BROOKLYN — Tenants of a Franklin Avenue apartment building were forced out of their homes by the city after their landlord illegally constructed a building in their backyard and made it unsafe for them to live in their homes.
Najary Torres and her three daughters were awoken at midnight on July 14, 2015 by Red Cross workers, who had come to enforce a full vacate order on the 94 Franklin Ave. property — issued by the city due to the landlord's illegal construction, according to Torres, DOB records and a lawsuit she and two other tenants filed against her landlord.
They've been living at a homeless shelter ever since, and the whole experience has left her children "traumatized," she said.
“They feel very unsafe, everything has been extremely difficult. It’s life changing to them,” Torres said in Spanish through a translator.
“What my daughters went though psychologically will never be remedied, it will never be the same for them. My daughters are going through a lot and they’re afraid of a lot of things.”
The nightmare started in May 2014, when tenants were told that construction work would begin in their backyard, where Torres said her family often played when the weather was warm.
Their landlord, Tiferes Yehuda Family Trust, did not provide details about what exactly the construction would entail, but soon after the warning, they began to see a wall rise behind their home, Torres said.
Construction was allowed to continue at the four-story building — which houses 7-8 units, according to tenants — for more than a year until July 2015, when the Department of Buildings issued a full stop work order for building a 45-foot-long, 20-foot-high "masonry block and steel enlargement" at the site without a work permit.
The DOB also issued a full vacate order for blocking a passageway to Torres' building, calling it a safety hazard to tenants.
Tenants were forced to vacate in the middle of the night, and were unable to take all their belongings, residents and their lawyers aid.
While Torres has been living in a shelter, other tenants have moved in with their relatives or are paying rent at a higher price in another apartment because they haven't been able to return, according to court documents.
One of the residents, who said in court papers that he suffers from epilepsy, returned to the apartment after the vacate order and stayed until heat and hot water were shut off weeks later, court documents show.
When residents were able to return to the building on a occasion to retrieve their belongings, they found that a pipe had burst, leaving water damage throughout their apartments, in addition to other conditions including a rat infestation and rotting floors, according to tenants and court documents.
So far, the DOB has issued six violations against the property for the illegal construction — including the stop work and full vacate orders — which still remain open, according to the agency's records.
The DOB has also issued more than $7,000 in fines, none of which have been paid, records show.
"The building owner's disregard for their tenants is unacceptable and illegal," a DOB spokesman said Wednesday. "DOB has taken multiple enforcement actions at this building but it appears that the owners are determined to do the wrong thing.
"Accordingly, we are issuing a Commissioner's Order requiring the owners to address the life-safety hazards at this building, and we will pursue additional enforcement actions, including criminal proceedings, if they do not comply."
Criminal proceedings would entail taking the landlord to court to force them to comply and to pay a penalty, the spokesman said.
But so far none of these actions have forced the landlord to remedy the situation, residents are paying for it everyday and the city could do more to help, according to the tenants' lawyers.
“What’s also very frustrating to us is you have more and more landlords with bad intentions who are for many reasons looking for ways to force out existing tenants either through eviction process or provoking existing city agencies to do their dirty work,” said Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A attorney Jean Stevens, who represents the tenants.
“We believe the agencies have good intentions but they can really be empowered to push back against landlords and say, ‘Sorry, this isn’t going to fall on the tenants’ shoulders.”
Three of the tenants, who have lived in rent-stabilized apartments in the building for at least 9 years, filed a lawsuit against the landlord in housing court on March 9, asking a judge to take the property away from Tiferes Yehuda Family Trust.
They're seeking to let a court-appointed administrator manage the building as part of the 7a program, according to Stevens.
A representative for Tiferes, who declined to be named, said on Wednesday the new structure was set to be a one-story community facility, and the owner had not intended for the tenants to "leave their apartments forever."
“We felt very bad for them and really wanted them to have a roof over their heads,” the representative said, adding that they notified the residents about changing locks and providing them access.
“Unfortunately while building, things happen and they did issue some violations, but we are not there to put them into danger and we are not there to put them out of the building.”
There’s been a “financial burden” on the management since the tenants have left, the rep added, and they are working to get the residents back.
On Thursday morning, the representative for Tiferes emailed DNAinfo to say that a new management team has been hired to help with repairs so that tenants could return.
“We look forward to welcoming all of our tenants back and doing everything that we can to make that happen as quickly as possible,” the representatives said in the email. “We fully sympathize with the tenants who have been dealing with an extremely trying situation for months and hope to be able to resolve these issues in a timely fashion.”
On Wednesday, the representative said the company was also working on plans for a second way of egress, but that still does not address the issue that construction has been going on with no permits or approval from city agencies.
Allowance to build a structure on the same lot as an existing building is dependent on plans submitted to the DOB, according to the agency, and a plan examiner would need to determine whether an application is compliant with the NYC Construction and Zoning Resolution.
But no permit was applied or issued for the second structure, according to the DOB.
In addition, an application was filed in August 2015 to repair and relocate an existing fire escape ladder, and was approved in October 2015.
But the application was revoked by the Borough Commissioner this month because of an incomplete application, according to an official.
Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A held a rally in front of the Franklin Avenue building on Thursday to advocate against tenant displacement and illegal construction as harassment, according to organizers.
Torres said she’s hoping her situation will help others like her.
“I want people like me and my family who are hard working and have suffered quite a bit to stay in a stable community where they can grow, where their children can go to school in a safe town,” she said.
“We all bleed the same. I want the laws that we’re working with to help everyone equally.”