By Simone Gorrindo
n a warm Sunday at the end of September, residents of Williamsburg, Brooklyn took advantage of the springlike weather and spent the afternoon outside. Couples walked hand in hand along Bedford Avenue. Thin girls sat poised on benches like fashion ads. It was a day that felt, as Williamsburg often feels, like a dream, a dream where nothing of consequence ever happens.
Until a band of angry Brooklynites came marching down the sidewalk and woke everyone up.
“Jail criminal landlords!” a white-haired man yelled through a megaphone. The group of 40 marchers——old, young, Puerto Rican, Polish——chanted with him. “Mayor Bloomberg, do your job. Stop harassment now!”
These were the members of Williamsburg-Greenpoint Mobilization Against Displacement, a coalition of North Brooklyn community housing organizations and tenants’ associations. They made their way up to North Eighth Street, where they stopped at a four-story walk-up brick building that had been padlocked and papered with eviction notices. Some of the marchers used to call this building home. For the past year, they’ve been fighting to get it back.
At the end of June, residents of 172 North Eighth St. filed a lawsuit against their landlord, Jamal Alokasheh. They accused him of sabotaging the building in order to evict them, an accusation he firmly denied. The tenants asked the New York City Housing Court to appoint a new manager for the building, but the judge has not yet come to a final decision. The coalition gathered on Sunday to protest the court’s delays, and to ask the city to jail Alokasheh for an illegal eviction.
“If my building was on fire, and the firemen did nothing, it would be a scandal,” said Anna McCuskar, 30, the youngest of the displaced tenants who spoke at the rally. “But our homes are being taken away from us and no one does anything.”
The tenants claimed that just two days after purchasing the building in May 2009, Alokasheh destabilized it by digging two feet beneath its foundation. They said Alokasheh told them he was creating a basement. Someone noticed the soil piling up on the sidewalk, they said, and called a complaint into the city.
The New York City Department Buildings ordered the tenants to vacate the premises immediately, and the landlord locked them out.
“And now we think it could’ve been him,” said longtime tenant Peter Pawlak, 50, referring to the whistleblower. “It was the easiest way to get everyone out.”
A landlord sabotaging his own building might seem odd, but to Pawlak, who works as an architect, it made perfect sense.
“The landlord wants to turn it into a condominium,” said Pawlak. “Who cares if it gets demolished?”
Alokasheh had a different story to tell.
“I think Peter’s the one who called the city,” said Alokasheh by phone. “Peter, he is the one who’s the head of the them; he’s the one who engineered the whole thing. He told me, ‘I know the name of the game. I will make your life miserable; I will make you lose the building.’”
Someone must have put it in the tenants’ heads, Alokasheh said, that Williamsburg is expensive and “you can squeeze $125,000 out of your landlord” as a buyout, a much higher bid than the one thousand dollars he said he offered to each tenant after they were forced out.
“These guys are not interested in moving back in,” said Alokasheh. “These guys are looking for money.”
He argued that the building’s foundation was unsafe before he purchased it, though he said he was “clueless about this” at the time. There were never any plans to build an office, he said, and never a pile of soil. He would welcome the tenants home, he said, if he had the money to fix the problem, which he estimated would cost him almost $1 million.
When the Williamsburg waterfront was rezoned, the city gave the Williamsburg-Greenpoint Mobilization Against Displacement coalition several million dollars in funding to combat potential displacement. That funding has run out, and the group is fighting to get it renewed, said Shaekar Krishnan, a lawyer at Brooklyn Services Corporation A, the firm that is representing that tenants free of charge.
“This area is blessed with organizations,” said Marty Needelman, the firm’s head lawyer and a 40-year resident of Williamsburg. “But these organizations are falling apart because of a lack of funding.” In Manhattan, the city has consolidated similar groups into one organization, “making it look,” Needelman said, “like they’re serving everybody.”
The residents believe they will win eventually, said Jack Bikowski, a housing advocate with the North Brooklyn Development Corporation, but the question remains for how long.
New York’s surge of renewal continues, and does not appear to be losing any speed. Many displaced residents in Williamsburg were once gentrifiers themselves, people who moved to the neighborhood because the rent was cheap.
“I have surely been helpful in gentrifying Williamsburg,” said Eliza Axelson-Chidsey, 27, a resident who moved to the neighborhood during college. “I have to say, though, eventually that same wave runs me out of town too. I can’t, and maybe won’t ever, pay the prices some of the ugly new and cheaply made apartments go for around here.”