Books: When Gentrification Came to Greenpoint

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300Nassau

M. Schuerman / University of Chicago Press

300 Nassau Avenue in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint in 2016, boarded up after a vandal smashed plumbing and electric equipment in the basement. The landlord later admitted in court to trying to force rent-stabilized tenants to leave.

 


This article is an excerpt from Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents, coming out this month from University of Chicago Press.


In many ways, Catalina Hidalgo was supposed to be just the type of person Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York was supposed to benefit, one in which hard-working children of immigrants could leverage opportunity to achieve prosperity.

She grew up with her mom and grandfather, both Colombian immigrants, in an apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and worked her way through Long Island University as a cashier at McDonald’s. In 2004, after college, she found an apartment at 300 Nassau Avenue in the far eastern part of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a few blocks from her mother’s place. The area was, at the time, inhabited by the same mix of working-class Latinos and Polish Americans with whom she grew up, and was far removed from the rezoning of the Williamsburg waterfront that would be approved shortly afterwards.

In 2008, when she was working in the office at a construction company, Hidalgo saw the first sign that her neighborhood was changing. She saw a job come in to bring down a three-story building on Kingsland Avenue, about a 10-minute walk from her apartment. Pretty soon, Hidalgo was seeing demolition plans for her corner of the neighborhood left and right.

She also saw changes on the street. Genevieve’s, her favorite variety store on Manhattan Avenue, closed, and was replaced by a succession of chain drug stores—all with higher prices. Her favorite Chinese restaurant also went out of business, two laundromats shut their doors, and the closest grocery store was sold.

But she adapted easily enough. In some ways, for a single mom climbing the economic ladder, gentrification was exciting: Hidalgo saw around her more diversity of races, more young people, more bars and restaurants, different styles of dress. Her neighborhood, she thought, was becoming more and more like the East Village every day.

She had enough spending money that she could afford the higher prices and take advantage of the new opportunities. As for her apartment, where a substantially higher rent could really do damage to her household budget, she thought it was safe because it was rent-regulated.

The trouble began in the fall of 2013. Each year, beginning October 1, New York City landlords are required to provide heat in apartments if temperatures dip below 55 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. The weather in the middle of October 2013 was brisk, but Hidalgo noticed that her radiators would never come on.

She texted her building manager, Aaron Israel, also known as Amron. When they did turn on the heat, the first floor flooded because the radiators had been removed from the apartment above. Then, because of all the construction work in adjacent apartments, mice started coming into her apartment and left droppings in her sons’ clothing. She called up a tenant organizer, Martha Vargas at St. Nick’s Alliance, a community organization in North Brooklyn, who had helped Hidalgo’s mother years earlier in a dispute with her landlord.

Vargas already knew about Joel Israel, Hidalgo’s landlord and Aaron’s cousin. St. Nick’s had heard from tenants in other buildings he owned and had identified his modus operandi: First, he keeps some apartments vacant, and then, when the other tenants don’t move out, he undertakes a series of measures to prod them to leave: troublesome renovations, no heat, etc. (Joel and Aaron Israel, through their lawyer, declined to comment. This account is drawn from interviews with tenants, their representatives, court papers, and building inspection records.)

Hidalgo enlisted her neighbors. There were only two other apartments in her building occupied at the time, both on the first floor. In one lived Gustavo and Rosita Navarro, a Peruvian couple who had met in 1988 when each of them moved into the building. They had two children. In the other apartment lived another Peruvian family, the Palominos.

Hidalgo argued her case in mid-December in Brooklyn housing court and won. Joel Israel was ordered to fix her bathroom. Hidalgo thought her ordeal was over. She was looking forward to spending the next two weeks in a hotel with her twins while the repairs were taken care of.

But earlier that morning, unbeknownst to her, someone had come into the basement with a sledge hammer and started swinging it around. He ruptured the plumbing, causing water to spurt out as if from a fire hose. The electric meters were smashed, the boiler that heated water for the building’s radiators and bathrooms was ruined.

