BUSHWICK, Brooklyn (PIX11) -- Landlords Josh and Amrom "Aaron" Israel have been ranked among the city's worst landlords by New York's public advocate.
On Thursday, however, they went from just being on a list of bad-faith landlords to being under arrest, accused of wrecking apartments they themselves own, in an attempt to force their tenants out. Those tenants on Thursday were rejoicing over seeing their landlords in handcuffs, but their plight as renters with the Israels is not over.
PIX11 first encountered the two landlord cousins early last year. They ran from our cameras and used their scarves to cover their faces during an investigation into their alleged tenant intimidation practices.
On Thursday, however, officers made sure that Joel and Aaron Israel were highly visible in front of cameras as Brooklyn district attorney's office cops led the pair into a courtroom in handcuffs for their first appearance before a judge.
The 15 criminal counts against them, ranging from burglary to grand larceny, were the result of the Israels' apparently intentional destruction of whole bathrooms, walls and even floors in some of their own buildings, as well as the apparently intentional damage to boilers and other machinery necessary for comfortable living in other buildings they own. It was all allegedly an attempt to force rent controlled tenants out and bring much higher paying market rate tenants in.
District Attorney Ken Thompson said at a news conference after the court appearance that the Israels did such things as hire a wrecking crew to come in to one tenant's apartment while she was out at a doctor's appointment, and remove all of her belongings and tear down walls and damage utilities in her apartment.
"They were committing criminal acts," said Thompson, citing, as an example, "Grand larceny. They stole the value of these folks' homes."
Thompson added that the Israels' arrest was meant to send a message, and not just to them. It was a point echoed by some housing advocates. "Other landlords, wake up," said Father Edward Mason, a priest who has helped tenants of the Israels' four buildings, "and see what's happening here today!"
Fellow affordable housing advocates, as well as the Israels' tenants, said that the right thing is being done after years of fighting in civil court.
"It was just hell," said Catalina Hidalgo, who lives in one of the Israels' properties in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. "But I can finally say that I'm just happy. Extremely happy."
However, in her building, 300 Nassau Avenue, and in other properties owned by the Israels, some hazardous, unlivable conditions are not yet repaired. In response to a question about the next phase of work in this fair housing case, District Attorney Thompson told PIX11 News that he sees a pursuit of the Israels' alleged accomplices as the way to achieve further justice for their tenants.
"We need to know," said Thompson, "who was actually walking around with sledgehammers and bats, walk around with pit bulls [intimidating residents]. We want to identify everyone who was part of this scheme."
Tenants like Hidalgo said that in her building, conditions were so bad that the city had to take over and do basic renovations. The Israels are also responsible for many of the repairs. Hidalgo said that she had been promised that her once badly damaged home will be habitable again, eventually.
"They're in the works of getting some plans drawn up. By Christmas, we'll be back in our homes."
Joel and Aaron Israel could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of the burglary charge alone. Their attorney, Kevin Keating, said outside of court that the cousins' arrest was unexpected, since they had for years cooperated in civil court regarding alleged housing code violations.
"Why this has surfaced now is peculiar," said Keating. "We're going to fight this extensively."
Joel Israel was granted $50,000 bail, Aaron Israel's bail was $25,000. As of Thursday evening, there was no record at the Department of Corrections of them having posted bail payments.