Bushwick Landlord Targeted by Tenants

by Ian Marsh

The Bushwick Housing Independence Project, a tenant rights organization, held a rally outside landlord Joel Israel's Borough Park apartment last week. Tenants accuse Israel of trying to force them out by sabotaging their apartments

Around 75 people chanted for “respect” and “justice,” held signs and talked to Israel's neighbors. The rally drew perplexed stares and questions from some members of the area's Orthodox Jewish community.

Two tenants at 98 Linden St., Noelia Calero, 31, and her cousin Michelle Crespo, 32, said that Israel tore out their kitchens and bathrooms seven months ago, under the pretext that he was renovating the apartments. Calero and Crespo, who live across the hall from each other on the first floor, said he hasn't done any work since then. They've been forced to use their neighbor's bathroom and kitchen in the meantime. In pictures of the tenants' bathrooms and kitchens that Crespo and Calero pasted on signs they held, the rooms looked as if they were in an abandoned building that had been hastily gutted.

Crespo said that Israel wants her and Calero out so he can charge more rent for their apartments, which are rent stabilized.

“We want the city, we want the mayor, we want everyone to help us out because the conditions are horrible,” Calero said. “It's been seven months of hell, honestly.”

The tenants say they've appealed to the Department of Buildings and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. They've also gone to court, but to no avail. Their apartments remain in a state that is nearly unlivable, the tenants said.

Crespo's youngest son got pneumonia, which was exacerbated by the horrible condition of her apartment, she said.

Calero lives with her elderly parents, and her mother has kidney problems and arthritis. Her mother's kidney problems force her to drink a lot of water, which she only has access to by walking up the stairs to a neighbor's apartment.

Crespo said she had thought about leaving but chose not to because she didn't want to be forced out. The lack of options for affordable housing in Bushwick also left her with few options.

“We've been here for 23 years. You can't just come and pull us out of there forcefully,” Crespo said.

Calero also said she chose to stay in her apartment due to the lack of affordable housing in the area.

The rally was composed of tenants involved in BHIP, as well as those from the St. Joseph's and St. Barbara's Catholic churches in Bushwick. BHIP was founded by Pastor John Powis at St. Barbara's in 2002.

Many of the attendees have problems with their other landlords as well, according to BHIP organizer

Israel owns at least nine buildings in Brooklyn, according to HPD and real estate documents. Six of those have over 300 open violations, according to HPD. Over 100 of these are C Class violations – the most serious type of violation, such as rodent infestation, lead paint, or a lack of basic services like heat, hot water, or electricity. There are 59 C Class violations at 98 Linden St. alone, mostly in Calero and Crespo's apartments.

At 324 Central Ave., the residents have no heat in the middle of winter, and Israel has refused to allow inspectors into the building, according to Sister Kathy Maire, the executive director of BHIP.

“He is making life awful for them,” she said.

Israel could not be reached for comment.

BHIP typically works through official means to fight negligent landlords, such as the courts, but this case was so extreme that BHIP organized a demonstration. Two school buses, one from St. Barbara's, and another from St. Josephs brought the protesters to Borough Park. Organizers did not reveal where the buses were going ahead of time to insure that Israel wouldn't be informed of the protest.

Rents in Bushwick have gone up more on average, by 8 per cent, than in any other Brooklyn neighborhood over the past year, according to an MNS Real Estate Brooklyn Market Report. Even in rent-stabilized apartments, landlords can increase the rent in an apartment by 20 per cent each time a tenant leaves. Advocates say this creates an incentive to drive out old tenants and bring in those who can pay more.