Willoughby Avenue housing nightmare

Roomates , Isabel Beer, Jackson Engman, Cadence Wright, Courtney Miller walk away from their former home on Dec 29, 2020. Photo by Daniel Pemberton.

I had a pretty unconventional experience planning my move to Brooklyn. Because of the raging contagion that continues to threaten every aspect of daily life, I was forced to forgo the traditional rite of passage of touring apartments or meeting potential roommates in person. 

Instead of visiting potential housing opportunities in person, I had to conduct impromptu meetings with other tenants or landlords through Zoom a couple thousand miles away from my future home. Because of the unprecedented housing circumstances caused by COVID-19, I – like far too many other young people looking to live in New York City – fell prey to an extremely predatory and illegal housing situation.

Upon finding what seemed to be an idyllic metropolitan solace in the very first Bed-Stuy brownstone I virtually toured, I naïvley moved in sight-unseen on July 15th. Initially it seemed like a perfect fit; the property itself was a traditional Brooklyn brownstone first constructed in the late 1880s. There was immediately some obvious structural damage to the building, but I was charmed by the Tiffany-blue interior, the 13-foot ceilings, the bay windows in my room and my five wonderful roommates. Because of these cosmetic, surface level attractions, I thought I would be able to ignore the sagging floorboards or the occasional sparking electrical outlet.

“The house has always been something we stopped and looked at for as long as we lived on this street,” said Tio Hernandez, one of my neighbors. “But after a while it wasn’t because the house looked good no more. It was because it was starting to crumble.”

In August of 2020, I had my very first encounter with the dangers the house on Willoughby Avenue posed. I was taking the trash out and inadvertently stepped on a rotted piece of plywood painted the same terracotta shade as the concrete surrounding it. Instantly my foot burst through the structure and I collapsed down the flight of stairs leading to the basement that the decomposed basement cover had concealed. Luckily I only sustained superficial injuries, but the incident itself led to a series of confrontations from our hostile landlord. Initially he accused me of tampering with the basement in order to lead to my fall, then claimed I had never fallen down in the first place, before finally saying he would fix the damages. 

After enduring months of endless new property damages and a second personal injury – where my bedroom window gusted into my room at a high speed hitting me in the face – my household decided to call 311, a NYC citizen hotline of sorts that allows individuals to seek help for numerous types of disputes, COVID related questions, report power outages and other public issues. We contacted the hotline to request an inspection of the property to be conducted in order to document the lack of repairs and inaction on the part of our landlord.

Following the inspection, on Dec 22, 2020 my household awoke to several alarming notices attached to our front door. The most glaring of them all reading in bolded print “The City of New York has deemed this property uninhabitable and all residents must vacate the property within seven days”. 

On Dec 29, 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed and approved an eviction ban or moratorium, essentially establishing that no one in the state could be evicted from their homes on the basis of COVID-19 related non rental payment. Tenants must show documentation of a “COVID related hardship” that led to their inability to continually pay rent in order to qualify and benefit from this moratorium. However, this new eviction ban doesn’t protect many populations of New Yorkers who are facing housing instability or homelessness. 

New Yorkers – like me – who were forced to vacate their homes due to unsafe living conditions documented by New York City’s Housing Preservation & Development office (HPD), are not protected by Cuomo’s eviction moratorium because they don’t meet the criteria necessary for federal protection. Because of this, thousands of tenants are threatened with homelessness if they cannot or do not have the means to relocate or find new dwellings by the allotted time frame. 

“It is really a frightening prospect for many tenants who maybe don’t have the means or options to live in safer homes or are being threatened by predatory landlords,” said Alexander Morris, a volunteer with the mutual aid group, Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED). 

One perhaps unforeseen silver lining in the struggle for equitable housing and defense against exploitatory landlords is the increase in community organization and aid. When I first moved to NYC, it was my expectation that I wouldn’t necessarily be embraced by my surrounding community. Perhaps there would be polite interactions and daliences, but I subscribed to the belief that New Yorkers simply weren’t neighborly and didn’t concern themselves with the everyday goings of the strangers around them. However, I was entirely mistaken.

The day we woke up to the vacate notice I called several mutual aid groups and free legal service hotlines to see what, if anything, could be done to advocate for myself and my roommates. Immediately I was met with an outpouring of support, concern for my well being, and an abundance of help.

One day my landlord threatened to come and illegally change the locks before Dec 29, the day we were supposed to leave the premises. Fearing for my safety and my belongings, I contacted Brooklyn Eviction Defense and within 30 minutes, nearly 15 volunteers arrived to physically block anyone from Smart Equities or my landlord himself from entering the premises. This constant circulation and rotation of strangers were not only putting their own health and wellbeing at risk, but doing so because they knew we needed help and didn’t have any other options or resources. And BED is only one of dozens of similar organizations in the five boroughs that offer similar services. 

“When I was being illegally evicted from my home on Dean street this summer, I couldn’t believe the sheer amount of people who showed up for us,” said Scout Gottfried, a tenant who was this past summer similarly embroiled in a tenant-landlord housing dispute. “I mean, our community raised thousands of dollars for us during the whole ordeal, brought us meals regularly, and stood guard in front of our house to make sure we were ok. It was something beautiful during such a horrendous ordeal”.

While the dramatics of my own housing dilemma are drawing to a close – squatters recently occupied the vacant hull of the building I used to call home and we have attended our last virtual NYC housing court proceeding – it is obvious that the coronavirus pandemic will only continue to intensify the dire housing situation in this city. With thousands of tenants facing eviction come May when the eviction moratorium is lifted, it is imperative that we continue to serve the needs of those facing housing insecurity and enact a more exhaustive eviction moratorium for the duration of the pandemic.