When she arrived home from court, Hidalgo found all of her neighbors huddled on the street outside. It was dark and some had flashlights in their hands; others were crying. Officials from the gas company and the city’s buildings department were shutting down the building’s systems. Hidalgo took out her cell phone and called Aaron. She got his voice mail. You gotta come to the building! she shouted.

They waited for two or three hours, until after dinner time, but still Aaron did not arrive. A buildings department supervisor told the tenants they couldn’t stay there that night—it was too dangerous when there was no power. Hidalgo also called Vargas at St. Nick’s, who got the city’s housing department to come the next morning. Those inspectors determined 300 Nassau was in such bad shape that they had to evacuate it, even if it meant throwing about a dozen people out on the street. They gave Hidalgo and her neighbors 30 minutes to run inside and grab whatever they could, and could not guarantee when, if ever, they would see what was left behind.

Hidalgo had driven back to her office the night before to pick up a roll of giant 50-gallon trash bags expressly for that purpose. They were demolition-grade bags, almost twice as big as the ones you would use to stuff leaves into—and thicker. Inside the apartment, she filled up bag after bag with her pictures of her children, her children’s clothing, her own clothing, and dragged them down the stairs to the street and left them there, then ran back upstairs to do more. In the 30 minutes she was given, she filled six trash bags. She left the remainder inside, including a fully decorated Christmas tree she had brought home just a few days earlier.

A few days later, Hidalgo and her neighbors showed up at the office of Brooklyn Legal Services in Williamsburg and met with Adam Meyers, a genial Midwesterner who had just graduated from Harvard Law School. Meyers suspected that Israel was intentionally triggering evacuations of his buildings in order to get rid of rent- stabilized tenants.

Rent-regulated housing used to be considered a poor investment. In the mid-2000s, however, a small number of property companies, using money from private equity firms and real estate investment trusts, began investing heavily in large rent-regulated buildings in parts of New York. They were betting that as many as 20 percent of their tenants would leave in a given year, allowing them to do renovations and jack up the rent. That was well above the average 5 percent turnover of years past. When rent-stabilized tenants did not leave as quickly as investors had projected they would, the landlords often did what they could to make them leave.

Israel was a small landlord. For his handful of properties, it was not entirely clear whether he was the owner or merely the managing agent. A limited liability company called Salmor Realty had bought 300 Nassau Avenue in 1999 for $240,000, according to property records on file with the New York City Department of Finance. Then, in 2006, the company took out a $27,000 loan on the property.

In 2012, just before Hidalgo started having trouble, the property was transferred to a spin-off LLC, Salmor Realty 2. LLCs do not have to disclose who their owners are, and Israel’s name does not appear on any of the real estate transaction documents. It is likely, assuming Salmor Realty is no different than any other small rental owner in New York, that the LLC was a means of pooling money from a variety of individuals, while making it harder for the government, and the tenants, to determine who was responsible.

Meyers, the Legal Services lawyer, thought the tenants had a good case, couldn’t lose really—unless the landlord succeeded in picking them off one by one or wearing them down. The case in housing court was therefore a race against time: Could he convince a housing court judge to wrest 300 Nassau Avenue out of the landlord’s hands and give it, at least temporarily, to an independent manager?

The whole process, he told the tenants, would take a few months. They would need to find other places to live in the meantime. During the trial, according to court documents, Israel argued that he had tried multiple times to make repairs to Hidalgo’s and other apartments, but that the tenants never let him in.

As for the vandalism in the basement, Israel said it was perpetrated directly or indirectly by the tenants themselves as part of a scheme to seize control of the building. Those few months that the case was supposed to take turned something more like a year.

Hidalgo’s resolve was waning. She had first moved with her twins into a city-run shelter, but she was forced to move because she had only partial custody of her kids and ended up renting a much more expensive apartment in Bushwick, the next neighborhood over.

But she was relatively well- off compared to her neighbors. The Navarros continued to stay in a shelter. They had to sign themselves in and out when they came and went, and there was a curfew they had to observe to avoid being locked out all night. The Palominos split up: the mother, sister and daughter moved into a relative’s home nearby, while the grown son, Juan Carlos, lived with an uncle, because no family member had an apartment large enough to take everyone in.

