Unrelenting noise, dust, garbage, pest infestations: these are just some of the issues that tenants at 184 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg say they've been contending with for months now.
The luxury rental building, which spans an entire block along the Brooklyn waterfront, was purchased by Jared Kushner's Kushner Companies in 2015, which then began converting the apartments to condos, renaming it the Austin Nichols House. (Upon his appointment as a senior White House advisor, Kushner resigned from his position as CEO of Kushner Companies, but is still a stakeholder, according to the New York Times.)
Renters allege that the conversion of the building to condos has been plagued with problems that have rendered their homes increasingly unlivable. Earlier this year, Brick reported on a series of fires in the building that one former resident said she suspected could be a tactic to push out stabilized renters. Westminster Management, the building's management company, said at the time that the culprit was a mentally ill resident, Gothamist reported. The following month, Gothamist publicized a video that showed a mouse circling a baby's crib in the building, quoting tenants who referred to not only vermin infestations but also other problems stemming from construction of neighboring units.
Now, one fed-up resident, a German TV reporter and documentary filmmaker named Sabine Anton has released a new video revealing just how noisy the work to gut renovate the converted apartments has become. In addition to revealing the cacophony that she says is making it impossible to work from home, the video shows demolition trucks idling in front of her window and sending white dust into the air, scaffolding covering the building facade, workers lounging in the hallways, and extensive damage to building walls.
Anton, a tenant for six years, frequently handles video pre- and post-production from home and conducts interviews over Skype, which she says is now often impossible due to construction noise.
"Forget about ever sleeping in. I cannot make phone calls anymore, I can't do interviews," she tells Brick Underground. "Management says, 'Why don't you take your computer elsewhere?', but that's a serious inconvenience."
In a letter to the building's property manager, Westminster Management, Anton detailed this and other issues she says she has been facing since condo conversions began, including dirt and dust resulting from construction coming through her windows and door, which she needs to clean daily; rats and mice in the building; entrances blocked by workers and construction materials and numerous workers and security staff on her floor, often carrying heavy equipment.
(When contacted for this story, a spokesperson for Kushner Companies declined to comment; Westminster Management didn't respond to a request for comment.)
Tenants fight back
Construction-related complaints from tenants are increasingly common across the boroughs, according to Rolando Guzman, deputy director of community preservation for the North Brooklyn-based tenant advocacy group St. Nick's Alliance.
"Aggressive and disruptive construction is a pattern that is happening throughout New York City, and one issue we've noticed is that it takes a while for the Department of Buildings to respond [to 311 complaints]," he says. "Even when the DOB goes to a building and finds work permit violations, the fines are so little that we think there's not a real consequence for owners to comply with the law."
In response to the increasingly widespread problem of disruptive construction, Guzman says that several organizations have formed a coalition called Stand for Tenant Safety, and are developing legislation to reform the DOB's process of handling violations.
"We think the best way to address issues is when tenants come together and create tenant associations," Guzman says.
Tenants at 184 Kent did try this. Initially, Anton explains, renters were given the option to renew their leases or buy their apartments. For the former, the management company said it would honor leases until 2025. When construction-related issues began arising, some residents formed a tenants' association and hired a lawyer to help those interested in buying their apartments to do so, as well as to help renters secure a lease renewal and rent abatement for their troubles.
"Our apartments are stabilized for another 10 years; nobody will buy an apartment that's stabilized [as it isn't a good investment because of lower rent payments]. We assumed they'd come around with an offer, but the offer was market rate prices to buy the apartment," Anton explains.
Having two groups of tenants with different interests may have affected their bargaining power.
"Like in any other collective group, having a unified front in terms of what you are asking for is the best approach," Guzman explains. "It all depends on the leverage you have."
Meanwhile, Anton continues, conditions have only worsened; some of the construction workers on site seem to be unaware that there are even tenants living in the building, she said.
"It's really taking a toll on my well-being and I'm getting really edgy," Anton says. "We did have a meeting with three representatives from a renters' group and they said they've never seen anything like this happening in a building like this one. Usually, this type of tactic is used in low-income areas." (A StreetEasy search reveals that a one-bedroom apartment at 184 Kent rented for as much as $4,500 in 2015.)
Guzman says that St. Nick's typically works with low-income rent-stabilized tenants, and a strategy that has worked well for them is coming up with specific demands for their buildings.
"Usually if the problem is construction-related, they demand that the construction be within the frame of the law. Sometimes landlords might ask for work permits for weekends, and we ask them to leave the weekends alone so people can rest," he said. "In some cases tenants feel they are entitled to an abatement because of disruptions of services--that is within the frame of the ask that tenant associations can do."
As it turns out, renters aren't the only ones who are complaining about conditions at 184 Kent. The Daily News reports that another tenant, the owners of an Italian restaurant called La Nonna, stopped paying rent in response to the ongoing construction. The owners allege that renovations are creating excessive noise and messiness that is dissuading potential customers; they add that the fires that broke out last year led to water damage from building sprinkler systems. They're now being sued for nonpayment of rent by a Kushner holding company.
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