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Publik Housing?
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 Fuel

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," she said.

Ironically, there was no damage to her residence at all.

The Spark

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 worker."

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.

The Explosion

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 their feet."

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 the WPH.

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.

The Aftermath

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 … is 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 contempt."

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.

--Grant Moser

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.

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[email protected] | August 2003 | Issue 41
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