Goodbye, Death House

Death House in East Williamsburg

On a long enough timeline, everyone who lives in New York City eventually endures a real estate horror story. This one is mine.

I lived in Death House.

I lived there a week before meeting the landlord. She stood a generous four foot, ten inches and wore thick glasses on the tip of her nose. She resided in the basement, a windowless space below ground. Technically, in New York City, this type of room is a cellar and thus illegal as a residential dwelling. My landlord was a basement troll.

The first time we actually spoke, she offered a deal on my rent: a 20% discount if I paid the year in full. She was headed to Central America for a week and told me to think on the offer. The tenant upstairs, she assured me, had taken advantage of a similar offer. Our entire conversation had been taken place in two languages, neither of us fully understanding the other.

Before the basement troll returned, I learned two things: she faced a civil lawsuit and the gas company threatened to shut off service for non-payment. The lawsuit had been left in the vestibule of the building: the former tenants of another property she owned were suing her for negligence. Meanwhile, the gas company notice offered the tenants the right to pay the bill and deduct the cost from our rent. I decided, obviously, I should not pay this woman a lump sum.

I turned to Google. I learned that the basement troll owned the empty lot next door to my building, the site of the former Motorino Pizza. The tenants suing her had lived in the building—in rent stabilized apartments. Motorino, known for its Neapolitan style pizza, put East Williamsburg on the culinary map. But the building began a slow collapse and the New York Post eventually called it the “leaning tower of pizza.”   The city’s building department ordered it condemned.

As summer ended, the basement troll appeared at my door one morning accompanied by two henchman, neither much taller than she. They wanted to fix a pipe. The house sewer line ran through my kitchen and into my bathroom. But as it turns out, henchmen are very poor plumbers.

They started working on a Thursday morning. The henchmen-plumbers promised me one day, two at most, of inconvenience. Thursday night I come home to the toilet in the kitchen and a hole in the floor peering down into the troll’s lair. Two days were required, it seemed.

Friday night I returned home ready for a Memorial Day holiday weekend. Three days of barbecues and outdoor parties commemorating the end of summer. And three days without trekking out to the office. Sadly, the toilet remained disconnected from the plumbing, sitting in the kitchen.

Kitchen Toilets are a symptom of the modern condition

Another three days passed: no troll, no henchmen, no working toilet. By Wednesday, six days after the hole first appeared in my floor, I filed a complaint with the city. They sent an inspector out on Friday. The henchmen-plumbers promptly barred the door locking out the city inspector. He called to say he didn’t have authority to use force.

When I returned home, the henchmen-plumbers were working hard to finish up the toilet project though, so my call seemed to work. The toilet, finally, had been restored to the proper room.

In December, the basement troll had stopped paying her mortgage and the building and the empty lot next door were sold at auction. This did not prevent her from showing up at my door asking for rent.

Three weeks later, I began smelling an odd odor pouring out from the basement door. Now that the troll no longer lived there, I worried she had spitefully damaged some piece of equipment slowly gassing us as some kind of revenge plot. I called the gas company. Their team arrived and promised it was not gas, but sampled the air anyway: carbon monoxide, the silent killer. Four fire trucks responded. The apartments in the building were evacuated for an hour. And the furnace and hot water heater were turned off.

The new owners wanted to demolish the building. They had little interest in making repairs, and offered a deal for me to leave four months before my lease ended. A little cash goes a long way, especially since I wanted to leave Death House anyway.

I began the urgent search for a new apartment. I saw a listing. I met the broker and two young women also hunting for apartments. The broker had two units coming available to show the three of us.  He joked with us that he hoped we wouldn’t all want the same one. Let the Hunger Games begin.

Though both units were similar, the second was clearly better. It was the right price, the right location, just big enough, just nice enough. Then, as the three of us poked around the apartment, the broker revealed the unit was rent stabilized. RENT STABILIZED!?!

Oh, well, why didn’t you say that before?

I could tell one of the women seemed interested. However, she had the innocence of a New York City real estate virgin. She treading lightly and then hesitated. It seemed as though she wanted to tacitly negotiate, hint at her interest without seeming too eager. Her loss. “I’ll take it,” I said, “let’s do some paperwork.” I whipped out a folder containing all of my documentation: W2, pay stubs, bank statements, references. I saw the girl’s eyes begin to water. It hurts the first time.

I signed the lease for a one bedroom, rent stabilized unit virtually on top of the L train, the kind of apartment people live in for fifty years while becoming hoarders collecting scraps of artisanal mayonnaise jar labels. Rent stabilization: ‘til death do us part.

And so it was that I came to leave death house.

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