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Inside Story: My landlord poisoned me

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I had just moved to Manhattan, and I found what seemed like the perfect studio.

It was on the first floor of a gorgeous 18th century brownstone on a street of other gorgeous brownstones in the West Village.  It had high ceilings, a fireplace, a garden in the back and it was beautifully furnished by the owner of the brownstone, who at the time was the editor-at-large of a high-end decorating magazine.

He seemed nice, a very handsome guy, and it was all a seemingly beautiful experience.  I was a nice Midwestern girl and he probably saw a sucker coming.

I moved into the apartment in May 2008 after signing a year's lease at $2,900 a month and paying a $7,500 broker's fee.  

Over the summer he started renovating the basement beneath my apartment, and by September, I was sick.

I starting getting so tired I couldn’t work more than five minutes at a time without having to take a nap.   My brain was foggy. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t do paperwork.  I couldn’t focus on numbers.  I came down with multiple lung infections.  I basically laid down and played dead. I’m an entrepreneur running a one-woman clothing business and I could barely function.

I had been a healthy person my entire life. I didn’t know what was wrong.  I thought maybe I couldn’t handle the pollution in Manhattan.

My doctors said my adrenal system was out of whack and the blood tests showed anemia.   

It turned out that the construction my landlord was doing beneath my apartment had given me lead poisoning, causing the lethargy and fogginess. And silica dust—the dust from demolition of concrete and plaster—was causing my lung infections.

My landlord was doing all this work without permits in the basement.   Among the many unsafe and unregulated things he did was tear out the back basement wall and leave it open for months. The draft blasted dust up through the holes in my floor into my apartment.  (It was freezing—I slept in a full length shearling coat and winter scarf wrapped around my head.)

Also, he illegally torched a fire escape outside my one and only window. It was full of lead paint and rust, and the dust blew into my apartment.

I told him that I kept getting sick and that I thought it was from the construction. 

He said, “Well, the construction guys aren’t getting sick.”  But they were wearing masks. And I could hear them hacking away in the basement.

In the spring, I hired an environmental engineer who found extremely elevated levels of lead dust, asbestos dust and silica dust in my apartment.

But by that time I knew what a crazy, nasty man my landlord was.

For example, almost from the beginning he had been harassing me about my two cats. They were clearly on my application form, but he claimed he didn’t know about them and wanted me to get rid of them.  He started leaving bags of dog poop on my doorstep because he was convinced I was improperly throwing away the kitty litter.  I was literally afraid he might poison them when I left them alone on the weekends.

I went to the Department of Buildings and found many violations. I also researched his court history: He’s been sued by lots of tenants--court case after court case. He lets people sue him because he assumes some will just walk away.  Also, I found out that he had illegally de-rent-controlled the apartment I was living in.

Even though I had an environmental report proving how toxic my apartment was, my business was struggling, and I basically just wanted to get out of that apartment and get my security deposit back.  (It’s been over a year and he still hasn’t given me the deposit back.)

In May 2009 I rented a condo in a brand new building in the Financial District. It took until the following January to start to recover.  It’s still in my throat. If I’m around dust, for example, my throat gets sore.

I've consulted with a few lawyers. I tell them how I lived with asbestos and lead for a year.  That I might get cancer. That I lost half my income.  And that my ex-landlord did this deliberately and intentionally and knows he’s doing wrong.

Personal injury lawyers say this is a tough case to prove unless I actually have cancer or mesothelioma (from asbestos exposure).  That doesn't show up for quite some time after exposure.

One lawyer offered to sue my landlord’s insurance company but explained that I would probably have to sign something preventing me from suing again if I did get cancer.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen.

I have to live knowing I could get cancer from something my landlord did, and I believe he should pay.  But at this point, I need to save my company and my livelihood, and I can’t afford to lose focus.

If anyone has any suggestions, I would really appreciate hearing from you.

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