The first time Najary Torres complained to her landlord about the construction in her backyard, it was because there was no Porta Potty on site and the workers were peeing back there. But when she called the property manager, Esther Schneebalg, "Esther said she didn't believe me." It was the summer of 2014 and Torres, a housekeeper and immigrant from Mexico City, was worried about her three young daughters seeing the workers through the window of their ground floor apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
As the weeks passed, the workers kept at it, working through the day, and answering nature's call. Soon it became clear that there was something bigger to worry about. First they tore up the concrete slab, where Torres's children used to play, with an excavator. Dust from the work exacerbated one daughter's asthma, she said.
"A wall started to emerge only a few feet from our back windows," Torres recalled in a lawsuit filed by tenants of the eight-unit, rent-stabilized building this March. "I became particularly frightened when the wall the landlord constructed went higher than my windows and blocked out all the light."
When she called Schneebalg, she remembers Schneebalg saying that she was lying, and that she didn't believe that a building was being constructed directly outside her window. For all Schneebalg's supposed confusion about the construction, she didn't come to check it out, according to the lawsuit.
Torres thought back to earlier in the year, when she got her only clues about what was happening. Schneebalg had ushered groups of men through the building to look at the yard, and one day when she came to collect rent asked Torres to move her girls' balls and bicycles from a concrete pad. "We're going to fix the yard," Torres remembers her saying. When asked what that meant, Schneebalg would say only that "We're going to make it better."
By winter, it was clear that the yard was not going to get better. Torres had lived in the building since 2004, shortly after arriving in the city, and said she had grown accustomed to deferred maintenance and shoddy repairs. Her super, she said, did not live in the building, and did not always come when called. When he did, she said, he would do a "half-assed job"—for instance, she said that her bathroom ceiling once caved in from a leak, and the super patched it without fixing the leak, so the ceiling came down again a month later. So she and her girls relied on her husband, an air conditioning installer by trade, to do minor maintenance and "always hesitated" before getting management involved.
This tan building blotting out the backyard was something else, though, and Torres and others took to calling 311. They didn't foresee what would happen next.
The illegal building is accessible via a parking lot on a side street, and apparently a ladder, though it's not clear where exactly one gets in. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
On July 15th, 2015, a year into the construction, inspectors came to 94 Franklin. When they asked to look around Torres's apartment, she didn't understand why—she had called about the 20 foot tall box in the backyard. When the inspectors saw that her windows and door to outside had been blocked, they told her she had to leave, that day.
"What would you do if there was a fire?" she remembers an inspector saying. "You have three kids."
"And what is that in the backyard?" the inspector asked.
"I said, 'I don't know.'"
Torres said she had trouble absorbing what was happening. She understands but isn't confident speaking English, so when she called Schneebalg, she gave the phone to her mother-in-law who lives upstairs, and who, like everyone else in the building, was being told she had to leave. Torres, recalls, "Esther said, 'I don't know what's going on. You should thank Najary for calling 311. You're in the hands of the city now.'"
A ladder leads up to a platform on top of where the illegal building meets 94 Franklin (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Nine months later, the tenants of 94 Franklin still can't go back. One of Torres's neighbors is renting a room with her husband, for far more than the $800 they were paying for their one-bedroom. Another tenant is living with his brother and has grown depressed, plus the seizures from his epilepsy have also gotten worse, according to the lawsuit. They all have only what they could carry from their apartments.
Torres and her family have been in a homeless shelter in Brownsville since last August. The apartment is big, but it's scary outside the door. At night, she sometimes hears gunshots. Outside, police tape is a common sight. She says that one day last year she was walking her daughters to soccer practice near the shelter and came upon a man threatening another man with a gun. She says her daughters haven't played outside since. The grades of her 12-year-old, her oldest, are suffering, she said, and all her daughters want to know when they're going back home. Her 9-year-old fears that 94 Franklin will burn down while they're away.
Damage to an apartment in 94 Franklin after pipes burst there over the winter. (Brooklyn Legal Services Corp. A)
The few glimpses tenants have gotten of 94 Franklin since last summer give reason to worry. In January, pipes burst, flooding lower-level apartments, and ruining much of what Torres left behind. Photos and video from inside another apartment show gaping holes in a ceiling, a steady stream of water coming from the bathroom ceiling, and water pooling on the floor. Tenants report, from the handful of times they have been allowed to retrieve a few items, that rats and mold have colonized the building since it was emptied out.
The lawsuit tenants filed last month asks the judge to appoint an emergency administrator to take over management of 94 Franklin and help make it livable as soon as possible. Parenthetically, Torres said that she didn't know her $875-a-month apartment was rent-stabilized until lawyers told her. Schneebalg allegedly never did.
Brooklyn Legal Services Corp. attorney Jean Stevens, who is representing Torres and two other tenants, said that the un-permitted building out back is a new twist on the old practice of landlord sabotage, meant to drive out rent-stabilized tenants who would otherwise be all but impossible to evict.
