On the Architectural Ghost Next Door

13Jan08

Given the long-ascendant Manhattan real-estate market, people are often surprised to learn the extent to which abandoned, burned-out property still plagues Harlem and Washington Heights. On our block alone — which is not even close to one of the worst around here — there are three completely annihilated townhouse “shells” and several other larger buildings that are certainly “shellish” if not quite destroyed.

We see four reasons why shells languish, even in a “hot” market: 1) carrying costs are low in relation to market appreciation, 2) construction costs are high, 3) the city bureaucracy involved in digging these properties out of legal limbo is insanely complicated to negotiate, and 4) the “upside” in terms of market value is enormous when you consider the high likelihood of gentrification at some point, thanks to the crushingly gorgeous (pre-war) housing stock and (short) commute to midtown. Basically, if you can get your sleazy hands on one of these things — and given the complexities of buying one, there’s inevitably some sleaze involved — there’s no real incentive to renovate when you can just let it rot for ten more years and then sell it for ten times as much as you paid.

It’s a situation that really does cry out for city-government intervention (try not to laugh.) Owners of abandoned buildings must be heavily penalized to force them into action (i.e., sell, renovate, or lose the property in foreclosure). This would require a concerted effort by the mayor, city council and probably at least five agencies (led by the notoriously sluggish and ambivalent HPD). Like, good luck with that.

But politics aside — and on a more personal note — we live right next door to a shell (thank you, thank you!). Certain problems notwithstanding — which we shall unveil in due course – the situation is not without its advantages (namely, no neighbors and again, our longstanding obsession with ruins). People often ask us what it’s like — as if we were suffering from a chronic condition — and so in response we would like to offer a chronology of our relationship with the architectural ghost next door.

May 1999. Our first visit to the block, where we politely ignore the shell’s obvious handicaps in light of the deal we are getting on our prospective house. Someone predicts that the entire block will be “spotless” within a decade and we nod enthusiastically. We are young and hip and — having lived for so long in Park Slope — still very very naïve.

December 1999. We close on our Manhattan townhouse (the price is good). The shell next door — ugly as it is — does not seem unhappy. We think we have come to an understanding.

May 2000. With spring comes an increasing awareness that the lot next door (i.e., the backyard of the shell) — separated from our yard with a chain link fence — is in fact filled with a Fresh-Kills quantity of trash, construction debris and junkie refuse (lighters, bent spoons, dime bags, etc.) from the last however many decades people have been dumping shit there (literal and metaphorical senses of “shit”). We plant morning glories in front of our fence and try to pretend it’s not there.

December 2000. It occurs to us that perhaps we should do some investigation of the shell: like who owns it and would they consider say, giving it to us for nothing if we promised to fix it up? (Insert idiot joke here.) After doing a title search, we learn that the city has in fact brought a foreclosure action against the shell; we eventually track down the HPD attorney in charge of the case, who shockingly enough is not unfriendly; she tells us that she expects to have a judgment in the near future, at which point the property will be auctioned off to the highest bidder in the rotunda of the State Supreme Court. (Note that this is a very different process from when the city actually takes possession of land and resells it; in a foreclosure action they simply get the proceeds from a judicially administered auction. Also note that while we have some familiarity with the law — thanks to a law degree from a very prestigious institution (ahem) — we are not real-estate lawyers.) We learn from various sources that these auctions are filled with sleazy sharks but we try not to be intimidated; after all, who is going to want a shell in Washington Heights more than us? We love our shell, and it loves us! Plus, you only need ten-percent cash to bid at the auction, after which you get 90 days to line up financing. We have some savings and our credit is good; why shouldn’t we win? (Insert idiot joke #2 here.)

May 2001. It turns out that the pile of junk next door has over the course of the winter been repopulated by a proverbial army of rats, who are not deterred by the chain-link fence from entering our backyard garden, even through a screen of morning glories. (We should also mention that there is another shell three doors up in the other direction, so that our collective backyards are essentially a “Rat Disney World.”) For some reason, the rats like to shit right outside our back door, as if taunting us. On behalf of our plants, we are annoyed.

