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How my $600/month Bushwick loft turned into a renter's worst nightmare

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The recently converted apartment on Bushwick Avenue was in a mixed-use building, but I did not anticipate that "crime scene" would be among its uses when I signed a lease back in May 2011.

I'd just moved to Brooklyn from Pittsburgh two weeks prior. Armed with a couple thousand dollars and no concrete plans upon my arrival, somehow everything fell together within the first week almost without effort—a little too easy you might say. I landed a local news reporter job for a big public media company, despite having zero contacts at the station. Two friends from college—we'll call them Joe and Eric—happened to be moving out of their respective parents’ homes in Hell’s Kitchen and Floral Park, Long Island.

The three of us agreed to move in together somewhere that was (a) dirt cheap and (b) outfitted for the 24-year-old male bachelor lifestyle, i.e. big enough for band practice, a moped and a pool table.

We found the place, a former doctor's office, on Craigslist—a labyrinth of a space with 15-foot-high drop ceilings in a single-floor fortress dressed in worn red brick. The three bedrooms, either one-time offices or examination rooms, looked like cubes situated oddly within a much larger, cavernous room that was perfectly suited for post-collegiate horseplay. The entire apartment looked as though it had been slapped together with whatever cheap materials the contractor had lying around; the kitchen wall was pocked with dents from the pressure of people leaning against it. 

As is the case with many new "lofts" in Bushwick these days, basically just slapdash conversions with high ceilings, the landlord was a distant Oz-like figure we'd never meet; business matters were handled through a Brooklyn property management company that shall remain nameless. Before we even signed the lease, it took about five minutes of research online to conclude that the conversion skirted even the most obvious city regulations, namely the fact that it wasn't zoned for people to live there. It was all shady from the start, but the allure of a bargain—$2,250 a month—and, I sensed, a landlord who wouldn't complain about the aforementioned band practice, seemed a worthwhile trade off. 

When we first met the rep from the management firm at the lease signing, he was rushing between a million things, a pool of sweat leaking through both the front and back of his polo shirt. Finally we got his attention. “There are no bars on the windows,” I complained.

“Oh, no big deal, man. You can get them for $20 at Home Depot.”

After some back and forth at the property manager’s desk, he finally agreed to a clause in the lease that said the company would install the bars before we moved in. There were some other small, probably illicit oddities in the lease that I was willing to ignore, like a lack of smoke alarms. I didn't mind living on the margins of the law if it meant $600 rent.

Initially, the only big problem was that the contractor didn't finish the renovation until two weeks after we were scheduled to move in. On the sunny side, while I slept on Joe's parents' couch in Hell's Kitchen waiting for my home to be ready, the construction guys said I could lock all of my stuff in their storage room behind the apartment. That's how I discovered this dimly lit purgatory sealed by two bombproof steel doors—just a tiny, dingy room—in between my apartment and an adjacent store that sold photo decal t-shirts. Very strange. 

We finally moved in, then came June and the city got hot. It was the hottest summer on record in 75 years. And once that heatwave started, the shootings followed. And we still didn't have bars on the windows. I was emailing the manager so often the messages were eventually reduced to things like: “Bars? Today?”

But it didn't matter that we never got bars because the guy who broke in just kicked in the flimsy front door. Joe and I were out at separate establishments. Unlucky Eric was asleep at home. He woke up and, through the little window on the wall of his cube room, saw someone close my bedroom door. Thinking I might have invited friends over, he walked into the hall to see who was there. The bandit was disguised in a big hood and bandana so Eric didn't see the guy's face when he said “Better call 911.” The bandit then jabbed Eric in the nose: concealed between his fingers was a razor blade that dug deep down into my roommate's right nostril. The ol' razor-blade-punching technique is meant to stun. You get a lot of blood out of someone that way, but there's far less risk of accidentally killing the victim than there is with a knife. Still, the razor came so close to Eric's eye. 

In the end, he was fine. An ambulance took him to the hospital and today the only physical reminder of the assault is a thin pale scar that I think gives him character. The bandit only stole my stuff: my MacBook and my dead grandfather's antique camera. It could have been worse, though. I'd rather lose my stuff than my nose.

We moved everything out of the apartment the next day and I was back on my roommate's parents' couch that night. The management company didn't even return my calls for five days after I left a furious voicemail detailing what had happened. Over the course of the next month, while Joe stayed with his parents and Eric and I moved into a third-floor apartment with heavy duty window bars, I emailed and phoned everyone I could access at the company. We were never even given the landlord’s number. One person would usually stop returning my calls and then I'd start from scratch with the next person the company pawned off on me. A letter from a lawyer friend finally yielded an email from the firm's co-owner, who said we could break the lease. We didn't get our security deposits back, of course, but they didn't get their last month's rent either, and also I peed all over the kitchen while we were moving out. I figure the score is even.

I walked by the place just the other day for the first time in three years. It looks like they've got people living in it. They've got bars on the windows now and a reinforced door, too.

Related:

Inside stories: Real New Yorkers spill their real estate stories

A chic share on the outskirts of trendy Bushwick

The unexpected benefits of an absentee landlord

Renting off the L train: What does it cost, and what do you really get?

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