Monday, January 21, 2008

Dispatches from the Frigid Mass Eviction at 475 Kent in South Williamsburg

475_kent_ave small
[Photo courtesy of INSIJS]

Last night, around 7PM, a reader emailed us to say that the NYPD and FDNY were trying to clear a building at 475 Kent Avenue in South Williamsburg. Apparently, the building has a variety of fire and building code violations and, for some reason, it was decided to clear the building on one of the colder nights of the winter. A lot of residents of the building, which housed more than a hundred people, many of them artists, called TV and newspapers. (Anyone that's ever been down Berry or Wythe Avenue, especially at night when it's all lit up, knows the building.) Here is some of what our own reader, who was hiding out in his apartment, hoping to outlast the furor, wrote as the night progressed. The first email came in at 6:52PM:
There are cops and firefighters roaming the halls of my building in south williamsburg telling everyone that the "building is being vacated" at this very moment. my building has about 100 or so people in it and is located at 475 kent ave. apparently there are numerous fire code violations and such. but, instead of trying to fix them, they are attempting to put 100 or so folks on the street on a 20 degree sunday night. i've refused to go anywhere. i have a dog and i have don't know that i can take her anywhere. what really bothers me is that the FDNY believes that my safety is being enhanced by putting myself and my dog on the street on a night where we could both literally freeze to death. this is real and it is indeed happening right now.
A bit later, around 8:00, we got this added detail:
there was FDNY, NYPD as well as the dept of health here. at that time it appeared that the PTB were going to come down hard on our landlord. i never imagined that they would "vacate" the entire building. now that is indeed happening and i am laying low with my dog in hopes that they just go home. i have a feeling that ain't gonna happen as there are two fire engines, three cop cars and DOH vehicle right outside my front door all with lights a blazin'. at some point, i will have to empty the dog and i'm pretty damn sure i won't be allowed back into my own home.
And, here is the text of the eviction order, retyped and emailed to us at 9PM:
THE FIRE COMMISIONER ORDERS YOU FORTHWITH that all business and excuses being laid aside, you and each of you immediately vacate the above described premises, for the reason that the conditions in said premises are immediately perilous to life in the case of fire therein or adjacent thereto by reason of:

(Handwritten) (1) Illegal conversion of a commercial occupancy into a multiple dwelling. (2) Illegal grain silos in cellar each 10' feet high + 15' feet wide containing grain and approx 200-35 gallon plastic garbage pails containing (illegible illegible illegible) of grain which is a high hazard (illegible) causing an explosive hazard. (3) Illegal storage of items creating an extreme fire hazard. (4) Required sprinkler system inoperable throughout structure and in need of repair.

The document continues:

THE FIRE COMMISSIONER FURTHER ORDERS that these premises shall remain sealed and vacated and padlocked until such time asthe hazardous conditions described herein have been corrected and the Fire Commissioner, in writing, rescinds this order. This Vacate and Seal Order is issued pursuant to Section 15-227 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York.

FAILURE TO COMPLY with this Vacate and Seal Order forthwith may subject you court proceedings and is punishable as a criminal misdemeanor with a maximum of one year imprisonment and civil fines up to one million dollars.

An owner, lessor, lessee or mortgagee may request in writing a hearing to determine if this Order was properly written requests for a hearing should be delivered to the New York City Fire Department, Legal Division, 250 Livingston Street, Room 820, Brooklyn, NY 11201-5884. Hearings are available within three business days after receipt of th written request.
Around 9:30PM we got another email that said "okay, this about to be real ugly. they are talking about breaking down doors." At 10:06 AM we got an email that news crews were on the scene. Then, at 11PM, this arrived:
tonight before 1:30AM the (FDNY) says they will padlock the building. once again, how does putting me on the street make me safe and, given the fact that i'm not about to do any such thing, padlocking my building make me any safer? it seems as if they are taking a fire hazard and making it a fire trap. wtf?
It was 21 degrees out when these emails started and around 18 when the last one was sent. Among the violations found was an illegal matzo factory in the basement and small grain storage silos. Undoubtedly, there were serious issues in the building, but the temperature overnight was expected to fall as low as 14 degrees with wind chills of 10 below zero. While fire code violations are serious, they were presumably longstanding. The question arises: were they indeed so life threatening as to put 100 people into a different kind of life-threatening emergency situation?

