On the coldest days of winter, at the height of the polar vortex, residents at 95 Clay Street had no heat, no hot water and no cooking gas. Their eight-apartment building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, had the dubious honor of receiving more violations in January for lack of heat than any other in the city.
In an illegally constructed building in the rear of the property — tenants call it the “Hooverville shanty” — snow melt rained from the roof and seeped in through ceilings and walls, rendering two apartments uninhabitable.
Along the way, their landlord, Malina Nealis, was arrested by the NYPD and charged with misdemeanor assault, after tensions with tenants boiled over into blows.
For the young artists less than a five-minute walk from the apartment of Girls TV character Hannah Horvath, life this winter has been stranger than a Lena Dunham script. And while their heat is now back on, after intervention from the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the saga of Nealis’ tenants is far from over.
The four-story building currently has 123 open housing code violations. Separately, 95 Clay also has three open violations from the Department of Buildings for work without a permit and six older open violations that were never resolved. One violation in default, for the construction and rental of an illegal apartment in the cellar of the building, brought a $12,000 penalty.
Nealis is “running a business as a slumlord,” lamented tenant Daniel Pippenger. “The system almost encourages this type of behavior, as it stands now.”
HPD is bringing Nealis to housing court, seeking an order from a judge compelling Nealis to correct all of the violations. The agency may seek civil penalties as well.
Multiple attempts to reach Nealis for comment on the situation at 95 Clay Street went unacknowledged.
The agency has been down this road with Nealis before, on three different properties. In 2008, it brought actions to force repairs of conditions in a building she owned with her ex-husband in Williamsburg.
In 2009, Nealis faced an HPD action over heat and hot water problems at a building she still owns and manages on Franklin Street, in Greenpoint. The Franklin Street property currently has 145 violations outstanding with HPD, ranging from mold to ceiling leaks to roaches and trash littering the common areas.
Most recently, in 2010 Nealis faced HPD action for a building on India Street that is now a vacant shell.
Divorce proceedings indicate that Nealis and her ex-husband owned and managed 23 apartment buildings in the tri-state area estimated to be worth $50 million at the time of their split in 2007. Nealis continues to own and manage several properties in Greenpoint.
Now, it was the Clay Street residents’ turn. The trouble started on Dec. 4 when heat and hot water to the building went out. Three days after the building lost heat the cooking gas went out too.
“That was really peculiar because we all pay our own gas bills for our own apartments,” said 95 Clay Street tenant Samantha Nguyen, of the loss of cooking gas. “It was just kind of adding insult to injury.”
Through Jan. 22, tenants went 41 days without heat or hot water and 48 days without cooking gas. The outage resulted in 13 heating violations levied by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development — more than double the number received by any other building in the city in January.
“It was just really, really cold and unpleasant,” said Nguyen. “We’d all been making regular 311 calls to report everything. We had mostly started out making anonymous complaints because we didn’t know what it meant to attach your name to a complaint. Then it seemed like those were just sort of going into a pit so we started putting our names on it.”
That’s when tenants reached out to local council member Stephen Levin and tenant advocate group St. Nick’s Alliance. Councilmember Levin’s office, St. Nick’s and the North Brooklyn Development Corporation formed a team to help the residents of 95 Clay navigate city agencies, get legal counsel and begin a rent strike against their landlord.
“The landlord was getting good rents,” said Rolando Guzman, deputy director for housing preservation at St. Nick’s Alliance. “It was pure negligence.”
Levin’s office and St. Nick’s put tenants in touch with Brooklyn Legal Services, which helped seven tenants pursue actions against Nealis in Brooklyn housing court.
Nealis never showed up for any of the housing court proceedings.
“I mean, I don’t blame her. There are absolutely no repercussions to her actions,” said tenant Daniel Pippenger. “Can you really fault her? There is no penalty.”
In each case, a housing court judge took testimony from the tenants and reviewed HPD inspectors’ notes. In all but one case, where the tenant also failed to appear, the judge issued an order to fix the violations found by inspectors.
In spite of the judge’s orders, Nealis failed to correct the violations. Because no repairs were made to restore heat and hot water to the building, housing inspectors again visited the property and brought in an emergency repairs crew to bring the gas and heating systems up to code. The city has billed the property $2,600 for the repair work.
The city did not authorize emergency repairs to restore heat, hot water or cooking gas to the three-story rear building, with one remaining household — a three-generation family — living on the first floor. The back building has no certificate of occupancy and is not validly registered with HPD.
Until the flooding from the roof made them uninhabitable, the building contained three three-bedroom apartments, renting for between $2,000 and $2,600 a month. That was a a deal for people looking for cheap rent in an increasingly expensive neighborhood. Rent for a two-bedroom in Greenpoint averaged $3,174 in January, according to a recent MNS Real Estate rental market report.
According to tenants, the emergency repairs crew had to break down the door to the boiler room twice in order to complete their work. Nealis, they say, locked the boiler room, refusing access to the city and tenants alike.
While New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was announcing Vicki Been as his appointee to run New York City’s housing agency inspectors were back at 95 Clay.
This time they came with a National Grid crew, who approved emergency repairs made to a gas line that had been split to serve the back building as well as the main one. Now, the cooking gas was back on too.
But until then, tensions between tenants and their landlord brewed, as complaints to the landlord continued to go unheeded, tenants say. What started as tantrums via text message and verbal attacks against tenants in December turned physical in January.
A tenant approached Nealis as she sat in the driver’s seat of her SUV, and attempted to inform her that HPD needed to get access to the heating system. Before he could finish, Nealis thwacked him repeatedly with a folder of papers. The tenant captured the altercation on video.
“She was just so out of control,” Nguyen said of what she described as erratic and threatening behavior by Nealis. “Kind of like a monster coming into your dwelling. You don’t know if the monster is necessarily going to hurt you, but a monster is scary regardless.”
After two physical altercations with tenants in two days, the police came and arrested Nealis on Jan. 18.
Tenants are unsure what the future holds. With the heat, hot water and cooking gas returned, and up to code for now, residents of 95 Clay are left to decide whether they feel secure in their apartments or if after the inspectors are gone and the spotlight goes away this scenario will pop back up like Groundhog Day.
“We are scared, at least I am at this point, that this whole situation as bad as it was for seven weeks is going to happen all over again,” said Pippenger. “Without physically blocking people from coming into this building, there is almost nothing we can do to keep ourselves safe.”
Tenants could petition to have the building put under the housing department’s so-called 7A program — which allows for the appointment of a private administrator to take over management of hazardous and neglected building — but it is difficult to get judges on board with such severe action. For now, 95 Clay is enrolled in HPD’s Proactive Preservation Initiative, which identifies “at-risk” buildings that are showing signs of decline, and intervenes with the owners to prevent further distress and deterioration.
The HPD action against Nealis, seeking a court order to fix the housing code violations, will be heard in court on March 20.