A Brooklyn man and his family believe they are victims of one of the city's most insidious housing schemes -- landlords allegedly sabotaging the apartments of their rent-stabilized tenants in an effort to drive them out so they can get higher rents from new tenants.
Juan Carlos Palomino says he was in his apartment in Greenpoint this winter when a man went into the basement and tore apart the building’s wiring and water pipes.
“Our water heater and gas lines were destroyed ... I know this is our landlord's attempt to kick us out," Palomino said.
Palomino’s landlord, Joel Israel, owns or manages at least 10 buildings with 53 units, all in Brooklyn. In all, there are 482 open housing code violations associated with his properties, according to records. Of those, 145 are at Palomino's building, 300 Nassau Ave,, which has been deemed uninhabitable by the city, leaving tenants without a place to live.
“Right now I'm living in a shelter with my family, said Gustavo Navarro, another 300 Nassau Ave. tenant. “It’s hard.”
Another of Israel’s buildings, 98 Linden St, was in the news recently when tenants said he did the same thing there.
Israel avoided the I-Team on two separate occasions, failing to answer questions, denying his identity and finally running away.
Housing advocates say the claims against Israel are not unique, citing nearly a dozen examples of alleged sabotage recently, usually in rent-stabilized apartments in neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Bushwick and Greenpoint, where market rents are skyrocketing.
At one apartment on Eighth Street in Williamsburg, a landlord conducted unpermitted demolition in the basement, forcing residents to vacate twice.
On Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, residents were forced to leave when the landlord performed an unpermitted gut renovation, advocates say. When a longtime, rent-stabilized tenant returned, she found someone already living in her apartment, paying market rent.
“As property values across Brooklyn continue to rise, we're seeing more and more landlords resort to harassment of tenants and deliberate damage to buildings in an effort to empty apartments and take them out of rent stabilization,” said Adam Meyers, a lawyer for at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation who is representing the Nassau Avenue tenants. “This is a landlord who has shown a willingness to get his way at any cost.”
A spokesman for the city department of Housing Preservation and Development said the agency is fighting Israel in court, trying to force him to repair the violations and damage and pay civil penalties. HPD is also supporting the tenants’ suit, which seeks to put an independent manager in the building to cover the repairs.
“It is a landlord’s and/or building owner’s responsibility to maintain their properties and to take all the steps necessary to ensure the safety of their tenants and their right to decent housing,” a spokesman said in a statement.
But Public Advocate Letitia James said help is not coming to the tenants fast enough. She said if the tenants can’t get back in their homes soon, her office is ready to step in.
“Joel Israel is one of the worst landlords in the city,” she said. “I won't let these families go to court without my support. We will make sure they are in appropriate safe housing.”