Jennie Drogozsweski came home from work on the evening of Feb. 10th to find a notice plastered to the entrance of her apartment building, 249 Norman Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “The Department of Buildings has determined that conditions in this returned building are imminently perilous to life,” the statement read. “Re-entry is prohibited,” and “Violators of this commissioner’s vacate order are subject to arrest.”
The vacate order means that the roughly 25 residents that lived in the building, including five children younger than five years old, have been rendered effectively homeless, while they search for alternative living arrangements.
“We spent Monday night setting up the crib,” Drogozsweski said, the bulge of an eight-month pregnancy spilling over the waistband of grey sweatpants. As the pre-school teacher stood in the 3rd floor Greenpoint apartment she has shared with her husband Aaron and their two miniature dachshunds, Pita and Clyde, for more than three years, her voice faltered. “And now we’ve got to pack it all back down.”
Inspectors from the buildings department found the property had been illegally converted into ten dwelling units that lacked fire escapes or a sprinkler system, according to the agency’s records. The violations report said that the unlawful apartments had no sprinkler system or second exits; carbon monoxide detectors were missing in some units; non fire-graded wooden doors were used in entranceways; and partitions had been erected for kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms contrary to approved plans.
None of the tenants spoken with said they had any idea the building was not up to code until they discovered the buildings department notice.
“You wouldn’t be able to get out of the windows, they’re too narrow,” Hunter Aguiri said of the two-bed apartment he’s lived in for just over a year, as he carried a leather footstool to the car of his uncle, waiting in below-freezing temperatures on Feb. 11th. “And even if you could, it’s a three-story drop to the sidewalk,” adding, “but there was never any thought that it was illegal.”
Illegal conversions and subdivisions without adequate fire safety measures have proved fatal in the past. A 24-year-old father was killed in November last year when a fire raged through an illegally subdivided building in Flatbush injuring 15, six critically.
According to the complaints record of 249 Norman Avenue, a caller alerted the buildings department to the illegal conversion in October 2010. After two separate unsuccessful attempts by inspectors to gain access to the property in November, the complaint was closed. This “two-knock rule” was routine: Overall, inspectors gained access to suspected illegal dwelling units that year only about half the time, dipping slightly to 46 percent in 2011, according to a 2013 comptroller audit report.
The buildings department received 26,000 complaints for illegal home conversions in 2014, according to city data.
A spokesman for the Fire Department of New York confirmed that firefighters had been called to inspect the building earlier on Feb. 10th and requested the buildings department come to the scene. The building at 249 Norman Avenue is owned by United Realty Corp.
Residents were advised to “move everything out” that same day, in a Feb. 11 email signed from United Realty. Tenants said they complained to the buildings department, and a follow up email from the owner gave residents a week to collect their possessions instead.
Lai Chung Yam, the chief executive officer of United Realty Corp, who corresponds with tenants as “Lee,” has not responded to multiple emails from NY City Lens seeking comment (the emails were sent to the email address used to correspond with tenants). Phone calls to Master Kitchen Supplies, the Chinese restaurant supply store in the Bowery owned by Yam, where tenants said they posted their rental checks, were also unreturned. Property Works, a third party property management company that tenants said arranged lease agreements, declined to comment. “We can’t answer questions about rentals,” said a spokeswoman. She added that contact details had been passed to the owner of the building.
When tenants had maintenance issues, many said they contacted the property manager, known to them as “Nigel.” A man who answered calls to a phone number for Nigel provided by a tenant also refused to answer questions, referring queries instead to the owner.
According to state department records, Yam is listed as the CEO of another business, Yang Tze River Realty, which owns a 17-story tower block at 38 Delancey Street. The 163-foot commercial and residential property in the Bowery houses 55 living units, one of which was sold for $1.3 million in 2013, according to Department of Finance records.
The ground floor retail space of 38 Delancey Street houses Master Kitchen Supplies, the restaurant supply store owned by Yam, and the Manhattan Innovate Charter School, which has more than 170 students, according to its website. School principal David Hinberg confirmed that the space is rented from Yang Tze River Realty.
