When Lauren Holman's roommates-to-be first looked at the place on Bedford Avenue in early August 2013, construction on the building was still underway and the apartment did not yet have interior walls or a refrigerator. One apartment in the building that was serving as the demo apartment for prospective renters "had mostly everything kind of set up," and her friends who were spearheading the apartment search had an easy time filling in the blanks.

"They were like, 'Oh yeah, it’s going to be great,'" Holman recalled. "'There's going to be a gym on the roof. They still haven’t put the walls up, but it’s going to be great. It'll be awesome: a brand new building. There's not going to be cockroaches.'"

The apartments were to come wired with in-wall speakers. As the group negotiated the lease—$6,000 a month for what was to be a bilevel four-bedroom, connected by a spiral staircase—she says the building's management assured them everything would be ready by the day they moved in, at the beginning of September. They put down the first and last months' rent and a security deposit, which came to $4,500 each. Holman arrived on September 7th. She was 23 and moving to New York from Chicago for a music-industry job with Sony, and had made the 800-mile drive with her father.

"I walked in with my dad, and my dad was in shock," she remembered.

The bathroom two weeks after Lauren Holman and her friends moved in. (Lauren Holman)

The apartment, she says, was much the same as it had been a month earlier: no walls, no fridge, no gas lines, wires sticking out of walls where electric heaters and air conditioners were to be installed.

"He was like, 'I don’t know what the hell you just did.'" she said. "I was trying to keep it together."

Holman and her three friends, a film-school student, a Google employee, and a tech startup cofounder, had just moved into 120 South Fourth Street. The five-story apartment building at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge would be evacuated by the city more than a year later after inspectors discovered un-permitted structural work, but in the meantime, Holman and her friends were tenants paying $1,500 each. And they needed walls.

Holman was lucky: her sister lived nearby on Bedford Avenue and had a couch for her to crash on. She had planned to just stay for a week or two, until the apartment was finished. She would ultimately only sleep four nights in the place over the course of her yearlong lease, she says.

"By the time we finally started getting walls—I’m not saying finished walls—by the time they actually started work on them, it was December," she said.

For those first three months, she says her roommates negotiated reduced rent of $4,000 and $5,000 with the management company run by Menachem "Max" Stark, because of the primitive conditions. She says they got a fridge three days in, and the gas was connected after the first week, but the gas and power would go on and off without warning. In November, the heaters came.

"Luckily one of my roommates was Israeli he would talk to Max the landlord in Hebrew and be like, 'Okay get us our walls and we need to get our rent declined because this is crazy," Holman said. "He said, 'Okay yeah, yeah but don’t tell anybody else in the building, because I don’t want to give everybody a discount.'"

They told their neighbors. There were a lot of them. The building, which depending on the city filings you look at contains 18 or 20 apartments, was mostly rented at that point, Holman said. It wouldn't get a certificate of occupancy until July 2014.

"[Moving in] was a big mistake on my part, but a lot of people made that mistake," Holman said.

The friends' apartment occupied parts of the third and fourth floors. The fifth story only takes up part of the building's footprint, so above Holman's upper-level bedroom was the roof. A dated log she kept of problems with the apartment spans 20 pages, and recounts repeated leaks into her room, and elsewhere in the apartment. She says the roof was so thin that heavy snow or neighbors walking on it (despite illegally low parapets) created new holes that sent water into her room. One leak ruined Holman's mattress and computer. Other leaks elsewhere in the apartment pooled in light fixtures, dripped onto electric heaters, cracked walls and ceilings, and fed blooms of mold.

The speakers were installed as promised, but the walls were "so poorly made you could hear what everyone was saying" elsewhere in the apartment. Holman was spared the brunt of the construction, but she says that as the months wore on, it started to seriously disrupt her friends' lives. One roommate kept his things in boxes and slept in a sleeping bag because he didn't want to mess up his bed. He figured, going by management's assurances, the arrangement would last about two weeks.

"Four months later, he's like, 'Uhhhh...'" she said. (Holman's roommates declined to comment for this story through Holman.)

Doors at last! (Lauren Holman)

Holman says another roommate was anxious to bring women home, but couldn't because home was three beds in the middle of one big room. The film-school student had trouble studying. Someone's laptop went missing, and the roommates blamed the contractors who were constantly in and out. The walls went up the last week of November, but were left rough and unpainted. One bedroom was built without windows.

"We finally got doors, I remember, on Christmas Day," Holman said. "But just doors, not doorknobs."

Those wouldn't come until March. Holman said she kept paying rent because she was afraid of hurting her credit or ending up on a tenant blacklist.

In January, when Stark was abducted from outside his South Williamsburg office and his burned body found in a dumpster on Long Island, the tenants found out by reading news stories about it. Stark died owing the city $129,000 in unpaid fines, personally and through companies he co-owned, for un-permitted and unsafe construction at 120 South Fourth alone, building records show. Elsewhere, creditors were suing claiming Stark and partner Israel Perlmutter had defaulted on $51 million in loans. Kendel Felix, the Crown Heights man arrested in connection with Stark's murder, allegedly confessed that he had been trying to scare Stark into paying a debt and accidentally killed him.

