession of private homes, yet they admit that the lien against my property can be sold to an investor. This investor has the right to charge me 25 percent interest, force me into foreclosure and take possession of my house. Some nights I wonder if the law would allow Mr. Basal to come back into this building’s life and purchase the lien that is against it.
Mr. Basal owned this property for only two years – from 1994 till 1996. He converted it from a boardinghouse or Single-Room Occupancy dwelling (SRO) to a legal four-family dwelling. A copy of the architect’s plans that Basal filed with the city reveals that a sprinkler system was included in the plans but never installed. HPD has never explained to me how Basal was issued a valid C of O when the house should not have passed Buildings Department inspection. Instead of receiving an answer, I have been treated as the culprit. Little did I realize, however, that my battle was just beginning.
In August 2001, after I had lived in my house for almost four years (it has now been seven years), an official from the HPD’s Brooklyn office appeared on my stoop demanding to access the building to inspect my sprinkler system. When I told him that I did not have one, he left. I thought the issue was over. However, two hours later, a fire engine pulls in front on my building. To keep them from smashing in the door with their axes, I thrust it open as three firemen rushed in and up the steps, explaining in their haste that they had arrived to inspect the sprinkler system. They froze in their footsteps and left after I said that I did not have one. It did not stop there.
By September 2001, the situation had further deteriorated. An HPD official gained access to my building without my knowledge and slid an “Order To Repair Vacate” notice under the door of every occupant in the building. The order demanded that everyone had three days to vacate the premises. The order was only rescinded when I faxed HPD official Nari Motwani a copy of my C of O and he verified that it was a valid document. On that day I also found out that my house was still noted on record as a boardinghouse. As my problems with HPD continued to escalate, I called Consumer Affairs to investigate whether Basal had any complaints lodged against him because of the nightmare he had caused me. Basal’s claim of a so-called newly renovated property was actually bubble gum, tape and Band-Aids to hold the building together until he could flip it. He had installed and painted PVC plastic pipe to trick one into believing it was cast iron. It eventually pulled apart at the joints and flooded two apartments and the basement. A supposedly new boiler burned out after only four years. Three days after my closing date, I went to Keyspan (formerly Brooklyn Union Gas) to have the gas switched to my name. Two week later, Keyspan sends me a bill for $5,000. Basal had tapped into the gas line and was receiving free gas. After presenting evidence to the Keyspan investigator, I did not have to pay the bill. The gas meters that were already installed in the basement were listed on a Keyspan list as stolen. So were the electric meters that Con Edison removed. There was carpeting throughout the apartments and I had to pull it up and install hardwood floors. As I was told by the carpenter, “If you do not stabilize the floors, one night you will wake up and your tenants will be in your bedroom.” Despite explaining this to HPD officials and showing them evidence, I was beginning to be treated as the criminal culprit who created this mess. Little did I know HPD was not finished with me.
A few days after the vacate order was rescinded, HPD had a surprise waiting in my house that was never discussed with me. I arrived home from my day job to find two strangers in my building. At first, they did not identify themselves. When I threatened to call the police and have them removed, they explained that they were from Epic Security and were assigned to my house by HPD. I called HPD and protested profusely. Joseph Manganiello, an HPD official in the Manhattan office, said if I tried to have the guards removed that he would call the fire department and have me and anyone else living in the building physically removed. I told him HPD was harassing me. Manganiello said HPD was only doing its job.
The security guards were posted in my house 24 hours a day, six days a week for six months until the fire escape was installed because a permit had to be obtained from the landmarks commission. The security guards caused me a tremendous amount of grief. I had refused HPD’s request to give the guards keys to the building because I felt they were poorly supervised. Every other day a new security guard would appear. Some guards never showed up for their shift and the front doors would remain unlocked as I slept through the night. More than once the guards would disappear up the street on a break leaving the doors sitting open inviting anyone walking by to easily access the building. I had resigned myself to expect to come home and be informed that the building had been burglarized. My worst fear was to walk into the building and surprise an intruder who would rob me, or even worse, take my life. After complaining to Epic Security about its employees, a drastic change took place. The guards were not only more professional but they started to share information with me.
Since my building was a private house and not an HPD-owned property, they did not understand why guards had been placed in my building. They also wanted me to know that Epic Security Guards were stationed in many other properties throughout Clinton Hill.
At the beginning of this entire ordeal, I bombarded HPD and the Buildings Department with letters and telephone calls asking for emergency funds to install the fire escape. No response ever materialized. Finally after a year (when the statute of limitations has already passed to take any action), I received a letter from HPD Associate Commissioner Vito Mustaciuolo. He said he realized that the incident was not my fault, that I had paid for the fire escape but I would be held responsible for paying the $86,000 for the fire watch. When I asked about a payment plan, he advised me to get an attorney. I had already been through an ordeal with attorneys.
The Brooklyn Bar Association referred me to an attorney who wanted a $7,500 retainer on the spot before he would take the case. I walked out of the office. Other attorneys saw my distressed situation as an opportunity for economic gain. They all wanted large retainers. Finally, in June 2002, PrePaid Legal referred me to Bradley Zelenitz of _____________, who assured me, after paying a $2,000 retainer, that I would finally receive justice by suing the city, the seller, the lawyer who conducted my closing and the title company. A year later, the law firm has not done anything but sue Alfred Basal. Then Zelenitz told me that if I did win the case against Basal, I would probably never collect because he has hidden his funds. Now the attorney does not return my calls and I have no idea about the status of my case. Then I thought that the elected officials, whom I was told were voter-friendly, would help me. Months after sending letters to the Public Advocate’s Office, the Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I haven’t gotten any response.
Friends and acquaintances laughed and told me that I am paranoiac. I mentioned that the powers that be want my house and why have I heard other African-Americans in the neighborhood say they are experiencing similar problems. This reality hit me in November 2001 when two men from HPD’s Anti-Abandonment Unit paid me an unexpected visit. Their boss had sent them to inspect the interior of my house. Through the compliments on the renovation job that I was doing, they asked me if I realized that my house would one day be worth a million dollars. I had never thought about it but it made me realize one thing. Because of its predominantely African American homeownership population, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill are probably the only two neighborhoods in the entire United States that have a disproportionate number of millionaires if they were to sell their homes. Longtime residents say the neighborhood was once plagued by drugs and prostitution, and one could not give the brownstones away.
I feel that this problem is larger than the ordeal that I have experienced. Many others are going through the same thing because I am often asked in conversations, “Why are so many black folks losing their homes all of a sudden”? If I must go down in defeat, like a soldier I will fight to the end by exposing what I think is a larger problem in the Clinton Hill community.