In Twist, Tenant Who Was Forced Out Will Displace One Who Moved In
Tranquilina Alvillar has spent three years waiting for this moment.
On Friday, barring any last-minute legal maneuvering, Ms. Alvillar, 50, a street vendor who sells used clothing and plastic trinkets, will be able to return home to her apartment in a five-floor walk-up on Bedford Avenue, one block from the L train stop in the hipster heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Ms. Alvillar, who speaks only a few words of English, had lived in the rent-stabilized one-bedroom on the second floor at 193 Bedford, between North Sixth and North Seventh Streets, for a quarter-century, since coming to this country from Mexico.
Then, in 2011, the landlord began renovating the building, removing walls and tearing up floors. There were also problems with the heat. Ms. Alvillar stuck it out, continuing to pay her $700 monthly rent, until August, when a city building inspector ordered her to leave, declaring the home uninhabitable and an “imminent danger to life.”
In November 2012, Jennifer Pagano, along with her father, signed a lease on a newly finished apartment on the second floor at 193 Bedford, for just under $2,900 a month.
What the Paganos did not know was that Ms. Alvillar was fighting for the apartment in court. In 2013, she sued the landlord, claiming she had been illegally locked out. And in June, a Housing Court judge ruled in her favor. Now, a city marshal is scheduled to evict Ms. Pagano on Friday if she does not leave on her own. It is unclear if she will.
“It is pretty dramatic,” said Deborah VanAmerongen, a strategic policy adviser at the law firm Nixon Peabody and a former commissioner of the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal. “Typically in Housing Court they would be unwilling to reverse a tenant in residency, even for a tenant who had been moved out unfairly. Usually there is a civil money penalty, but it is very uncommon to evict another tenant.”
As the luxury real estate market has surged, landlords with buildings in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant have worked at a frenzied pace to transform their properties into expensive rentals. In some cases, unscrupulous landlords have taken hammers to their own buildings to make them so unsafe the city must vacate what are often rent-stabilized tenants. The empty buildings can then be gut-renovated and the apartments rented at much higher prices.
This spring, in hopes of curtailing such activity, the Buildings Department; the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development; and the Fire Department created an inspection team to identify questionable construction or building conditions.
“The key here is that we have gone from a reactive position to a proactive position,” said Timothy Hogan, the Buildings Department’s deputy commissioner of enforcement. “There are bad-actor landlords who have gone out of their way to create scenarios that force us to vacate tenants, and now we can stop them before it gets to that point.”
Despite those efforts, “on the ground, I don’t see any changes or improvement,” said Shekar Krishnan, a director at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, a nonprofit legal organization that represents Ms. Alvillar. He added: “It is certainly strange to be on the other side of an eviction, but it also feels so good to know Tranquilina can finally go home.”
For her part, Ms. Alvillar finds it all a bit overwhelming. Since leaving her apartment, she has been living with a nephew in Coney Island, Brooklyn. It is too far to travel to Bedford Avenue to sell her wares, so she has eked out a living cleaning houses.
While she was away, her building was transformed. Where once there were cramped kitchens and windowless bathrooms, there are now hardwood floors, exposed brick and stainless steel appliances. Tile and decorative wood line the building’s entryway; industrial light fixtures and artwork hang on the walls.
“This has been very difficult, very devastating, and I’m scared that the landlord will try and intimidate me again,” Ms. Alvillar said through an interpreter. “The building is now for people who have a lot of money, who can pay big, expensive rents. I hope it will be O.K.”
Tenants at 193 Bedford seemed unaware of what had taken place around them.
“Wow, I had no idea,” said Selma Radzivanovich, 20, a student at the New School who lives above Ms. Alvillar’s apartment in a two-bedroom place that she shares with a roommate, each of them paying $1,700 a month. “That is awful that the girl downstairs is just going to get evicted even though she did nothing wrong,” Ms. Radzivanovich added, while acknowledging the unfairness involved “for the other tenant who was forced out.”
In the court case, Ms. Alvillar’s landlord, Reno Capital L.L.C., argued that she could not return to her apartment because it no longer existed — the units had been reconfigured to such an extent that her home was essentially gone. “In essence, respondents argue that they may evade compliance with administrative and judicial orders by simply ignoring them and, as the saying goes, creating facts on the ground,” Judge Jean T. Schneider, the supervising judge for the Kings County Housing Court, wrote in her decision.
Judge Schneider dismissed this argument, saying the unit’s layout had stayed substantially the same. “This is not, however, in any sense a determination ‘against’ Jennifer Pagano,” the judge added. “She and her father are good and decent people who have not done anything wrong. They just had the misfortune of renting an apartment from an unscrupulous landlord that was trying to evade its responsibility to an existing tenant.”
Earlier this month, a state appeals court effectively ended the case by denying a request by the landlord and the Paganos that Judge Schneider’s ruling be stayed pending appeal. A representative of Carnegie Management Inc., the property manager, could not be reached for comment. Calls to the lawyers representing Reno Capital and to lawyers representing Ms. Pagano were also not returned.
“It is amazing,” Ms. Alvillar said through tears. “I cannot express what it means to me to be able to go back home.”