By Gwynne Hogan
An outcropping of apartment buildings has been decaying for more than two decades along a commercial strip of Hollis Avenue in Hollis, Queens. Cracked windows, crumbling brick and sunken roofs mar the five buildings, each of which contains 20 units. A sixth building, almost identical to the other five, has just a few tenants left. As elderly residents pass away, maintenance workers board up the vacant apartments instead of readying them for new tenants, said Charles Anderson, 63, the building’s janitor.
The abandoned buildings loom in stark contrast to the rest of the neighborhood. A playground, a school, a daycare center and tidy suburban homes buttress the structures from all sides.
“It creates a blight right in front of the block,” Cleveland Dixon, 51, who runs a men’s clothing store adjacent to the apartments, said. “I’ve seen violence. I’ve seen guys fighting and yelling and screaming over there, all kinds of stuff. In one word, it’s terrible.”
Cases like the Hollis Avenue apartments happen all across New York City. Landlords, for any number of reasons, withdraw from their properties allowing lots or buildings to fall into neglect, leaving the neighbors with few options but to stomach the consequences.
But these five buildings tell the story of one land heiress whose neglect is repeated in a number of her other holdings across Jamaica, Queens. Rita Stark inherited more than 40 properties in 1988, according to property records. She has sold some since but still owns around half. And at least 11 of those properties, including the Hollis Avenue buildings, have sunken into disrepair.
The Hollis Local Development Corporation has taken up the cause. Members are drafting a letter to Stark’s lawyer offering to buy one of the buildings.
“She probably assumes that the pressure is over,” Ernestine Alston, vice president of the HLDC, said. “But it’s never going to be over until we see an improvement in those buildings.”
Stark could not be reached for comment. Her lawyer relayed a message via email that she does not comment on specific properties. Someone from her real estate office confirmed this:
“As a matter of policy we don’t comment on specific properties” she said, preferring not to be named. “But I can say we’re currently involved in efforts to improve our properties.”
Pressure was put on Stark in 2012, when Hollis residents, led by HLDC and a local church, mobilized to get the buildings developed. They picketed in front of the apartments and ignited a short-lived but intense media frenzy. Their efforts managed to compel Stark to trim some brambles and board up a window or two – but little else.
But the HLDC isn’t the only party interested in the buildings.
Marc Francis, the CEO of the Delphine Real Estate Advisory Group, started working in Hollis just over a year ago and offered to purchase the buildings last July. After repeated attempts to get in touch with Stark, he was finally told by a representative from her real estate office that his offer was not worth consideration.
“If it were the situation that no one was coming forward with offers to redevelop these buildings that would be one thing. However, in the current environment, that is not the case,” Francis said. “This area deserves better.”
Neighbors say they’ve seen drug dealers, people urinating behind the buildings, and large families of raccoons entering and exiting the buildings through the basement windows.
And the HLDC is concerned that the abandoned apartments muzzle development along the street.
“I’m not going into any other neighborhood and shop at a place that looks deserted and seedy,” Alston, the HLDC vice president, said. “This is the main reason why we’re pushing so hard at HLDC because we want to make the commercial strip effective. We want people to shop there.”
Burnett Dixon, 68 – father of men’s clothing shop owner Cleveland – has owned the five buildings directly across the street from the Stark apartments since the early 2000s. Dixon has been trying in vain to rent two of his storefronts for the past five years.
Yet Dixon said, “there’s always hope.” He imagines what his business might be like if there was some kind of redevelopment of the properties.
“Oh Lord, a whole new ball game, a whole neighborhood, a whole new everything,” he said.
And while some maintain hope that Stark will sell, develop or renovate, Community Board 12 District Manager Yvonne Reddick is more resigned. The buildings fall within her community board.
“There’s nothing we can do as long as she pays her property taxes, as long as she keeps it clean,” she said.
Gwynne Hogan is a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and a multimedia reporter for Voices of NY. Follow her on twitter.
Deserted NYC is a product of the NYCity News Service at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism