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Williamsburg Tenants Unite Against Robert Durst's Wife

By Gwynne Hogan | March 14, 2016 8:50am
 Tenants at 218 South Third Street lost gas in December and have been dealing with mold leaks.
218 South Third Street
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WILLIAMSBURG — The estranged wife of murder suspect Robert Durst has served rent-regulated tenants with eviction attempts, skimped on repairs and cut off basic services — all in an attempt to gentrify the building, residents say. 

Felipe Fernandez, 66, a retired school bus driver who has lived at the 218 South Third St. property since he moved in with his mother from the Dominican Republic when he was 21, said he has depleted his life-savings staving off evictions, in the more than seven times he said landlords attempted to get him to leave the building.

His landlords have tried but failed to get him out after his mother moved out of the unit in 2010 to a first-floor apartment, and then a nursing home, where she lived until she died in 2012.

Fernandez estimates he's shelled out about $70,000 in legal fees related to the eviction attempts, he said.

The most recent case was thrown out a few weeks ago, he said.

"Everything, everything I had saved," said Fernandez in Spanish. "Now I'm paying from my pension."

Every time he wins a case, the landlord starts a new one, he said.

Since mid-December residents of his building, with 41-units and more than 60 tenants, have been without gas, though that didn't much matter for Fernandez, whose stove was removed from his apartment decades ago.

Severe mold has colonized one of the walls.

And just last week workers shut off the water in his shower after more than a year of persistent leaking, he said. No one will give him an estimate for when he can expect repairs.

When the cooking gas was cut off in mid-December without warning, 60 residents banded together to form a tenant association, electing Fernandez's daughter Cindy Fernandez, a 33-year-old school safety agent who lives across the hall, as their president.

"[They] go home to [their] big houses, while we struggle to [cook] a cup of rice," she said about the building management. "I have a 6-year-old son. He's been asking for a cake since Christmas."

"It's frustrating," said Cindy Fernandez, who believes the landlords are hoping that the decades-old building tenants will accept buyouts and leave. "[They're hoping] we just decide to get up and go."

She said they've been offered $300,000 for her son, her father and her to move out.

Since forming, the tenant group started making 311 complaints, which residents said they'd feared doing until then.  

"We've always been very quiet people," said Maria Taveras, 44, who has lived in the building for 15 years and grew up around the corner. "You wouldn't even ask to get [things] fixed, you'd just get a relative or somebody to fix it.

"But the gas was a problem that obviously none of us could resolve on our own," she said.

Residents are getting a 15 percent discount on their rents while they've been without gas, but their electricity bills have gone up since they're cooking everything on hot plates, tenants said. 

Since tenants organized, BCB Property Management, owned by Robert Durst's estranged wife Debrah Lee Charatan, and her son from a former marriage, Bennat Berger, started to chip away at the 200-plus building violations and repainted hallways and the lobby and replaced the windows in the common areas. Durst, heir to a New York City real estate magnate, pleaded guilty last month to weapons possession and is awaiting trial on charges he killed his longtime friend Susan Berman in California.

BCB, which bought the South Third Street building in February 2015 for $12.74 million, according to property and business records, has been known to shut off basic services and forgo repairs, DNAinfo New York has previously reported.

On Jan. 29, management filed for permits to fix the gas lines, but it still hasn't been turned on, according to building department records and tenants. Construction on the gas lines began last Monday, tenants say.

Cindy Fernandez attributes this progress to the tenant's unity and their ability to overcome fear of retaliation.

"At the end of the day this is your house," she said. "They know I'm a fighter."

BCB Property Management did not return a request for comment.