By Noah Goldberg
March 12, 2019
He’s the renter who read too much.
Ben Hammer could probably write a tome about the 46 years he has spent in his Brooklyn apartment, but he wouldn’t have anywhere to put it. The longtime Midwood resident is being threatened with eviction from his rent-regulated digs because, his landlord says, his vast collection of books and paper is a hazard.
Hammer, 67, has called the one-bedroom apartment home since 1973, and got a rent freeze two years ago, he said. Before he moved in, his great-aunt and uncle had lived in the second-floor flat since the Ocean Ave. building was opened for tenants in 1928.
“I think they are desperate to have me evicted on account of I got a rent freeze lawfully,” said Hammer, a former seaman who worked on intercontinental freighters and passenger ships.
He pays less than $700 per month rent. When he moved in, his rent was about $150 per month, he said. A Zillow search of rents for one-bedroom flats in apartment buildings in the Midwood area showed a range of about $1,400 per month to about $2,500 per month.
The building was bought by Benedict Realty Group in 2015 for $17.3 million, according to the Real Deal.
Hammer received an eviction notice in December 2017, just a few months after he got a SCRIE -- Senior Citizen's Rent Increase Exemption.
The vacate order doesn’t reference the exemption.
“You have been keeping your apartment in extremely unsanitary, unhealthy and unclean manner in violation of your lease agreement,” the notice reads. “There are boxes, bags, papers, debris, filing cabinets, wood crates and books piled from floor to ceiling throughout the apartment.”
The maintenance director for the building, Nelson Diaz, told The News in a statement, “This tenant has literally filled his apartment with paper and has created a significant fire hazard for him and the entire building.
“We repeatedly requested that he resolve the situation, without response. We have worked with the Housing Court to achieve a resolution for the hazard,” Diaz said.
Hammer said his back is against the (cluttered) wall.
“They accuse me of everything short of the sinking of the Lusitania and propagating the pneumonic variety of the bubonic plague,” Hammer said.
The entryway of Hammer’s home, a long thin hallway, is lined almost to the ceiling on one side with books on shelves and on the other with family photos. In his bedroom and living room, boxes are stacked high. Photos and posters of vessels on which he worked are framed and hung around the dusty apartment.
Still, Hammer argues there is no risk, and says his landlord wants to rent the apartment at market rate.
“You might call it a library, my landlord calls it a fire hazard,” Hammer said. “Pure and simple, I’m a long-term senior citizen resident in a rent-stabilized apartment and I got a rent freeze that I’m lawfully entitled to. If he deposed me he can realize windfall profits at my expense.”
His lawyers agree.
"Unscrupulous landlords will employ a range of tactics to shirk legal obligations and boost their bottom line,” the Legal Aid Society, which is representing Hammer, said in a statement.. “It's shameful that our clients — seniors, families, the disabled, and children — in rent-regulated units continue to suffer this type of harassment with little recourse.”
Hammer, who started collecting books as a child and never stopped, insists he's not a hoarder — each book has a special meaning for him. There are books in the kitchen and books in the bathroom. Books, books and more books about everything from early Zionist history and modernist American literature to seamanship.
"They’re important to me. Unlike a lot of people, I happen to have respect for the printed word. I am not a media person. I do not own a television," he said.
Hammer understands that not everyone sees his collection the way he does. "To me its valuable. To somebody else, it’s just a stack of stuff."
He and his landlord are due in housing court on Tuesday.
Hammer has no intention of leaving his apartment.
“I don’t believe in acquiescing to tyranny,” he said.