Related Stories:
UPDATE: Gothamist's Jen Chung has an extensive report this morning along with interviews of residents this morning. One of whom reports that residents were "paying a ton of money" to live in the building and that they include "lawyers who live here, doctors, producers and some of the most famous photographers in the world." No one expects to be able to return anytime soon as there may be months of work that need to be done, if resident are ever allowed back. Some wonder if there is a development agenda at work. "There’s a reason they want to empty the whole lot," a resident told Gothamist.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not understand the bum rush nature of this evacuation. There was no advance annnouncement? Or was the landlord the only one informed? If this is an illegal conversion, how long has it taken for anyone to figure this out? If there are over 100 residents? Illegal Matzoh factory???? What is going on? Why the decision to raid on the coldest night?? Who makes these decisions, morons??? How is the guy with the dog? Is he locked inside?? What developer is behind this I would like to know. Or is it just F'ked NYC protocol?? I am sorry and I hope everyone is safe amd warm...

9:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am the guy with the dog and, yes, i am locked inside. awesome, no?

as for our landlord, he was nowhere to be found last night. not answering his phone either.

even more awesome.

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was there a single person in that building who didn't know that the residential use of the building was completely illegal, subjecting them to a vacate order at any time with little or no warning?

11:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To state the obvious, this smells. Is there something going on like a potential condo conversion. How is the landlord? Has there been any history of harassment? It sounds like someone tipped off the FDNY yesterday and if the FDNY was aware of any immediate hazards why wait until a freezing Sunday night? I know it is a holiday but maybe some of the residents have legal connections who can offer some guidance.
You and your dog hang in there.

11:33 AM  
Blogger faerwear said...

whoa. f*ck. god i hope you guys are okay over there. i used to live in that building about five years ago.

oh well, at least you won't have to watch the annual chicken slaughter in the lot down below anymore.

in all seriousness, i'm so sorry. how f*cked. i can't believe those tactics are STILL going on in brooklyn.

nachman must have some ideas after staring at that luxury condo building that went up across the street.

11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is similar to the sitation for the residents of 1717 Troutman Street, subject to a vacate order in mid-October. 220 people became homeless. Such acts of the city are outrageous. Especially without notice and in such weather.

The NY Mag sensationalized the Troutman vacate order, focusing on the calling the now 220 homeless people "hipsters", rather than reporting any humanistic sides of the story. Perhaps now the press will take such harsh vacate orders and affordable housing issues seriously.

11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This building is an eyesore and everyone knows the whole artist commune thing was a timebomb waiting to happen. Toss 'em all out. Tear it all down. Build a new luxury tower.

11:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard about this this morning, and I'm stunned. I had friends living there back in 1998, it's been obviously residential for almost a decade. WHY NOW??

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone living there knew this kind of thing might always be one knock away. This should come as no surprise. Frankly, I don't know how the NYPD and NYFD turned a blind eye to this for so long. I stopped calling 311 on this building long ago because it seemed clear no one gave a shit. Whatever heartache or aggravation this causes, people are going to have to suck it up and find themselves a legal dwelling. There is no shortage of apartments in the area, though I'm guessing you won't get away with paying a squatter's rent this time around. Hope you enjoyed the easy ride while you had it!

12:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah, i'm hearing the hipster thing as well. the new york post actually described my building as "posh."


as for the angle, of course we knew it was illegal. i don't think i've ever lived in a legal loft in willimasburg. this building is surrounded by illegal conversions. i'm staring out my window at two of them right now, both much larger than this one.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The residents all knew it was not a residential building.
Stop whining and move on.
You got screwed.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel the deepest sympathy for all those evicted last night. The possible loss of all your possessions as well as home must be horrible and traumatic.
However, I saw a grain elevator explosion when I was 14. It was started from a machinery spark. It was the most horrible inferno that I have ever seen. Grain dust for some reason explodes. The dust in the air created a vacuum as it was consumed and caused the upper floors of the building to implode.
Although draconian as the eviction may seem. I truly believe that the fire dept did the right thing.
Someone could die.
I can't believe that the landlord never cleaned out the silo. Illegal renting is one thing. Explosive grain dust is another.

1:33 PM  
Blogger phead said...