December 2001. We’re still calling our contact at HPD, who tells us that 9/11 has slowed things down. We believe her.

May 2002. After a year of calling various city agencies, we finally — by way of a local Community Board worker (thank you Deborah!) — manage to get some trash-hauling division of a city agency (not Sanitation, of course) to clear out the junk next door. It takes an entire crew of twelve men two weeks to get rid of all of it. Filled with visions of garden grandeur, we take down the chain-link fence (as we had already done with our real neighbor on the other side) and put it up on the far edge of the vacant lot above a retaining wall, effectively doubling our garden space. We subscribe to “Horticulture” magazine and become increasingly transfixed by moss, ferns and native perennials. We hire a tree service to cut down some monstrously invasive ailanthus trees (aka “Ann Coulters”) that have been looming over our garden. We plant wisteria in front of the fence, which incredibly enough covers the whole thing in about a week and jumps the alley beyond, where it starts invading an apartment — we can see the vine behind the windows, wrapped behind some ugly curtains — in the adjacent building; even more incredibly, whoever lives there doesn’t seem to care. We talk about “adversely possessing” the land we have cultivated; research, however, shows this is next to impossible in New York State.

December 2002. After two years of regularly calling our contact at HPD — who never has any information for us but (in her not unfriendly way) keeps telling us to call back in a few months — we learn that she has left on maternity leave. Nobody else can tell us anything about the house (nor do they seem at all happy to talk to us). We are too young and naïve to pursue this with the zeal of an investigative reporter; we have full-time jobs already and the work of owning (and renting a portion of) one house makes the prospect of a second less palatable. We tell ourselves that we don’t care who buys it, as long as someone does.

May 2003. The rats, of course, are also living inside of the shell, and so are not that bothered by losing the trash heap outside. Nor are they unappreciative of our fine efforts in the garden: in fact, they have grown accustomed to twilight strolls, during which Mom and Dad leisurely take in the green as the children cavort in the brush. As part of a downstairs renovation in our house, we decide to abandon the double-plot garden and erect a five-foot cement wall topped by three feet of wooden lattice to separate us from the vacant lot (we continue to leave the border with our neighbor open, thinking that most of the rats are coming from the shell next door and not the one three houses away). We later find out that the rats are laughing at us the whole time.

December 2003. We start receiving mail addressed to a woman next door, who we learn managed to acquire title to the house, but not through a foreclosure auction. Exactly how remains a — and perhaps the — longstanding mystery of the shell, given its current status and her reputation uptown. (At some later date we will mention this woman’s name to Rob Shapiro from Massey Knakal and he will turn pale.) However, our spirits are soon lifted when, around this time, an impressive looking sign from Marcus Millichap goes up on the fence in front of the shell; we call the realtor who tells us that the seller wants “only” 750k for the shell. We politely ask him to put down his crack pipe and explain the economics to him: the place (3200 square feet, just like ours) will cost at least 700k to renovate (nothing fancy mind you), which means that you would be in for like $1.5 before you even got started, or way more than any house is worth in the neighborhood. Even if best case scenario you could convert it into 4 floor-through 1BRs at $1500 per, that only pays for about 900k in financing, tops (i.e., not investment material). Basically, only an insane maniac would pay 750k for this shell, and we’re in Washington Heights, not Williamsburg. We tell him that we would consider buying it for 100k; he laughs in our face. The shell does not sell, but we do not feel vindicated.

May 2004. We go to war with the rats. We put out traps and catch one by its foot, which leads to a horrible scene in which we literally have to beat it to death with a shovel in order to put it out of its misery. Another time we throw a rock at one as it’s streaking across the yard and — because we played baseball for a few years — we actually hit it. This too we have to kill as it woozily staggers around. Like any soldier, we are shocked by the depraved lengths to which we will go in the heat of battle.

