New York

I-Team: Law Lets NY Town Tear Down Homes Deemed ‘Dangerous' or ‘Abandoned'

One West Hempstead neighborhood went to Florida in December 2014 for knee surgery. When he returned months later, his house was gone

What to Know

  • A law in New York’s biggest town allows the town to demolish homes deemed “dangerous” or “abandoned”
  • One resident whose house was torn down after he went to Florida for knee surgery in December 2014 is taking the town to court
  • The town's building commissioner told the I-Team that the department's sole responsibility is to make sure the dwelling is "secure and safe"

A law in New York’s biggest town allows the town to demolish homes deemed “dangerous” or “abandoned” — and it is affecting hundreds of people.

“This was the lot,” Phil Williams said as he stood in an empty yard in the West Hempstead neighborhood he once called home. “And as you can see, there is nothing left.”

Williams went to Florida in December 2014 for knee surgery. When he returned months later in August, his house was gone.

“I bought the house from my dad in 1974,” Williams recalled. “My wife and I lived there. We had six children that lived in the house.”

The Town of Hempstead tore down Williams’ house according to Chapter 90 of town law.

It’s a law that allows building inspectors to identify and demolish structures that they deem are dangerous or abandoned. Currently, the town is dealing with 850 open Chapter 90 cases.

The town’s definition of dangerous is defined, in part, as something that is "…unsafe structurally, or a fire hazard or a nuisance to the general public."

"The house was not a danger. It’s just a ridiculous statement," Williams said.

It wasn’t just the house that was a loss for Williams, though. Decades worth of personal belongings and memories — all of them, gone.

Now, he is taking the town to court.

“This is really a case about due process of law and everybody’s right to have their day in court,” Williams’ attorney Brad Siegel said. “Mr. Williams’ property was compromised. The laws weren’t followed.”

In court papers, Siegel says notice was sent to Williams’ home via certified mail, which doesn’t require a signature. According to the Chapter 90 law, only “registered mail” is “sufficient evidence” of notice of service.

That was in 2015. Fast forward to 2019, and the Hempstead Building Department is still using Chapter 90 to take down homes marked as dangerous.

Nancy Bernius told the I-Team her cousin, Robert Tynan, was found dead after being evicted from his Garden City home.

“It seemed to me that they just took him out of the house and put him on the street," she said. 

She says her cousin had a “diminished mental capacity,” and probably felt lost when he was evicted from the house where he lived his whole life.

Bernius says her cousin’s body was found 30 miles away from his home, in a Suffolk County park.

“He lived in Garden City,” Bernius said. “Not sure how he was able to get out there since he did not drive.”

According to records obtained by the I-Team, town inspectors made the decision to board up Tynan’s house last June. They cited “hoarding conditions, electrical hazards and debris two feet high.”

At his condemned house, the town continues to post letters addressed to him, even though, according to emails obtained by the I-Team, they are aware he is deceased.

The most recent letter advises him that a hearing will take place where the town board will vote on the fate of his house.

“I don’t want the county or the township to come in and tell me they’re tearing it down and it will cost X amount of dollars,” said Bernius. “I should be able to make that decision, not them.”

Hempstead Building Commissioner John Rottkamp told the I-Team that the department’s sole responsibility is to make sure the “dwelling is secure and safe.”

And while tragedy has already struck Phil Williams’ home, he has one warning for his fellow Hempstead homeowners: “If it happened to me, it can happen to anybody."

Contact Us