I love the fact that you being inconvenienced by the vacate is more severe then the thought of you being killed in a fire. Oh it hasn't happened yet, so that makes the situation ok? The drunk driver who makes it home without killing someone makes it ok?

Who cares if the fireman entering your building are safe? Your arrogance towards the situations is repugnant. You will be the same person to blame the emergency services that they did not do anything to correct the situation, if something were to happen.
Hope its not too cold out there b/c you are obviously now living on the streets! yeah ok.
Think about 2 fireman who died, and 4 others severely injured, in a Bronx Building Fire 3 years ago. They were battling a fire in a building with illegal partitions and construction, but its ok they only had to jump 6 stories to their death, and a lifetime of pain.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A big F*ck you to the person who said the building is an eyesore and should be torn down and replaced with condos. I've been live/working in 475 with a wonderful community of artists since 1998 and lost both my business and my home last night. The fire department has been through 475 several times in the last 10 years, and mandated functional standpipes and fire extinguishers in the spaces. Yesterday when we heard about the 'illegal wheat" in the basement tenants offered to remove it, but FDNY refused. Tenants also offered to employ fire marshalls till the sprinkler issues could be addressed, FDNY refused this also.
Also to a previous poster, residental use of a commercial building does not usually result in an immediate vacate order, FDNY has to show imminent danger to do that (in this case, danger of spontaneous combusion of wheat?). Whatever, in any case, this sucks for everyone. Phillip, i hope you are okay.

1:49 PM  
Blogger JakeGould said...

I've been to parties at that place in the 1990s and have visited friends there in the 2000s. The truth is few people looked at the place as "legal" at any point. Some folks I knew there were so enamored with the idea they were living in a "noodle factory" to question anything about it.

It's amazing it lasted this long. But the timing of the evacuation could have not come at a worse time. I feel bad for anyone kicked out from there. And yes, there are tons of people who live there who are far from slackers and students. Crazy situations.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How and why was there an illegal Matzoh factory? Was it being made for the "poor" hasidic population? Or a home bakery to keep the matzoh going for the rest of their lives? I still don't understand. And, will people be able to go back inside and get their belongings? Legal or not, the ousting was poorly timed and really only a 6 hour lead time in evacuating? So said the news. The guy who said tear it down...hmm. Regardless, why are you even in New York City?? Philip, what are you doing?? Call Brian Williams or Fox there anyone else still inside?

5:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I have to laugh at this pathetic scene out on Kent. Big mob of Hipsters feeling sorry for themselves. Boo hoo hoo for you. I'm looking at this joint on the news now, and it looks like a crack den. And let me tell you something, if you were stupid enough to pay $2k a month on a unit in this hellhole, then you deserve to be sleeping on a cot in a Red Cross shelter for the next few weeks. (Though I'm guessing those paying $2k were splitting with their 7 other squatter roommates.) Heh heh. Well, the good news is that you can probably still snag a place across the street at Schafer Landing, or soon enough over at the Northside Piers. Of course, being a broker myself, you can bet I'll be jacking rents over the next few weeks in the area. I encourage other brokers to do so too. Happy househunting, suckers!

5:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I managed a building in Soho last year that was vacated by DOB and FDNY. We needed to erect scaffolding to replace a fire escape among other things. We had an architect who would draw plans take pictures of the whole thing and then we would hand deliver to the agencies by noon or 1 pm hoping we could get the vacate order lifted the same day. This went on for 3 weeks. I discovered later that these people could of cared less about the disaster that had befallen these 6 tenants. On top of that, we finally satisfied DOB but the FDNY people said not so fast we want to be stroked too. The other problem was a snowballing effect. Everybody wanted to take a look and write a violation. Boiler Inspectors, Forensic Engineers. I was threatened with arrest for letting people in the building until I "employed" them to look after and check building systems etc. The other thing to keep in mind is the history of living in that building. If someone can find evidence of living going back to the AIR window in the late seventies, early eighties then you can probably exact a nice sum from the LL. Each of the tenants in my building got about 200K! Good Luck.

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last year, a fireman fell off the roof of a building owned by the landlord of 475 Kent, Nachman Brach.
There's little doubt that this was retribution, they also vacated the 4 story brick girl's Yeshiva next door to 475 that is also owned by Brach for various violations, no illegal conversion involved. Having been recently vacated from 1717 Troutman, the DOB officers told us that they don't put people on the street for residence in commercial buildings.

7:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I find funny in all of this is all the blame being hurled at the FDNY, and not the landlord who rented your illegal living space, or yourselves for raising kids in a loft that wasn't zoned for living. My local message board is full of people complaining about being on the street with their families. What are you doing with a family in the Tong Noodle factory?

And while on the topic... do you know how many Williamsburg residents have been displaced from LEGAL living arrangements recently? Sure, maybe they weren't artists or famous fashion photographers, but then again, they probably had residential leases. It would be nice to see them get some coverage occasionally as well.

So there was a potential bomb that could have gone off at any time in your basement? Why don't you THANK the FDNY for saving your life then?

7:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just another example of the city doing the dirty work for a sleaze ball Hasidim.
When it suited Mr Nachman Brach, the city turned a blind eye for 30 years while he rented it out - Illegally.
Now that he wants to get every one out so that he can tear it down (or sell it) to build condo's (like his slime ball brethren are doing all over), the city jumps in to do his dirty work.
Any one who wants to say that I am being anti-semetic need only look down the road from this building at the illegally built temple right next to the gas station on Kent (off of the highway).
That building was illegally built in less than 2 weeks a couple of years ago. They worked day and night, on week ends and through stop work orders. The City still has violations against that building and has refused to issue a C of O. In fact the Hasidics have refused to allow the DOB or the Fire Department access to the building even though they are using it illegally for the last 2 years.
Why doesn't the City go break down the doors to that death trap?oy

9:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you all are homeless, how are you posting on the internet? Did you all take your mac-book airs to the starbucks for a soy latte and wi-fi? Go find another illegal place to live with your daddy's money or get a real f*king job and a real apartment and stop whining about no-one wanting another triangle shirtwaist fire on their hands.

9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let those people back in 475 kent. Burn down ALL the luxury condos built or being built in williamsburg. BURN BABY BURN!

10:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one tough crowd.

10:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that broker is just jealous because he has a worthless job that's about to be wiped out by craigslist. oh wait, there are all those yuppie babies that need someone to hold their hand and tell them how awesome their new condo is and how much their friends and family will respect them for spending so much on glass.

10:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like 9:36 needs a reach around.

10:43 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I was a resident of this building back in 2000-2001.

The landlord was a real piece of work.

Just FYI the city must have been well aware of the "violations" since he was working on trying to convert the property even back then.

12:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a bad deal. I'm glad there wasn't a fire, but they could have handled this better. As for all of the spoiled hipster comments... huh? I spent a week at this building recently. It is home to photographers, artists and families. A handful of the best photographers in the world have called it home. There maybe the odd hipster in there, but it's a pretty good distance from the macbook and latte crew around bedford.

12:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Face it, artists and hipsters living in "edgy" spaces have a well-understood role in the world of NYC real estate development. They create a cachet for the neighborhood and more income for landlords than manufacturing tenants or vacant floors. Eventually, the development plans ripen, the neighborhood is officially deemed desirable, and it's time for the artists and hipsters to say, "our work is done here." They're out. Everyone knows how this works. Find the next edgy industrial neighborhood. The landlords and brokers and developers will be thrilled by the arrival of the artists and hipsters. The people working in the pasta factories and living around the corner, not so thrilled.

6:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work as a construction manager and currently building a dreaded high rise condo in Manhattan. What can I say, I work for the money.
But I will say that FDNY has been on our butt all this year ever since the deutsche bank stand pipe deaths. Our site is super safe but we still get a visit once a month. Sometimes they have come at 9 pm on a Saturday night, just to make sure that our 24 hour fire marshal is on his toes.
The DOB is super touchy about everything too. We froze at work without heat for 1-1/2 months because the DOB was so neurotic about our paperwork. Last week I offered a DOB inspector a glass of water and was told that my water was considered a bribe.
These guys aren't cutting anyone any slack. Both departments have made the decision that this is the year when they're cleaning house.
The landlord of 475 Kent looked like he was courting disaster. Rest assured hipsters. The real estate development craze has officially stopped. Deals that were not signed and financed by the end of 2007 are being cancelled. The credit is no longer available. Our estimating dept. is already in a slow down. Thankfully, I still have my building to finish.
But that landlord is not going to sell this lot for a good price anytime soon especially with all the fines and violations.