At one point during the housing court proceedings, Hidalgo took Meyers aside in the hallway outside the courtroom. Something’s got to give, she remembers saying. I’m paying all this money on rent, and I need to take care of my family.

Are you sure you want to settle? Meyers asked.

Yes, she pleaded. Settle, settle, settle. My family and I are struggling right now. I don’t expect to pay all this rent forever, but at the end of the day, I’m stuck.

You have to stick with this, Meyers told her. We have an extremely strong case. This is your home and we are going to be able to keep it affordable for you in the foreseeable future.

By this point, Hidalgo was crying, but Meyers went on. If you give up, they will get exactly what they were looking for when they destroyed the building last December. Is that what you want?

There were the other tenants to think of also. She wasn’t exactly the leader of the group, but she was the center of the case, the one with the worst complaints, the one whose case most clearly showed a pattern of retribution. And unlike the other two families involved, she was fluent in English, which helped both in court and in the media. Hidalgo changed her mind. She resolved to stick out the case.

The case dragged on for another four or five months. In the fall, as testimony wrapped up and the lawyers were asked to file their post-trial briefs, Hidalgo got a phone call.

Hello, Catalina. This is Aaron Israel. How are you? she remembers hearing.

I’m okay. What are you doing calling me?

I’m calling to see how you are.

I’m okay, Hidalgo repeated, and waited, suspicious.

I would like to meet with you in person and talk to you about the case, he said.

I think I should talk to my lawyer, Hidalgo responded.

No, it is okay, Catalina, Aaron went on. I have a proposal I want to outline to you. But I want to do it in person.

The two of them met after work on the second Thursday in November at Chagall, a now-defunct restaurant in Park Slope. Chagall was at once kosher and gentrified, lined with large mirrors and wood carvings as if from the Paris of the late nineteenth century. Hidalgo hadn’t told Meyers she was going. When she arrived, Aaron was already there, in his black suit and wearing his black wide-brimmed hat, with a plate of appetizers and a bottle of wine laid out on the table in front of him. He offered her some food and drink but she refused.

I want to talk to you about the building, he said. You know that we are planning on renovating it. We have taken out a mortgage on it and need to pay it back.

You took out the mortgage, not me, she shot back.

And in order to do the renovations, we need to get access to your apartment. Then Aaron paused. So I want you to make me an offer. How much do you want to move out of the apartment?

Hidalgo waited a moment. She had thought about this question once or twice before and had a number in her head.

500, she said.

500? Aaron asked.

500,000 dollars, she repeated.

500,000 dollars? he asked. Half a million dollars? No, no, that’s too much.

You asked me how much I wanted.

I can give you 150, maybe 200.

With half a million dollars, she would almost be able to pay cash for one of the new condominiums in her old neighborhood. Owning a place, she figured, was the only way to withstand gentrification, the only way she could directly benefit from the changes in her old neighborhood rather than being victimized by them. Anything less than that, she would be back in the same place at some point in the future. Today, she’d get pushed out of Greenpoint. Later, out of Bushwick, then further and further out into the extremities of Brooklyn.

That won’t get me very far¸ she told Aaron. And then, without touching anything to eat, she got up and left.

On January 26, 2015, Judge Marina Cora Mundy found in the tenants’ favor. She wrote in her decision that Joel Israel made no attempt to make any repairs to the building and was “unpersuasive” in proving that he was not able to gain access to Hidalgo’s apartment.

Mundy took control of the apartment from Israel and gave it to an independent administrator, who went on to make the repairs at the landlord’s expense. Hidalgo and the other tenants finally returned home to Nassau Avenue a year and a half later, their apartments newly renovated, if also slightly smaller as a result.

In the meantime, the publicity surrounding Hidalgo’s case as well as other buildings owned by the Israels attracted the attention of the then-Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson, who began a criminal investigation. In November 2016, the Israels pleaded guilty to fraud and unlawful eviction charges, admitting having harassed their tenants to get them to move out. They agreed to pay restitution as well as other penalties, and gave up control of 300 Nassau Avenue in perpetuity.


Matthew L. Schuerman is a senior editor at WNYC radio. Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents is his first book.

 

 

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