By Joseph Alexiou
After four years moving to and from dingy apartments all over New York City, in January 2008 music producer and songwriter Joseph Hodges found what he considered to be a dream living situation. After a real estate agent showed him the newly renovated, two-level Williamsburg duplex with a loft-style combination living, dining room and kitchen, Hodges immediately signed a lease. It was an apartment to which he was proud to invite guests, even his mother who lives near Cincinnati and visits about twice a year. The address, 112 N. 6th St. between Berry and Wythe streets, is a prime location in Williamsburg. “It was like I finally made it,” Hodges said.
So it was a shock when, on March 26, police officers and inspectors from the Department of Buildings told Hodges that his apartment was illegally rented and that he would have to leave. Immediately.
“I had to grab whatever I could, toss it into a few bags, and leave everything else behind,” he said. “They didn’t give us any prior notice, no signs on the front door. They just knocked on my door, told me I didn’t have any kind of secondary exit, and told me I had to get out.”
Inspectors emptied the building of all of its tenants except for the hostel located in apartment 5F, and the yoga studio on the first floor. Ryan Fitzgibbons of the Department of Buildings said that in late March an inspection revealed that the entire building, except for apartment 5F, lacked secondary egress and a functioning sprinkler system. A partial vacate order was deemed necessary due to the safety threat. In addition, the building’s owner, listed as 112 N. 6th St. Inc., was issued an occupancy violation to the building. While the building was designated for commercial use, apartments were rented as a “residential use,” and as a “transient hotel.” A commercial building, Fitzgibbons said, cannot serve as a home for tenants, and all of the residents, with the exception of apartment 5F, were made to leave.
Hodges was able to return the morning after being ejected, and continued to live for the next thee days in the apartment until the landlord told him over the phone that he would have to move out as soon as possible. Although other tenants briefly spoke to the press on the first night of the forced vacancy, Hodges is the first to address the rental of a private apartment, and his landlord, Soonbin Kim, in a detailed fashion. Along with her husband, Jae, Kim owns 112 N. 6th St. and also has shares in at least one other property, 192 Water St. in DUMBO (listed on the Department of Buildings Web site as owned by Maxanne Realty Inc., the mailing address for both this building and for 112 N. 6th St. LLC., which holds the Williamsburg property, is 18 Parkhurst Place, in Montclair, N.J.). The DUMBO building, which was supposed to go through a partial condo conversion in 2008, is currently not in use and has open violations on the Department of Buildings Web site. Repeated calls to the Kims were not returned.
Aside from soaring 18-foot ceilings and the 6-by-8-foot poster of the Flatiron Building above a Jennifer Convertibles couch, the most conspicuous feature of Hodges’ former apartment is what isn’t there: windows. Although the apartment has a skylight, positioned above a spiral staircase that leads up to the two bedrooms, there are no windows in either of the bedrooms and essentially no natural light. The monthly rent was $2,300. Often the electrical bill, which covered heat, hot water and air conditioning, was up to $300 per month. Excited by the quality and size of the apartment, Hodges never questioned the lack of windows.
The New York City building code requires that habitable space include natural light and ventilation. In most situations, bedrooms, which must fit certain size specifications, must also have a window that opens onto a street or courtyard. Hodges’ apartment did not have this, although it had constant ventilation provided by the forced-air system for climate control.
Hodges says that his real estate agent, Diego Micheo of Prudential Douglas Elliman, did not mention the lack of windows when showing the apartment, and subsequently signed Hodges and a former roommate to an 18-month lease, collecting a $1,500 fee. Micheo did not respond to repeated phone calls.
The building at 112 N. 6th St. was also host to two youth hostels, Loftsel and Zip112. The latter was allowed to re-open because of a secondary exit (a door to a roof deck), while Loftstell was forced to close because it lacked its own secondary exit. A call to the hostel’s front desk confirms that it is currently in operation. “The building is commercially zoned,” Fitzgibbons said in a recent phone interview. “If the hostel is still in operation, then it’s illegal.”
“She tried to tell me and my brother, who is a lawyer, that she was not liable for my getting kicked out because it was really a commercial lease,” Hodges said of Soonbin Kim. Hodges claims the lease he has is a residential one, reading the words “for living purposes only.”
Hodges says Kim then offered him $700 in moving expenses, plus his security deposit. She then claimed that he was the last tenant to be moving out. She also said that no one else had been offered moving expenses. Kim insisted that Hodges send her an e-mail accepting the terms of her offer. But Hodges wouldn’t agree without the return of his remaining rent, pro-rated from the last week that he didn’t spend in the apartment. Kim eventually agreed, Hodges said.
Since being kicked out, Hodges has moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Fairview, N.J. Paying $500 a month, he has access to a balcony and clear view of Manhattan.
While moving out over the first week in April, Hodges saw a tenant from a downstairs apartment who had yet to move out of 112 N. 6th St. The tenant, who had moved from the Midwest three months earlier, said he was just figuring out where he would go next.