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RULA LENSKA??? Where have you been all these years???

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anybody wholesale labelling the residents of 475 as "hipsters" clearly doesn't know what they are talking about. people in this building lived there when NO ONE wanted to live in williamsburg. they came over for affordable space. they took risks, but so did the people who moved into commercial spaces that predated the loft law.

when i heard that 475 was targeted, my first thought was, 'they're going after them all now'. 475 was the granddaddy of these buildings in williamsburg. these were not spoiled rich brats living in here, even now.

that said i could give FDNY a list of buildings they should have gone after before this one. i agree on the retaliation point, but there had to be some basis in fact or they wouldn't have charged in on one of the coldest nights of the year.

there are a whole lot of kids in greenpoint that should start looking for a place to live. because those buildings have got to be next.

12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the landlord should be put in jail! why is it that these evacuations always hurt the tenants and puts the blame on the tenants for living in these buildings? i lived in a building like this until recently and the landlord knew fully people lived in the building and continued to rent to residents. she wouldn't give leases which also releases her of legal responsibility while allowing her to up the rent whenever and how ever much she wanted. is this what re-zoning a neighborhood is about? instead of REALLY making spaces more habitable, it just sells the neighborhood out to developers and shady landlords!

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There seems to be some confusion in the comments between the Noodle building on Berry and S. 5th (which is going through its own struggles with a corrupt landlord) and 475 Kent, the building vacated sunday, which was once the Ronzoni pasta factory. Both buildings house long term residents' live/work spaces. These are not neo-williamsburg hipster enclaves, many of the people there have been there for years and need the mixed use designation for their work. Sorry guys, hope it works out.

12:32 AM  
Blogger phead said...

The issue is not with the "type" of people that populate the building. The issue is with the landlords failure to comply with the laws. If you move into a home you should know, and care, that you home is safe. Obviously, the majority, if not all of the residents, failed to investigate their home to any extent. You cannot pick when its convenient to move out... I understand that the issues at hand are not the result of residents committing a crime, but you all enabled by living in an illegal building. Perhaps this hard lesson will keep you safer in the future and be more proactive with determining the safety and legality of your home.uatbllw

10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

9:36 and 5:45 youre embarassing yourselves, showing your ignorance by latching onto stereotypes. hipsters and squatters? our building was filled with people who have accomplished careers and real businesses -- people who work long hours and in many cases, paid a lot of money for spaces they loved coming home to. ur comments betray the fact that ur f*ing idiots. stay out of williamsburg, ur pathetic.

11:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is obviously a development scam.
I dont know where the guy who says development has stopped in burg is getting his info. There are buildings being demolished every day. I live here I know. every block has a new building going up. funding isnt going away its probaby mostly foreign money. With mayor Mike at the helm the entire city is being sold out to development with unlimited funds from here and overseas. Im very concerned about my loft building. this about turning this into a town for the rich only. Williamsburg means money which the only thing mayor mike understands this city is a corporation to him not a municipality.

11:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is obviously a development scam.
I dont know where the guy who says development has stopped in burg is getting his info. There are buildings being demolished every day. I live here I know. every block has a new building going up. funding isnt going away its probaby mostly foreign money. With mayor Mike at the helm the entire city is being sold out to development with unlimited funds from here and overseas. Im very concerned about my loft building. this about turning this into a town for the rich only. Williamsburg means money which the only thing mayor mike understands this city is a corporation to him not a municipality.

PS um whats with the name calling on hipsters. the scourge of this city are all the heinous moneyed fools who are loving the hight rises and want this city to become as boring as the place they crawled out from. go back to bergen county NJ and get your ass in mall dont make my city one.

12:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gee why is it that the City and the State only seem to enforce safty rules when it involved the potential of getting a commerical loft buidling converted to luxury condos???where is the City and the State in enforcing and testing for the multiple NEW condo buildings that are being built on top of toxic sites that have NOT been properly cleaned UP1111where is the City and State's enthusiasm in protecting its citizens form that??? OH YEAH b/c the devlopers paid them off and the CITY and State desperately want the TAX dollars they hope they will get fromthe condo sales...WHO--CITY or State is gonna pay for the massive lawsuits that the condo buyers will file in a couple years when people start to figure out how badly the City and State let them get screwed?

11:35 AM  

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