In Prospect Heights, the intersection of Washington Avenue and Lincoln Place is clearly in the midst of a wave of gentrification: a stretch of tree-lined blocks with handsome prewar apartment buildings, a trendy café, and a nine-story 36-unit luxury condominium project scheduled to open in 2020 where two-bedrooms start at $1.2 million.
The borough’s stately cultural institution, the Brooklyn Museum, is a block away.
At the same time, the corner building at 840 Washington Avenue, a four-story low-income residential building that was previously owned by the city, has over the last several years been on a much different trajectory: The property has become saddled with violations and home to a rat infestation so bad that many residents of buildings on Lincoln Place have taken to walking in the street to avoid them and taking car services straight to their apartment buildings.
And while the building owner blames nearby construction, neighboring residents say that the problems date to when an affordable-housing developer took over the building in 2016.
"It's like a game of mousetrap,” said Diana Kyrwood, who has lived on the block since 2005. “It’s really gotten out of control.”
As she spoke, about half a dozen rats, many with fattened-looking bodies, brazenly scampered around the building as people walked by. With the exception of those feasting inside a trash bag, they were constantly on the move, darting this way and that along the sidewalk and onto the other side of the street. Many could be seen disappearing into crevices around the building’s edges and scampering across an adjacent empty lot. One rat scurried under cars, curiously raising its head into the undercarriage.
Later, a gaggle of children dramatically stomped their feet as they trudged past the building. Trailing behind them, their mothers explained that they were trying to scare away the rats.
Rats have long been a much talked-about problem in New York City, despite the fact that the disease-carrying population is notoriously difficult to measure and pretty much impossible to defeat, according to experts.
Rats are so ubiquitous that many New Yorkers have largely become inured to them, to the extent that only the most unusual sightings and skirmishes draw interest nowadays.
Still, the conditions around 840 Washington Avenue, whose entrance is on Lincoln Place, have stood out, residents said. So much so that in recent weeks, a movement of renters and coop owners on Lincoln between Washington and Underhill avenues has been formed to address the problem. Two weeks ago, Alexandra O’Daly, who moved to the block in October, put up posters on lampposts asking people who had also seen rats to send an email to LincolnPlaceRats@gmail.com.
O'Daly said she received around 15 emails, and an abundance of horror stories. Several people said they had moved because they couldn’t handle it anymore. One man said a rat chewed through wires in his car, which led to a costly repair. Others expressed concern that the rats appeared to be spreading down the block.
But there was one thing that surprised her. “I didn’t realize people had tried to do something,” she said.
A screengrab from a video (embedded above) taken by a local resident.
Ben Lazarus, who lives in a nearby building, said at least a dozen of his neighbors have filed 311 complaints for more than year. According to the most recently available 311 data, there have been about 110 rat sighting complaints for the building between October 2017 and April 2019. That works out to more than one rat complaint per week.
Lazarus said that although he had seen individuals periodically performing inspections, “No one really does anything. It certainly hasn’t gotten better."
He said he and neighbors have tried reaching out to councilmember Laurie Cumbo, but her staff has been “keeping us at arm’s length."
Cumbo's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lazarus and other residents trace the rat problems to the sale of the building. The city, through its Department of Housing Preservation and Development, took title to the property in 1982 following a foreclosure. In 2016, the city sold the building to an affordable housing developer called FSG Partners LLC for $1, a routine price for developers of affordable housing on city-owned lots. The head officer of FSG is listed as Felicia Colon, an affordable housing developer who in 2005 was honored by HPD with its Woman of the Year Award.
The building has 11 units, eight of which are currently occupied, according to HPD. FSG says it is currently undergoing a $3 million renovation with the help of city financing and federal tax credits.
Similar to other affordable projects on city-owned land, HPD maintains an enforcement mortgage, equal to the land's appraised value, and a regulatory agreement on the property.
But despite those protections, the building has been poorly maintained. There are currently 91 open HPD violations, for issues including mold, defective flooring, peeling surfaces, broken fixtures and failing to provide adequate hot water. But what residents on the block noticed up until recently was that garbage and other debris was regularly strewn across the front of the building.
In an email, a spokesperson for HPD said that the rats are “related to nearby construction activity”and referred inquiries to the Health Department.
According to the Department of Health, the property failed six inspections in 2018 and was treated by DOH 7 times that year, at the cost of the property owner. Following a failed inspection on March 12, the owner of the property was sent an order to abate and the property is now pending compliance inspection. On May 3rd, inspectors issued the owner of the property summonses for severe rat activity and exposed garbage.
"There are three significant new construction projects within 100 meters of that corner," FSG partner Getz Obstfeld told Gothamist. "Whenever you have that kind of construction going on, they disturb the burrows of the rats that are underground." As a result, he said, "that whole area is plagued by rats."
(A search of city 311 records found only a single rat complaint in the last year and a half for 400 Lincoln Place across the street, and none for 201 Eastern Parkway, a large apartment complex adjacent to the construction site on the opposite side of Washington Avenue.)
Obstfeld said FSG has an exterminator in monthly, and said the landlord has not received any tenant complaints about rats. The violations, he insisted, were mostly minor and had largely been corrected, though this hasn't yet been reflected in the HPD database.
Asked about the reported trash problems, Obstfeld paused for a long time, then said FSG couldn't do anything about tenants who don't dispose of trash properly, adding, "I don’t think we have any worse record [than any other building] on the street." He said FSG planned to add a security camera to identify anyone who may be dumping trash on the street.
"We’d love to work with the community and have a unified effort to tackle this problem," he said, adding, "We've done our part."
As part of a campaign to get Cumbo to assist them, neighbors recently began taking photos and videos to document the rats and the garbage.
A photo of trash in front of 840 Washington Avenue taken by a Lincoln Place resident on April 29, 2019.
Residents said the unsightly and smelly trash situation had been an issue for more than a year. But it suddenly improved last Thursday. Residents said they suspected that word had gotten out that someone had sent a tip to Gothamist and other press outlets. On the day prior to the cleaning, the New York Times sent a reporter and photographer to the block.
Despite the latest actions, the block is still littered with rats, as witnessed during Gothamist's visit on Monday. Residents are pressing the city and landlord to come up with a prolonged eradication strategy.
The cleanup, which included using new trash cans, was “an important step,” Lazarus said.
But he added: “We’re so far beyond that at this point. If they had done this two years ago, we wouldn’t be where we are now. At this point, that’s not going to fix the problem.”
UPDATE: An HPD spokesperson emailed Gothamist the following statement regarding the building's violation history: "The onus is on the owner to remove open violations on a property’s record. Therefore, it’s up to him to have the record corrected."
UPDATE 5/8/2019 8:58 p.m.: The story has been updated with a response from the Department of Health.
UPDATE 5/9/2019 10:15 a.m.: A spokesman for council member Cumbo said that upon hearing complaints from residents, her office investigated the situation at 840 Washington and reached out to a nonprofit, Housing and Family Services of Greater New York, to perform the clean-up.