Tenant: City Must Pass Stronger Ban on ‘Construction-as-Harassment’

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A protest outside landlord Joel Israel's apartment in 2014.

Ian Marsh

A protest outside landlord Joel Israel's apartment in 2014.

Back in 2013, my now-infamous building at 300 Nassau Avenue made headlines when our landlords, Aaron and Joel Israel, used hazardous and deliberately destructive construction as a form of harassment to try to get me and the other tenants in my rent-stabilized building to move out.

While they were renovating the vacant apartment below mine, workers knocked out a supporting beam, causing my bathroom to cave in and spreading toxic asbestos through the air of my entire apartment. The bathroom was so dangerous that the Department of Buildings came and issued an immediate partial vacant order. After months of suffering under unsafe and unsanitary conditions, the Israel brothers hired someone to smash our building’s boiler, thermostat and electrical apparatus with an axe. The city responded by issuing a full building vacate order, and forcing us all to move out of our homes immediately during the middle of the winter. The Israel brothers were eventually arrested on fraud charges for hiring workers to wreak similar havoc in other buildings they managed in Brooklyn.

In response to this vicious harassment, my neighbors and I organized a tenants association with St. Nick’s Alliance. With the help of a lawyer from Brooklyn Legal Services Corp. A, we were able to win our case and were issued a 7A administrator. We got an order from a judge for the Israel brothers to fix the damage to our building and move us back in when it was completed.

Some of us have been crashing with family members, while others have been staying at homeless shelters for over a year, and now our building is very nearly completed. We will finally get to move back in and enjoy a little bit of stability, but unfortunately, it will be a bittersweet move for my family. This is not the same apartment I had before the Israel brothers destroyed it. The repairs changed the size and shape of my apartment, and it is smaller now than when we were vacated.

We were responsible tenants. I paid my rent on time. And when my landlords engaged in life-threatening harassment, my neighbors and I organized and fought for our legal rights. We did everything we could to stand up for ourselves, but I still feel like even though we won our case, we took a step backwards.

New York City tenants need legal protection from construction as harassment and much stronger enforcement by the Department of Buildings. We need much stronger penalties for illegal construction practices and preventative measures in place to prevent the kind of egregious disregard for health and safety standards that my landlords, and landlords all over the city, engage in.

The City Council should pass the Stand for Tenant Safety coalition’s package of bills this session so that landlords can’t use construction as harassment in the first place. No tenant should have to go through the nightmare we experienced at 300 Nassau. We desperately need protection for tenants before it gets to the point where the entire building needs to be renovated, because by the time cases like ours go through the lengthy housing court process, it might be too late to preserve tenants’ homes.