Less than two days after returning to their homes for the first time in a year, the beleaguered tenants of a troubled Williamsburg building are out on the street again after construction work again undermined the building’s foundation.
City officials vacated tenants from the four-story N. Eighth Street house once again on Tuesday night after discovering that the corner of the basement had been destabilized and the building was close to collapsing.
City contractors worked well into the night to temporarily add several 10-foot-long wooden beams to support the shaky wall, stabilizing the foundation.
It is the latest episode in a dramatic housing saga that has stretched nearly a year. On Sunday, tenants cut off the landlord’s padlock on the front door and returned to their apartments after the city lifted an earlier vacate order from July, 2009.
At that time, city ordered the building vacated after its landlord had done some shoddy construction work that undermined the foundation.
Peter Pawlak, a resident of the building for nearly 13 years, had spent his first night in his formerly vacant apartment on Sunday night. He described the experience as “hot” and said he felt like a “squatter” in his own home.
“We were in an empty building and there was no air conditioner,” said Pawlak. “Soon it will feel more and more like home.”
The rent-stabilized building, which is at Bedford Avenue, has been empty since last July, when its landlord, Jamal Alokasheh, excavated the building’s foundation without a permits. Sources said that Alokasheh was doing construction work with plans to refurbish the building and sell the units to wealthier tenants. He owns four buildings on the block, including Pops, a burger restaurant on N. Eighth Street, and wanted to add a commercial space to the building’s first floor to bring in more revenue.
The excavation undermined the building’s stability, so the city halted all work on the site, forcing the evacuation for safety reasons. For several months, tenants have been fighting with Alokasheh in housing court to return to the building.
On Monday, city inspectors found damage in the basement, where the northwest corner of the cellar collapsed. A neighbor made a 311 complaint that construction workers were working in the bottom floors of the building late at night.
Pawlak thinks that Alokasheh and his workers undermined the basement again.
“The entire floor was sprayed with water so that you don’t see any footprints,” said Pawlak. “This is not accidental.”
Calls to Alokasheh were not returned.
Tenant organizer Filip Stabrowski of the North Brooklyn Development Corporation characterized the situation as an “illegal lockout” caused by the landlord. He is pushing the court to strip the landlord of administrative status and confer management of the building to a nonprofit agency, which would restore the building’s essential services such as water, electricity, gas, and sewage. In the meantime, the city removed its vacate order allowing the tenants to make their move.
“The landlord has not recognized his tenants and we decided we would enter the building on our own [with the city’s permission],” said Stabrowski.
As Pawlak and other tenants return to their homes, the future of the building remains unclear. Alokasheh met with several tenants on Monday night to discuss the restoration of services. The two sides were set to return to court on Thursday to discuss the tenants’ request to appoint an administrator.
“By this point, what he’s been doing is so egregious, he’s just not fit to be a landlord,” said Brooklyn Legal Services’ Shekar Krishnan, who is advising the tenants. “He illegally forced out the tenants of this building and he has refused to comply with the court’s orders to restore services.”
Pawlak was cautiously optimistic that the situation would finally be resolved, but now he is unsure when he would get back into his apartment building, if ever.
“One day you have your hopes up, the next day you’re crashing,” said Pawlak. “The way we’re looking at it, [our landlord] is going to fiddle with it and we are worried it could take months to get back in. You say to yourself what is wrong with the system?”