by Grant Moser
On a Sunday afternoon in February 2002, the landlord, Phil
Gjenashi, left 27 Olive Street, leaving workers in the basement.
Within 45 minutes, they came running out of the apartment
building because a fire had started in the basement. The
building quickly filled up with black smoke and residents
had to scurry out into the back courtyard. Anney McKilligan,
who lived in the rear carriage house, helped her neighbors
wriggle out her back windows to a neighbor's back yard.
That was 18 months ago. Anney, and at least one other resident,
just moved back in on Monday, July 7, 2003.
The apartment building had changed landlords at least three
times since McKilligan first moved in; way back in December
1998. Jokes floated around about the house being won and
lost in poker games. When Gjenashi became the owner in October
2001, McKilligan's only notice was a photocopy of a handwritten
note: "Rent must now be sent to
According to McKilligan, ten days before the basement fire,
a housing violation was issued to Gjenashi about exposed
beams in the basement near the electric meters.
Since the fire, McKilligan has moved 7 times; sleeping
on friend's couches, finding sublets on Craig's List, and
living out of a suitcase. Her mail is forwarded to a friend's
home in Queens, which she retrieves every 10 days or so.
"Everything in my life has been fucked by this,"
Ironically, there was no damage to her residence at all.
This spring, an email message made its way around listservs
in the city. It identified Gjenashi as McKilligan's landlord
and the owner of the Williamsburg Publik House (WPH). It
accused Gjenashi of fixing up the WPH instead of the apartment
building. The mail also mentions the other residents of
the building: "He has not offered any of the 27 people
who became homeless anything. The woman's apartment that
was burned lost $30,000 in possessions and now lives in
a shelter in Harlem with her 4 children."
The fire destroyed the basement and damaged the apartment
above it. All the others were unscathed, apart from smoke
and water damage from the firemen. Of the eight apartments,
only five were occupied at the time of the fire. Gjenashi
allegedly paid one couple $10,000 to move out after the
fire, though we have not been able to substantiate the rumor.
The repairs took forever, especially for such minimal damage.
McKilligan and several other residents took Gjenashi to
court to force him to speed up the repairs. Delay after
delay occurred as month after month passed; the landlord
claimed work was slow because of the cold weather. An architect
hired by the tenants testified in housing court that the
repairs should take a maximum of two months. Gjenashi's
architect witness said eighteen months. Gibb Surette, the
Legal Services lawyer helping the tenants, said records
provided only show one worker doing the repairs. "Of
course it's going to take eighteen months if you have one
The housing court didn't see it that way. When the suit
was filed, all Judge Ressos needed to do was issue an Order
to Restore, which would have required Gjenashi to repair
the fire damage. By last summer, nearly five months after
the fire, that order had not been issued, much less a hearing
regarding it. When Surette finally got a hearing scheduled
to even consider the order, it was set for late last fall.
Why did Gjenashi take so long to repair the apartments?
Wasn't he losing rent the whole time?
"Yes," said Surette, "but not really."
27 Olive Street is rent-stabilized. Rents, under law, can
only rise a slight percentage every year or two. But if
a tenant moves out, and a new lease is assigned to a new
tenant, the landlord can add 20 percent to the price.
"The other side is renovations," Surette continued.
Gjenashi renovated all the apartments, not merely repaired.
"If a landlord renovates an apartment, they can tack
1/40th of that cost on each month's rent. With all these
factors, what happens is this: if a landlord can add enough
extras to the price of an apartment that it reaches a certain
level, maybe $2500 a month, rent stabilization no longer
counts. And he can charge whatever he wants."
"Rent regulation in New York City is a cesspool of
ambivalence," Surette explained. "They want to
control rents, but not too much. They want affordable houses,
but not too affordable. And the housing courts are tilted
in favor of the landlords."
The housing court has one court for tenants to sue landlords.
It has six for landlords to sue tenants. "If a tenant
is in trouble, they end up on the street, not with a $250
fine. That hardly seems fair to me," said Surette.
Also, the courts don't want to make enemies of the landlords
because they have money. "Judges consistently drag
This seemed to be the case for McKilligan. As time dragged
on and motions for penalties were delayed, Gjenashi continued
to drag out the process and the judge went along. "It
went on forever," McKilligan said. "There was
no communication between Gjenashi and I. There were no courtesy
calls, like 'I'm trying to get you back in, sorry about
the delays.' Nothing."
So she sent out the aforementioned email. Which Gjenashi
has threated to sue her over for libel. He claims he is
not the owner of the WPH. Emails to the club were returned
by Nedeljko Dusovic, stating: "Phillip [Gjenashi] is
not an owner at the Williamsburg Publik House."
However, investigations into the public record as of July
16 indicate that Gjenashi's name is on the liquor license
and the deed for the property. His name is not listed on
the incorporation papers for the business, but the sole
contact listed is his attorney. And at the beginning of
July when Surette served contempt papers to Gjenashi at
Olive Street, the workers said he was on his way over from
In the meantime, Gjenashi has threated to sue McKilligan
again, this time for interfering with his business. As prospective
tenants were shown around the building recently, she walked
up to them and began telling them about the troubles she
and other tenants had had with the landlord.
Putting the Fire Out
At the beginning of July, Judge Ressos finally began to
lose patience with Gjenashi. After missing the June 1 deadline
set by the housing court, Gjenashi imposed a personal deadline
of July 1; which he missed as well. He attempted to hold
off the court from imposing any penalties by indicating
he was waiting for the gas to be turned back on and had
an appointment. When the judge asked for the date of that
appointment, he had no answer because none had been set
up. She ordered tenants able to move back in as of July
7 if they wanted.
"I definitely want to move back in; it's my apartment.
All my things are still there. I even still have dishes
in the sink from that Sunday afternoon," said McKilligan.
As of press time, the gas has still not been turned on,
and she was without hot water.
27 Olive Street is right by Metropolitan and Bushwick,
which is increasingly becoming a hot spot for new renters.
Was this a reason for Gjenashi's delays and seeming attempts
to push his previous tenants out - so he could jack up the
apartment rents to new tenants? While appearances may support
this theory, calls to Gjenashi's lawyer were not returned.
And, of course, he couldn't be reached at the WPH.
Surette has filed contempt motions against Gjenashi for
civil and criminal noncompliance.
An email from Surette explains: "Contempt
about failure to comply with an order of the court
a contempt is civil if it is still ongoing, and daily fines
or even indefinite incarceration may be ordered as a coercive
measure to induce compliance
Noncompliance, if it
is sufficiently "willful", amounts to criminal
The hearing is set for August 4 in the housing court. If
it is not adjourned or rescheduled, Judge Ressos will have
60 days to render her decision. However, Surette is not
counting on this. During a different case, where another
landlord defied her order in court, the judge visited the
building, saw the landlord was still in non-compliance,
took 60 days to render a decision - where she declined to
find him in contempt.
Note: None of Grant's attempts to contact Gjenashi were
met with a response.
The opinions expressed are those of the author only.
They do not necessarily represent the views of FREEwilliamsburg.