2006-03-10 / Front Page

Landlord To Evict Katrina Evacuees

The Russell familyThe Russell family It was the feel good story of 2005, but it's going sour in '06.

Last summer, a family with three young children loaded their remaining possessions into their car and drove to Rockaway after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their trailer-home in Mississippi. People here welcomed them with open arms: Residents donated clothes, toys, food and cash. A well-known member of the community offered to rent them a three-bedroom apartment and Catholic Charities, P.S. 183 and other schools donated hundreds of dollars to help with rent and utilities.

The kindness of their new neighbors was a ray of hope for the Russell family, who had their home, business, pets and belongings taken from them by the devastating storm. But the Russells aren't back on their feet seven months after they started over in Rockaway, they're embroiled in a fight with their landlord, and it's not about money, it's about heat and hot water. The evacuees were ordered to evacuate again late last month when an eviction notice was served.

The apartment the family is renting, #2F at 210 Beach 91 Street, hasn't had heat or hot water since last December, Billy Russell, the family's patriarch, said last Friday morning. Billy came into the Wave office first thing in the morning with red circles around his eyes, a black bubble jacket on his back and a chip on his shoulder.

"There was no difference between the inside and the outside [of the apartment] last night... We might as well pitch a tent on the street," Billy said in a tempered southern accent that sounded like he was suppressing screams.

Billy, his wife Suzanne, and their children, Elisa, 7, Billy Jr., 6, and Tristian, 4, have been risking harm by using a gas stove and a small electric space heater to get them through the cold and windy nights. They also had a mold problem and endured a three-hour power outage in their apartment last Thursday night. They went to Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, who had helped them secure the apartment, and were directed to 311. But calls to the city's non-emergency response line, six complaints in the last month alone, didn't bring the quick relief the public might expect. A city housing spokesperson said inspectors issued a violation for mold in January but couldn't gain access to check the heat complaints on at least two recent occasions causing "a bit of back and forth."

The 311 complaints succeeded only in provoking an eviction notice from their landlord on February 21, Billy said.

"I could understand if I wasn't paying my rent. There's no excuse, no excuse," said Billy.

The man cashing the rent checks is Vincent Castellano, proprietor of Picture Perfect Properties, member of Community Board 14 and president of the Kiwanis Club.

"Let me guess, you're standing next to fu**ing Billy Russell," Castellano fumed when a Wave reporter called his office last Friday morning (Russell had already left). "Everybody in the building has heat. He doesn't because he keeps fu**ing with the valves," Castellano continued. The Russell's unit is the only one with this problem in the five-apartment, three-office building where Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer and Congressman Anthony Weiner rent office space.

"Walk into Audrey's office and tell me if there's heat," Castellano challenged. He then described the heat system and the necessary steps to restore room temperature, which he said required the boiler to run continuously for several hours to build pressure in the system.

"Billy doesn't listen to anybody. If a tenant puts air into their radiator, don't expect me to jump into action," he said. Castellano also told The Wave that the Russells "live like animals," sublet one of their bedrooms and caused a downstairs tenant to relocate. They pay their $1,500 per month rent, he said.

The Russells say shoddy conditions forced their downstairs neighbor to move but admit they rent one of their rooms in order to make ends meet. Money is tight. Billy, an auto mechanic, found work repairing cabs for a local car service which closed soon after he started working there. "I'm not up here [from Mississippi] being lazy, I'm not up here to hurt nobody. All I want to do is work on cars and spend time with my family."

The Wave first met the Russells last September as they were enrolling Elisa, Billy Jr. and Tristian in public school. Some good news, Billy says the children have made an easier transition. "They're doing pretty good in school up here actually," he said, "better than we expected." Still, Billy, who seemed even more intent on returning to Mississippi last week than he did when he first arrived in Rockaway, says "There's just nothing for us here," he lamented, "and your leaders, ya'll can keep 'em," he added with venom reserved for Pheffer.

Despite Billy's stated desire to go back home, he said he's going to be stubborn and fight Castellano's eviction proceeding. Meanwhile, Castellano told The Wave that the Russells' heat would be restored and, according to the family, it was.

"Now that it's fixed we don't have a complaint," Billy said, "but we're still being evicted for complaining about it." Brian Magoolaghan

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