Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Special: Real Estate: Breaking the Mold

How Not to Find an Apartment in Brooklyn

A gaggle of flies congregate at one of 100 S. 4th St.'s few light sources. Photographed by Ryan Hale.

By Peter Holslin

When my current roommate Ryan and I embarked on a search for a new apartment after moving out of Loeb Hall two years ago, our friend Gabe told us not to settle. “Just don’t settle, guys,” he said. “Do anything but settle.”

We settled.

First, we settled for a shady loft deal at 100 South 4th St., in the heart of Williamsburg. The 1,000 square foot area we rented for $2,600 a month, plus utilities, was still under construction. Twenty days after we moved in, we still did not have a stove, a kitchen sink and a door to the bathroom.

Six months later, we settled on some new roommates, Martin and Anthony. We soon discovered they had no bank accounts. They shared an affinity for speed. One had a mental illness and the other had delusions of one day filming a T.V. show in the apartment. About a month before we had to move out, we still owed a few thousand dollars in unpaid rent.

Luckily, 100 South 4th St. did not have a Certificate of Occupancy, so we had been under no legal obligation to pay rent for the entirety of our commercial-loft lease. (See sidebar.) We ditched the loft and found a duplex on Powers Street, just off the Graham stop on the L, in a cozy Italian neighborhood. The apartment had two floors, two bedrooms, a modest back patio and a free grill! Rent was $1,700 a month, including utilities.

No matter that the walls needed a serious paint job and the carpets were disgusting. We settled.

The day we moved in, the apartment exuded a dank, thick smell. We decided the carpets were the problem. We had them cleaned the week before, but they were damp and stained. We tore them out and hired two German fellows off of Craigslist to install cheap tiling. The total cleaning costs exceeded $600.

Still, the apartment stank. We found big black spots all over a closet on the second floor. Ryan soon started to get breathing problems—a biting dryness in the throat, an acidic pit in the stomach. He began sleeping in the basement of Loeb Hall most nights.

Our landlord, Ceasar Pecoraro, never called us back. Our broker—who worked for the Pecoraro family, whose brothers own a number of buildings in Brooklyn—delayed any investigation into these mysterious black spots, and whatever else plagued the space.

We threatened not to pay the rent, and Ceasar came down from the cheese factory he runs in Albany. We showed him the sinister black spots. “That’s just humidity,” he said, as he rubbed the spots with his thumb. “That’s just humidity!”

The next day, a worker from AmeriSpec, a national organization that specializes in home inspections, dropped by to examine the building and collect mold samples. Mold, he said, comes in three varieties: benign, toxic and lethal. It shows up in houses all across the city, as a result of water damage and old wood. Any form, he added, is not good for you.

We walked him through the apartment. He pointed at what looked like black dirt or paint on the wall near the floor: mold. He pointed at faint spots showing through painted walls upstairs: mold. He pointed at dry, black muck that covered the stairs: mold. Then he went to the dark, dank basement and shone a flashlight on the corners by the radiator, caked-over with black mold.

“Gentlemen,” he told us, after the tour, “you have mold.”

He took three samples around the building with a sucking device and returned to his office. A week later, AmeriSpec told us we had a mold spore count of 160. Without proper protection, a house with 500 is uninhabitable, they said.

The Pecoraros simply did not believe that the mold was a problem—so they covered it up. Over the course of the month, a construction crew showed up at 7:00 a.m. every day to plaster stucco over the wood shingles on the building’s exterior, hiding thick layers of mold. The crew also painted over the black spots in our second-floor closet.

After two months, Ryan and I agreed with the Pecoraros to break the lease. And on a random, rainy night, our friend Peter—an undergrad who works in the rare practice of fair and equitable brokerage—showed us a newly renovated, spacious two-bedroom in Bushwick. I often refer to this neighborhood as “Blade Runner territory,” for its towering subway platform and ramshackle storefronts. But the apartment was almost brand new, the J train was four blocks away, rent was $1300 and Peter promised to cut half of the broker’s fee.

Here was an offer we could trust. We settled. And for now, at least, our nightmares are over.

No comments: