CENTRAL HARLEM — The city is suing the owner of a dilapidated landmarked rowhouse in order to hammer home a message — fix it.
In a rare move, the city Landmarks Preservation Commission filed a lawsuit earlier this month against Nina Justiniano to compel her to rehab her red-bricked home on historic Astor Row in Central Harlem.
The interior floors and walls of the 133-year-old three-story home have collapsed and most of the roof is missing after years of neglect.
The commission, which has only filed 13 lawsuits like this in the past 12 years, took the unusual step after repeatedly requesting the work since 2012. City law requires landmarked homes to remain in good repair.
The lawsuit asks a judge to fine Justiniano $5,000 a day until she renovates the home.
“For almost three years, the commission has been trying to have Justiniano make repairs to the building, but to no avail,” the lawsuit says.
Justiniano, 63, told DNAinfo New York that she wants to rehab the landmarked property — and even has a contractor lined up — but she is strapped for cash.
The city school nurse said she needs to sell the home where she lives in Queens to drum up the money, but the commission refuses to be patient while she reels in a buyer.
“I’ve been going through hell. All I have to do is sell the house I’m in to get that money,” she said.
Justiniano said she bought the landmarked property 28 years ago for $29,999.99. The home is one of 28 semi-attached row houses that the Astors, one of New York's wealthiest families, built in the 1880s.
The homes sit along the south side of West 130th Street between Lennox Avenue and Fifth Avenue. They’re known for their Victorian-style front wooden porches.
Justiniano said when she purchased the house, “the neighborhood was very, very bad,” so she didn’t move in. “I did not want to subject my grandson to the drugs and crime.”
Even though her extended family all lived in Harlem, she moved to South Ozone Park with her husband, children and grandkids.
In the last three decades, Harlem has been transformed. Crime is down, property prices have soared and nearly all of the Astor Row houses have been rehabbed.
With the help of a $1.7 million grant from philanthropist Brooke Astor, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a nonprofit, helped renovate 25 of the 28 porches in the 1990s.
Peg Breen, the conservancy’s president, said the porch on Justiniano’s home wasn’t repaired because the home was vacant.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission began sending notices to Justiniano about the state of the property three years ago. The house is boarded up and vandalized with graffiti. A large “Keep Out” sign is affixed to the front door.
Lynford Woodhouse, who lives in the Astor Row home next to Justiniano’s, said the owner and her husband used to come clean the front yard, but he hadn’t seen anybody at the property for years.
“They don’t come no more. I don’t know what happened,” he said.
Woodhouse said that Justiniano’s house is also missing a gutter, causing rainwater to leak into the ceiling of his building.
Despite its poor shape, Justiniano’s Astor Row home continues to draw unwelcomed offers from real estate agents eager to snatch up a fixer-upper in the gentrified neighborhood.
“The real estate people have been calling to the point where they come to my house and knock on my door,” she said, adding that she believes the home is worth as much as $900,000.
Justiniano said she believes the commission is pressuring her to sell the home.
The commission declined to comment because the matter is being litigated.
The commission is tasked with designating historically significant properties as landmarks. It is also responsible for regulating 33,000 properties that have the designation.
The majority of landmarked properties are well-maintained, the commission said, but a small fraction have to make voluntary repairs. It takes legal action against those who don’t.
The commission’s lawsuit — filed in Manhattan Supreme Court — says that Justiniano keeps stalling on renovations.
She told the commission that she was trying to obtain a low-interest loan to rehab the house, according to the lawsuit. Then she said she was going to pay for the repairs by selling her Queens home.
She claims she is waiting for a higher bid on her South Ozone Park home, which has been on the market since spring 2014.
Justiniano said once she sells the Queens property, she’ll move in with friends and spend $300,000 to repair the Astor Row home. She intends to live there with her daughter once it is complete.
“I got faith I’m moving into that building come hell or high water, no matter how many suits they serve on me,” she said.