Three and a half months after the city evacuated more than 200 tenants from a Kent Avenue building because of an illegal matzo factory in the basement, the first residents returned to their apartments on May 1 — and after 101 days of couch-surfing, they’re happy to be home.
“At first, it was a little weird to be back here after so long, but now it feels great to know I have a home again,” said photographer Michael Brown, who lived in Greenpoint during the lockout.
The Fire Department had evacuated 475 Kent Ave. on the frigid night of Jan. 21 after finding three tons of flammable grain in underground silos. Residents had just an hour to gather their belongings.
“When they kicked us out, I figured it would last a week or two before they’d make some kind of arrangements so we could come back,” said photographer Geoff Berrenger, who moved among three apartments while the building was closed.
Even though the grain was removed within two weeks, the padlocks remained on the 11-story building. Before tenants could return, the Department of Buildings and the FDNY issued the building with more than 25 infractions, ordering that the landlord remove the basement grain silos and install a new standpipe, sprinklers, carbon dioxide detectors and smoke alarms, among other repairs.
While the work was going on, the evicted residents — mostly artists and other creative types — banded together, maintaining a Web site, organizing art shows, and gathering more than 4,000 signatures on a petition asking Mayor Bloomberg to let them back into their lofts.
During their time in purgatory, some tenants became certified fireguards, hoping that their presence would convince the city to open the building before workers finished installing the sprinklers, but the extensive repairs kept them out of their homes until Thursday.
“There is still some work to be done, but the most serious issues — the sprinkler system and the standpipe — have been corrected,” said FDNY spokesman Jim Long, whose agency lifted the vacate order at around 4 pm on May 1.
While 475 Kent is no longer a fire hazard, it’s still not an entirely legal place to live.
“The building’s Certificate of Occupancy still reflects a manufacturing use and the owner will be subject to violations if tenants are found to be living in the space,” said Buildings Department spokeswoman Kate Lindquist.
Property owner Nachman Brach — who also owns a Jewish girls’ school next door that has remained closed since the city shut it down it in January — did not respond to repeated interview requests about whether he would seek to change 475 Kent’s Certificate of Occupancy.
Legal or illegal, tenants are still crazy about their building, which is between South 11th Street and Division Avenue, because of the spacious rooms, strong community, and rents that run about $2,000 a month for a large loft.
“We’re one of the last loft buildings in Williamsburg, where everything’s turning into condos — you’re never going to get other space like this,” said architect Bart Javier, who has lived in the building since 1998.
He added that he wished that the city had let the tenants return sooner, but he doesn’t have any hard feelings.
“I’m just happy we’re in again,” he said. “It was worth the wait.”