(The house in August 2012, via Google Street View.)
By Lisa Kaplan Gordon
A 69-year-old Navy veteran remains homeless today after a Long Island town tore down his house while he was in Florida recovering from knee surgery.
Phil Williams returned from Florida in August with a new knee and an empty lot after the Town of Hempstead, N.Y., tore down the house where he’d lived for nearly 70 years, since infancy – and where he raised his six kids. The town demolished the house because, according to its engineers, it was unsafe.
Not only was the house gone; all its contents, as well as the detached garage, the driveway and a chestnut tree planted in 1947, were absent, too.
When Williams drove home, all he found was a patch of dead, overgrown grass.
“I’m left with literally nothing,” Williams told Yahoo Real Estate.
Williams speaks to local CBS affiliate WLNY.
Well, not exactly “nothing.” The town did leave Williams with a $42,000 lien on the property to pay for the demolition, “adding insult to injury,” according to Williams’ attorney, Bradley Siegel.
“There are reports that neighbors were not happy with the outside,” Siegel said of the two-story stucco house. In that ZIP Code, the median list price for a house is about $429,000, according to Trulia data.
“But do you deserve to lose your house for that? He paid his property taxes. He was not in foreclosure. The town acted very swiftly.”
Williams left West Hempstead in December to undergo a total knee replacement in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where a friend agreed to help him recuperate. He figured he’d be away for three months, four tops. But health complications before and after the surgery delayed his return until August.
In the meantime, he said, the Town of Hempstead, which comprises West Hempstead and other villages, inspected, condemned and tore down his home without ever making contact with him.
Local CBS affiliate WLNY interviewed Williams at the empty lot that remains.
A spokesman for the town sent Yahoo Real Estate digital copies of several notices stating that the property was unsafe and would be the subject of a hearing on Feb. 24, 2015, to determine whether it was dangerous and authorize its demolition. The documents are appended to the bottom of this story.
Spokeswoman Susie Pokalsky said the town mailed and posted notices on Williams’ door stating that an engineer had determined that the house was structurally unsound. “That’s why it was taken down,” Pokalsky told Yahoo Real Estate.
Town photos of the house show shingles missing, a hole in the roof and the chimney leaning at an angle:
But Williams said that the roof was fine when he left in December, and that a town worker damaged and fell through the roof when he was inspecting it.
“There was a weakened area and he decided to walk on it and went through it,” Williams said. “What you’re looking at is the result of what he did when he went up there.”
Williams said that he never received any notices, and that the first time he saw the town’s paperwork was after his lawyer filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
“I was in the house in October and November, and nobody knocked on my door, and nobody came in to inspect it,” Williams said, dismissing the possibility that the town thought the house was abandoned. “Somebody is not right here.”
Williams said he was living in the house, paying light bills – and tax bills – before he left for Florida. “It certainly needed stucco repair,” he said. “But ‘structurally unsound’? I question that. Unfortunately, the house is no longer there, so I can’t get somebody to evaluate it.”
Not only is the house gone, but a lifetime of possessions and memories are gone, too, including Williams’ late wife’s wedding ring, a houseful of furniture, and a valuable collection of Lionel train sets from the 1920s and 1930s.
“They were irreplaceable,” Williams said.
And, apparently, untraceable. Williams said he doesn’t know what happened to his stuff. Was it trashed, stored, what?
“We’re receiving conflicting information,” he said.
About two weeks ago, Williams filed a “notice of claim” against the Town of Hempstead – a potential prelude to a lawsuit. Siegel, his attorney, said they’re still “investigating all potential claims” including negligence and damage to Williams’ health.
“I’m almost 70 years old,” said Williams, who has returned to live in Florida for now. “You make plans as life goes on. It was not in my plans for this to happen.”
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