Last November, their building at 272 Stagg Street was sold to a new landlord named Silvio Cruz. Though Cruz seemed like a nice person when they first met, Sierra and other tenants in the rent-stabilized building said he began using construction as harassment to try to kick them out.
According to tenants, Cruz threatened to cut off gas and water. Sierra said the new landlord also “took out” the tenants from the first floor and tore down the walls.
“With him, it’s been terrifying, unsafe and dangerous,” Sierra said.
One month after Cruz bought the property, the tenants reached out to local housing and legal organizations for help. Bruno Garcia, a community organizer, began working with the tenants in December.
They also received legal aid from the Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A. Rachel Nager, a staff attorney representing the tenants at 272 Stagg Street, said the landlord told the residents he was going to “make them homeless” by creating unsafe living conditions.
In addition to no cooking gas, the landlord has conducted construction without permits that made the building shake, she said. Tenants have also dealt with ongoing dust and noise from the construction.
Nager is now representing the tenants in court in an effort to stop the landlord from further work on the building.
On February 9, after months of 311 calls, agents from the Department of Buildings (DOB), the Fire Department and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) inspected the building and determined it was unsafe, advocates said.
According to a DOB spokesperson, inspectors observed that fire-stopping materials were improperly removed from the apartments on the first floor. Illegal work was performed beyond the scope of the issued permit for interior renovations, including on plumbing and electrical systems.
After the inspection, DOB issued a full stop-work order on the property and multiple violations for the illegal work.
Later that day, the agency partially rescinded the stop work order to allow contractors to replace the fire-stopping material and perform other work to make the building safe, the spokesperson said. During the work, they required the landlord to install licensed fireguards to monitor the situation.
Last Tuesday afternoon, when the tenants and advocates hosted a rally in front of the building, a man identified as the landlord was seen ripping off stop work order notices on the front door.
Construction workers were also seen doing work in the basement moments before the rally started, according to Rolando Guzman from St. Nicks Alliance. They stepped out to watch the rally, but walked inside the building later on.
Guzman pointed out that despite new city laws that make construction-as-harassment illegal, some landlords are still using that technique to force tenants out.
“This building is a good example that a law without enforcement is nothing,” he said.
Organizers called on city agencies to keep up the protections for tenants before something worse happens.
“We don’t want another family vacated because the city came too late,” Guzman said.
Gregoraria Fernandez, who has lived in her apartment for 24 years, said all she wants is for her rights as a tenant to be respected. She said tenants have been living “constantly under threat” from Cruz and his workers.
Though a translator, Fernandez said the landlord has been successful in creating bad conditions, but he hasn’t succeed in displacing the tenants.
“He tries to hide like it’s not his responsibility,” she said. “He tries to say he’s a good guy, that he’s trying to protect the tenants, but his work and his actions say a completely different thing.”
Fernandez added that the tenants banded together because they had no other option.
“We had no choice because either we fight or we face the reality that we can’t afford the rents out here in this neighborhood,” she said.
The DOB spokesperson said the day following the rally, inspectors went to the property again and found the construction work to be in compliance with the partially lifted stop work order.