979 Willoughby is a luxury condominium briefly used as a sober house. Political and neighborhood opposition has resulted in the owner shutting the program down and renting it at market rate. — Photo by Diego Cupolo
In Bushwick, there may only be one man who can unite political enemies Assemblyman Vito Lopez, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, Councilwoman Diana Reyna, and State Senator Marty Dilan for the same cause.
Ashley Khan has been hustling 979 Willoughby Avenue as a sober house for the past six months since the building’s owner, Benjamin Glasser, struggled to sell the condominium units for market rate.
Khan withstood heavy pressure from elected officials, Willoughby Avenue-area homeowners, and members of Community Board Four who were none too keen about having a condominium converted into a three-quarter house less than a block from two day-care centers and a senior home run by RBSCC, the community organization founded by Lopez.
On June 4, the city sent inspectors to examine the building following a 311 complaint that the condominium was being "used as a hotel." After a confrontation with Khan, inspectors referred the matter to the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement.
"After they sent the Department of Buildings, and the wrath of [Robert] Scarano [the building's architect], I said ‘Fuck it’, I stopped everything," said Khan. "I still have people there, protected by the Disabilities Act. I threw some of them out. I’m getting rid of them slowly. When they have a violation, I evict them. The community doesn’t want them there, so why keep them there?"
The owner is now on Plan D, which is to clear out tenants recovering from drug and alcohol addiction and soon rent the rooms out to "yuppies" at market rate.
"It’s becoming renting residential apartments," said developer Glasser. "It no longer will house any program whatsoever. After I was harassed by the neighborhood, followed around by neighborhood thugs, and my life threatened, I figured it was not a good idea to help people."
Glasser cited his negotiations with State Senator Martin Dilan and his son, 37th District Councilmember Erik Dilan, as the main reason why he chose to abandon plans for the sober home. Glasser says that someone has been following him, and blames the electeds, but Senator Dilan denies this, countering that Glasser has been rude to his staff throughout their conversations. The Senator’s brother lives nearby and was one of many residents who complained about the building’s tenants.
The next step, according to Khan, is to find a realtor to market units in the building and list them online. Meanwhile, Khan is looking to bring rehabilitative housing programs to other buildings in Brooklyn and is working with city agencies to bring those programs into compliance with the law.
"There’s no more transitional there, that I can tell you right now," said Khan. "The last threat I made was this. I told Senator Dilan’s office, if you continue to piss me off, don’t call me again or I’m going to put sex offenders in this building. I haven’t heard a peep since then. Everybody’s been nice."
But the Mayor’s office is numb to threats — they have ordered the program closed. The units will presumably need to be fixed up after recent illegal alterations to accommodative roomers, but given the success of nearby Castle Braid and other new-construction rentals, Glasser should have no problem finding tenants.