"This is a situation my office has never seen, where there's a whole building being built behind tenants' building," she said. "But the effect is the same. The tenant has to move out. That's likely the intent, because that's what happens. What else would it be for?"
In response to the lawsuit, a lawyer for the owner Tiferes Yehuda Family Trust, which is associated with Schneebalg, relatives of hers, and others, has argued that they are in the process of making 94 Franklin habitable again, and have hired a new property manager and architect to get it done.
"Clearly in their zeal to attack, tarnish and demonize the owner and owner’s reputation and to impugn the owner’s motives, tenants have put the cart before the horse," lawyer Steve Rubinshteyn wrote in a court filing.
Najary Torres, second from right, holding a list of apartment leads, with members of her legal team, including Jean Stevens, second from left. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Rubinshteyn claimed that workers have already fixed the broken pipes, removed water-damaged items and sheet rock, and restored electricity and heat. He wrote further that an architect is preparing a plan to submit to the Buildings Department proposing a new back exit. The filing makes no mention of the large illegal building in the yard.
Stevens and her colleagues have asked that the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development step in and take over the building, but the agency has so far refused. The Department of Buildings has issued 8 violations against the owners since last summer, and levied $7,100 in fines, none of which have been paid. Further complicating matters, 94 Franklin also lacks a certificate of occupancy. Despite two open stop work orders for the un-permitted work, the DOB approved a permit for the trust to remove the fire escape from the back of 94 Franklin in January, and only rescinded it this month.
DOB spokesman Joseph Soldevere said that the agency is investigating how the permit came to be issued, and that if the owners don't make a good-faith effort to rationalize the mystery building starting in the next few weeks, they could face criminal charges.
"The building owners’ disregard for their tenants is shocking and unacceptable," Soldevere said in a statement. "DOB has taken multiple enforcement actions at this building, but it appears that the owners are determined to do the wrong thing."
Soldevere said that it may be possible to make the illegal building code compliant without demolishing it, but that first the owner would have to draw up the relevant architectural paperwork for the city to consider.
Reached by phone, an agent for the trust named Eva Horowitz was not keen to discuss the situation.
"I’m not going to give you any information," she said. "I don’t see why this has to be in the news. I’ve never heard of anything like this."
(A representative of the owners emailed this statement as we were preparing to publish: "We look forward to welcoming all of our tenants back and doing everything that we can to make that happen as quickly as possible. We fully sympathize with the tenants who have been dealing with an extremely trying situation for months and hope to be able to resolve these issues in a timely fashion.")
A man who identified himself as a neighbor and said he works as a landlord shared that he had been to a recent court hearing about the property and that lawyers for the tenants "were acting like crazy people" by refusing to allow the landlord to do the necessary repairs. "It seems like they just want to screw the landlord," he said.
"This is not the owner's fault, it's the DOB's fault," he added.
Legal Services Corp. A attorney Jack Underwood agreed that DOB shares much of the blame, and said that his side refused the landlord's settlement because the landlord is unwilling to acknowledge liability for the alleged harassment.
It's unclear what purpose the mystery building serves, or to the casual observer, even how one gets into it—only windows are visible from two sides, where it abuts a vacant lot and a parking lot—but the use could be religious. One tenant reports having seen Hasidic Jewish men going in to the front of 94 Franklin on Friday evenings, at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. From there, tenants have surmised, they go through the basement to a hatch in the back of the legal building, opening up into the illegal one.
The formerly industrial area on the western edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant, just south of Flushing Avenue, has grown increasingly residential over the last two decades, after Satmar Jewish leaders successfully lobbied the city to allow apartment construction there, to accommodate the community's booming population. Touting the changes to the New York Times in 1999, Rabbi David Niederman, director of the developer and social service provider United Jewish Organizations, said, "We have African-Americans, Latinos, everybody, and everybody feels safe and secure. We want to make this area a better place to live for everyone."
Still, the area has lost Latino and African-American residents as six-story brick buildings have shot up, including next door to 94 Franklin. As its population grew, the zip code went from 14 percent white, 31 percent Latino, and 54 percent African American in 2000 to 40 percent white, 21 percent Latino, and 32 percent African American in 2014, according to census data.
Torres sees her de facto eviction, and the disappearance of Latino block parties in her neighborhood, as evidence of a growing hostility to Latino tenants by the area's Satmar landlords, who are increasingly renting to fellow Jews and affluent transplants:
We don't have a community anymore. We don't have a place to go since the place has changed. The Jewish newcomers see us as bad. They have all the power to kick us out. The kids feel not free anymore. [Neighborhood Jewish children] won't play with other kids, [and landlords] don't want kids in apartments.
You have to have good credit, no kids, and high income. That's just the way it is. We have to get used to it.
Torres's encounter with housing court has left her disappointed in city bureaucrats, who she said don't get the urgency of what's happening.
"The court is not doing justice," she said. "We have families. It's an emergency."