‘Any hipster that believes in justice’: A call to Williamsburg’s newcomers, and their landlords

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Diana Reyna and tenant leaders. (Dan Rosenblum)
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For moment, the only thing standing between older and newer residents of Williamsburg was a dumpster.

On one side of the yellow cart at 193 Beford Avenue, 40 housing activists and tenants, many of them Hispanic, held a rally to shame landlords who they accused of maneuvers to evict them from neighborhood apartments.

As they blocked the sidewalk, residents, many of them young and white, watched from the other side of the dumpster or across the street, or from the open fronts of restaurants.

Standing with the activists, Evelyn Cruz, a representative of congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, pointed out that their movement represented locals living there “prior to when anyone knew where the Williamsburg Bridge was” during the era of crack, high crime, and arson outbreaks, and urged the newcomers to join the tenants.

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“Any hipster that believes in justice, any hipster that believes in progress, any hipster that believes that hardworking low-income tenants deserve a decent and affordable place to live, we invite you to join this coalition,” she told the crowd.

The rally was the latest in a series of actions against landlords who neighborhood housing activists accuse of arson, evictions, and trumped up vacate orders used to displace low-income tenants, many living in rent stabilized apartments, to mark up rents for wealthier newcomers.

The leaders said those were common techniques in a neighborhood which has outpaced even Manhattan in rent increases.

One of the leaders, Martin Needelman, a longtime lawyer for the housing group Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, said the landlords do illegal work to make the buildings structurally unsound, then claim justification to kick out tenants and do repair work

They presented the five-story building on Bedford Avenue, clad in scaffolding, as an example.

Domingos Fialho, a former tenant there, said he went to housing court to stop demolition work on the building. He blamed the dust for putting his wife in the hospital.

Citing structural risks, the buildings department last summer issued a vacate order to the remaining residential tenants but not to the two commercial tenants below, a nail salon and a Tasti D Lite. The colorful pink and blue detailing of the ice cream shop contrasted with the worn door to the apartment building, which was covered in buildings department permits and graffiti.

Needelman, representing tenants in six area buildings, called the double standard “illegal and inappropriate.”

“I was not there to see that a bribe was given, but it’s hard for me to imagine that a building inspector would do that if he was acting rationally and legally,” Needelman said.

Another nearby tenant, Jadwiga Bronte, moved from England 11 months ago, and accused landlord Jamal Alokasheh of allowing workers to destroy her apartment on North Eighth Street and subsequently denying she was a tenant.

“I am surprised,” she said. “Things like that never happen in Europe.”

At one point during the rally, Needelman identified a man standing across the street as Isaac Jacob, the landlord of the Bedford Avenue building. A few protesters to began to boo him and chant “shame” at him. A News 12 television crew, which happened to be standing near him, asked questions. He said little and walked south down the block.

Speaking to the crowd, Councilwoman Diana Reyna, said she was a victim of the same displacement by a string of six landlords over 13 years, include one who turned off the utilities.

“That’s not a mistake, that is engineered to take out people, to take out families, to make a quick buck,” she told the crowd. “We are more valuable than just making a quick buck.”

Afterward, Reyna called for an investigation into the inspection work at 193 Bedford Avenue.

“I am going to question, with the buildings department, the timeline and the actions or the failed actions that led to this conclusion,” she said.

Needelman said hearings for the various cases were scheduled through the summer. He said the courts, city agencies and lawyers for tenants rights groups were overwhelmed, but he confident about the conclusion.

“Sometimes it takes three years, sometimes it takes five years, but we always win,” he said.