For Holman and friends, what was relevant about all of this was that their management company changed names, as Stark's brother-in-law Abraham Bernat took over the property, but they stayed in touch with the same contact as before, a woman named Frady. After more than six months of sleeping on her sister's couch, Holman saw no end in sight to the woes at 120 South Fourth, so she rented a studio apartment in Midtown for $1,500. She thought about finding a sub-letter, but realized she didn't feel comfortable bringing anyone into the South Fourth apartment to live.

In the halls, trash piled up. Promised trash chutes would not materialize until month 10, Holman says. The leaks continued and the roommates began withholding rent on and off to pressure management to make repairs. Sample entries from Holman's repair log around this time:

  • 6/19/14- The ceiling is leaking again- after everything being “fixed.” I email management and Frady responds that Wilmer will come and check on it. I get frustrated why this is happening for the third time. And It has been over 4 weeks since the problem occurred.

  • 6/24/14 - I remind Frady that there is no progress. - she gives generic reply. “[The super] will fix”

Walls going up in mid-November 2013. (Lauren Holman)

The roommates began calling 311 around then, and Holman says one building inspector who showed up told them that if he wrote down the actual conditions in the apartment, particularly the room without a window, everyone would have to evacuate immediately. They told him to hold off. A Housing Preservation and Development inspector did log five violations that July, for the illegally installed spiral staircase, upstairs and downstairs leaks, and uneven plaster. The violations remain open.

As the months wore on, Holman's view of humanity started to dim.

"I'm one of those kind of people who gives people benefit of a doubt," she said. "Here I was like, 'Wow.' Here it always gets worse, after everything."

Holman said she wanted to break the lease, but didn't want to leave her roommates in the lurch. By the final month, she said they had withheld about three months' worth of rent. They began to move out, but on August 28th, three days away from the final day of their lease, a roommate came down from his windowless room to find legal papers on the kitchen counter. They were being sued for $24,725, plus legal fees.

Holman was indignant. Never mind the alleged break-in to improperly serve the lawsuit—she was angry because she had paid through the nose to live in an apartment that didn't have a certificate of occupancy until 10 months in, and which it turns out never should have had a certificate of occupancy in the first place. Holman says that after four months of legal back-and-forth, and an additional $3,000 for a lawyer, Bernat's company Bedford Residence LLC dropped the suit (Holman's lawyer did not respond to requests for further information).

The roommates never got their gym.

Holman's job has since moved her to Los Angeles, where she found "a normal apartment." The experience in Williamsburg soured her on living in New York, she said.

"It was definitely one of the most mishandled awful situations where they took advantage of a lot of people and opened up an apartment building a year before it should have opened," Homan said. "It was like one of those Hollywood movies where people move into a building and it turns out to just be cardboard you can push over. It was just bad juju all around."

She counts herself lucky to have had the support of friends and family in the city, and said she feels for the business owners, workers, and 50 or so tenants displaced by last month's vacate order. She said she came away with two big lessons: 1) "Don't always trust people to be good people," and 2) "I will never live in a brand-new building again."

One of many government notices that now greets passersby on Bedford Avenue. FDNY X's warn firefighters not to go inside. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)

As for those more recently displaced tenants, they are getting anxious. Alex Hoffman, who co-owns the former ground-floor tenant Self Salon with his wife Maria Barca, said that they are out the $300,000 they sunk into the business to get it open on May 1st, and they are losing money by the day. Hoffman said he is scrambling to find a new, key-ready commercial space to move into, and is in negotiations with Bernat for reimbursement.

"This is hundreds of thousands we’re talking," he said. "[Bernat] needs to compensate us, and if he doesn’t meet me somewhere where we’re comfortable I'm going to have to take a step back and say, 'This is not working,' and file suit against them."

Hoffman said that the city could also be the subject of a potential lawsuit because the shoddy construction should not have been signed off on. He worries that Bernat's LLC will declare bankruptcy and leave him and other victims out of luck. Hoffman, a Ridgewood native and longtime Williamsburg resident, is flabbergasted by the turn of events.

"I cannot believe I live in the neighborhood for over 16 years and move into a space a block from my house to go into a potential year-long, tens of years court case for a salon I built from nothing," he said. "It's insane."

Without getting compensation and finding a new location soon, Hoffman said, "It's dead. It's a dead business."

Another put-out commercial tenant who planned to open a deli and restaurant on the corner told DNAinfo he pulled the plans for the building and found most of the pages on file with the DOB described another building entirely, at a North Ninth Street address.

The businessman, Labib Krunfol, is also a contractor, and he told the website he noticed after leasing the storefront that a basement support column was missing below, and that structural beams running across the basement ceiling didn't connect to structural supports in the walls.

"This floor that we're working on is not supposed to exist there," he said.

The Buildings Department says it is looking into how the structure got a certificate of occupancy. Spokesmen for the agency have said that the building-clearing inspection was part of an audit of recently constructed buildings, but have refused to say what prompted the audit. In November 2013, an inspector complained to the department that tenants were being "forced" to move in though construction was still going on and the building was not registered with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. An inspector, Badge #1773, followed up in November 2014, records show, and found "no violation warranted for complaint at time of inspection."

Bernat and Frady did not respond to comment requests. An automated email from Frady's Microsoft Live email account indicates that she no longer works for the company that is now going by Garden Management.