December 2004. The kids from the apartment building on the other side of the shell have turned the Marcus Millichap sign into the backboard for a basketball hoop. Eventually it falls off and it sits in the middle of the street, where it dissolves into oblivion.

May 2005. In a last-ditch effort to fend off the rats, we decide to surround our garden with an 8-foot cement/stucco wall. We start referring to the backyard as a “courtyard.” There is severe collateral damage to the existing plants, but in the end it’s worth it: for the first time we are “rat free,” a condition we continue to enjoy to this day (knock on wood), although we still see them running back and forth on the electrical wires overhead.

December 2005. We continue to write letters to everyone in the city begging them to do something about the nasty shell next door, not only because of the rats (and pigeons, which — trust us — really aren’t as bad) but because of the roof, which has by this point completely given way, so that the entire structure appears to be in danger of collapse. HPD only has jurisdiction over the front of the building, so we turn to DOB, which promptly dismisses our complaint after a “drive-by” inspection. We schedule another appointment and invite them to assess the damage from our roof, and the inspector agrees that the building looks very shaky; he takes pictures of the collapsed roof; nevertheless, our complaint is subsequently dismissed. This continues until we succeed in having the building officially classified as “unsafe.” Still nothing happens.

May 2006. The courtyard recovers with a new plant regime; the house next door continues to rot and crumble. A paper trail on the house — now available on Property Shark — shows the house is owned by some bank in Cleveland. Or maybe it’s a bankrupt construction company from Westchester. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on; in any case, we still couldn’t afford to renovate it, even if someone gave it to us.

December 2006. Occasionally somebody will walk by and look at the shell and let us know that they are a prospective buyer. Some of these people are Russians in fur coats. Some are from Brazil. Nobody will ever divulge who exactly is selling this property, even when we ask directly for this information. The most we can ever get is that it’s part of a “portfolio.” There is apparently a secret world that we are not a part of; we don’t exactly want in, but it would be nice to film it.

May 2007. Our courtyard/fortress endures in the back, but the rats — obviously infuriated — have now taken to the sidewalks and street with renewed strength. Garbage regulations are not exactly enforced with vigor at the apartment buildings down the street. Between the shells and these buildings, our block is rat heaven; if you visit after dark, remember to walk in the street.

December 2007. Nothing to report. Have we mentioned that our annual taxes are $0.00? We say this to let you know that the carrying costs of a shell are not exactly overwhelming, even if you factor in the thousands of dollars of tickets each year the shell gets for not cleaning the sidewalk.

Now. In our dreams, the city is about to put a roof on the shell, shore up the foundations, and charge the owner, whoever and wherever he/she/it is located. In truth it’s basically a disaster waiting to happen, and unlike the old fable, we’ve repeatedly cried wolf and meant it every time. As appreciative as we are of own our house in a rising market, we sometimes think bitterly about whoever slimed this property into their possession, and how — if it doesn’t collapse first (and maybe even if it does) — they will make a killing whenever they decide to sell it.

Sometimes the shell seems to leer at us; other times we feel sorry for it. Most of all we pray for its resurrection in the hands of someone who will restore it to the dignity with which it was built, and then — as we do in ours — live in it. Less naïve than we once were, we don’t expect this to happen very soon.

Music: Saturnine, “The Taste of Water” from Mid The Green Fields (Victoria Land Records 1998).

I’m starting to hate going outside
I’m living too much in my head
I hear these things are happening
The same ones that never get said

Of course I could read all about it
The words that flow from the pens
Of writers who think they know better
When people get shot in the head

Secrets get thrown in the fire
They’re taped to the back of a wall
My mind has been wrapped by a wire
I think I’m starting to fall

The taste for water
Has simply gone out of my mind
It’s like being in place
As the temperature’s starting to rise
It’s like waiting in bed
For something to open your eyes

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