Yang Tze River Realty has paid $7,500 for four fines for construction, administrative, and elevator violations at 38 Delancey Street and a further 45 violations have been served to construction companies at the property since 2005, according to building department records.
Alexander Schnell, spokesman for the buildings department, said that the tenants would be able to return to 249 Norman Avenue once the owner corrects the underlying condition of the building.
But the email from United Realty seems to indicate that is not likely to happen. The email states: “Unfortunately this is the final decision and we are unable to override it.”
Joanna B. (who asked that her full name not be printed), who has lived in the apartment with her two young children for four and a half years, was stunned by the developments. “I don’t even know how to describe it,” she said. Joanna let out a long sigh and shook her head. “Terrible, terrible, terrible. Because we are basically out on the street.”
Joanna’s children’s bedroom in the apartment was much like any other for a two and a half and three and a half year brother and sister: two cribs, a pink polka dot rug, a wooden kitchen play set and a shelf brimming with stuffed toys. But the room has no windows and the ceiling is made of paneled corkboard, hints perhaps of the building’s original intended use. There’s another clue that sits just above the entranceway on Norman Avenue: a six-foot sign that reads “Office Building.”
Joanna’s three-year-old son clutched a blue remote-control toy car in one hand as he descended the steps of 249 Norman Avenue Feb. 11th for what would probably be the last time. His other hand clung to his grandmother, who carried a brown Toys “R” Us bag packed with blankets and pillows.
“Those are the only things they’re going to sleep with,” Joanna said, loading the sack into her Nissan Xterra ahead of an hour and a half drive to a friend’s house in Long Island, where Joanna said she would be sleeping on the floor. Her husband had to stay with a friend in Greenpoint.
Joanna said her husband was upset to be separated from his children. “But we don’t have a choice,” Joanna said. “Nobody has the capacity to take four extra people in their apartment for God knows how long.”
United Realty emailed tenants to “sincerely apologize for the unexpected announcement.” Several tenants said that they had already received a check for February’s rent and were awaiting the return of their security deposit. “This has become a major inconvenience and lost [sic] on both ends,” the email said.
A salesperson who answered the phone at Yam’s Master Kitchen Supplies said that the owner left for an eight-day vacation on Feb. 15th. In the meantime, the former tenants were scrambling to find a new place to live, sleeping in motels, with friends, on floors and sofas.
Greenpoint Assemblyman Joseph Lentol wrote a letter on Feb. 11 to Department of Buildings Commissioner Rick Chandler on behalf of the tenants. “The families [from 249 Norman Avenue] were finding out that they were being evicted while simultaneously learning of the bribes paid to Department of Buildings’ inspectors,” he said in the letter. Fifty defendants were indicted for alleged involvement in widespread housing fraud and bribery schemes in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, including 11 building department employees, on the same day the vacate order was posted.
When informed of the extent of the building’s violations, Lentol said, “it certainly makes it more justifiable, but the timing is terrible.”
“So many times I’ve seen in my past history as an elected representative you have landlords who remove people from buildings just to get them out so that they can get some new tenants in there and raise the rent,” Lentol said.
Meanwhile, on the night the vacate order was posted, Jacki Hnyda and Jon Murray, who have lived at 249 Norman Avenue with their two-year-old son in their two-bed apartment for just short of a year, went to look for an apartment. They were shown a smaller sized two-bed nearby that would cost $2,200, almost $700 more than the $1,650 they were paying.
Hnyda says that she was repeatedly assured by a real estate agent that there was nothing wrong with the building before they moved in.
United Realty Corp could face penalties totaling $8,100, pending a hearing date set for March 30 for the six violations served, five of which are Class 1, the most severe issued by the Department of Buildings.
If legislation introduced by State Senator Martin Golden proposed legislation on Feb. 6th to charge owners with a felony if injuries resulted from unlawful conversions is passed, property owners who illegally alter dwellings will face even harsher penalties.
Golden said in a statement on his website that the problem of illegal conversions had escalated at a pace “never seen before” over the past couple of years. “These illegal conversions are endangering those living in these conditions, our emergency service workers and destroying our quality of life,” Golden said. “It is time that we address this problem and take strong action to halt this trend.”