Good morning. It’s Wednesday. We’ll look at a big loft in Brooklyn that rents for $500 a month. That’s right, $500 a month. We’ll also look at how the city’s jail commissioner emailed his staff in an apparent bid to hold down the death toll at Rikers Island.
Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
In a city where rental prices keep setting records and the real estate firm Douglas Elliman says the median for a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan is now $4,100 a month, Jens Rasmussen and Maria Aparo live in that rarest of places: a $500-a-month loft.
It’s large loft, at 3,200 square feet — roughly a third larger than the average single-family house nationwide and a bit less than triple the average size of a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, according to the appraiser Jonathan Miller.
It’s so large that their two-bedroom living area fills only half of the space. Rasmussen and Aparo, theater-world veterans, have turned the rest into two studios that Aparo calls “blank canvases for creativity.” They charge fees for film and photography shoots there. They also make the studios available, free, to artists and community organizations.
Their loft, the top floor of what was once a factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where potato chips were made, is covered by a 1982 state statute that affects a tiny fraction of city’s rental stock — only 325 buildings at the moment, according to the Department of Buildings. The law provided protections against evictions and rent increases to artists who had converted industrial spaces or lofts into living and working quarters.
Most of the loft dwellers who went through the required certification process were in SoHo. But a few in Brooklyn also sought eligibility, among them Rasmussen’s mother-in-law from an earlier marriage. She eventually passed the loft on to Rasmussen and his first wife. “In the divorce,” he told our writer D.W. Gibson, “I gave her all the money, and she gave me the loft.”
Rasmussen, 52, has now lived there for half his life. “Essentially my rent is locked in at the rate it was when they first started renting in this building,” he said. “I’m thankful for the loft law — so thankful. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to stay in the city.”
He and Aparo, 36, barely knew each other before the Covid-19 closed in, though they had moved in the same circles for years, and both left the city during the pandemic to care for family members. They began exchanging texts after she wrote a social media post about looking after her grandmother, who had Parkinson’s disease. Before long, text messages were not enough. “I finally said: ‘I’m going to reach out because I need to talk about it and you probably do too — this is not a text conversation,” he recalled.
After the funerals of his father in Wisconsin and her grandmother in Georgia last year, they considered living in Atlanta and Chicago. But they couldn’t bring themselves to walk away from Rasmussen’s loft and the ultralow rent — or the space, enough for a family. Their son, Luca, was born in their bedroom in June.
Aparo, who previously worked in the fetish industry, is particularly passionate about sex positivity, mental health and bodily autonomy, and the couple support work around such issues. After the Supreme Court decision eliminating a constitutional right to abortion, they established a yearlong writing residency for Jeanne Dorsey, a playwright working on a project about Martha Goddard, who developed the modern-day rape kit. They have also given studio space to organizations focused on women’s reproductive rights.
Still, despite all the space, Rasmussen and Aparo say that loft life isn’t always as glamorous as it might sound. “We basically live in a warehouse,” she said.
Expect a cloudy day in the low 70s. For tonight, clouds linger with a low in the mid-50s.
In effect until Oct. 5 (Yom Kippur).
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See that a dying man is “off the department’s count,” the jail commissioner said
Last week Louis Molina, New York City’s jail commissioner, told his senior staff to see that a man who had been held on Rikers Island and had gone into cardiac arrest was “off the department’s count.”
The man, Elmore Robert Pondexter, was granted a so-called compassionate release from detention hours after Molina sent an email containing those words. Pondexter, who was 59 and had been held on Rikers Island since April 2020 on charges of rape and related offenses, died at Bellevue Hospital after he was taken off life support.
Molina does not have the authority to free people from custody on his own, and how much his instructions figured in the decision to release Pondexter is unclear. My colleague Jan Ransom writes that because of the compassionate release, the Correction Department did not list Pondexter as having died in its custody. Nor did it send word to the city Board of Correction, an oversight panel, or issue a news release, as it normally does when people held at Rikers die there.
Still, the involvement of the city’s top jail official appeared to point to a desire to keep the death figures down — an idea a Correction Department spokeswoman called “incorrect and offensive.” The spokeswoman, Danielle De Souza, added: “The language used by Commissioner Molina in that email is technical in nature — removing someone off the department’s ‘count’ allows for them to spend time with their family with maximum privacy.”
Nationally, incarcerated people who are elderly, incapacitated or ailing are sometimes freed. And Pondexter’s lawyer, like many with clients who are gravely ill, had pressed for his release so that he could die surrounded by family.
Only after his death did those family members realize that the practice could be used to avoid accountability.
“At first we were happy he died with dignity,” said Aquandra Morris, 43, one of his three children. “But then I thought about it — something is not right. They are trying to relinquish their responsibility.”
Aside from Pondexter, the Correction Department under Mayor Eric Adams’s administration has freed at least one other incarcerated person before he died — Antonio Bradley, 28, who had tried to hang himself in June while unsupervised in a pen at the Bronx courthouse. He was not listed in the Correction Department’s official count of in-custody deaths. So far, 16 people have died this year after being held in the city jail system, including Bradley and Pondexter — as many as died in all of 2021.
Pondexter had complained of chest pain and difficulty breathing in the days before his death. He collapsed at 5 a.m. on Sept. 18, according to jail records and two people with knowledge of the episode.
Tests at Bellevue revealed no urgent problems, but he went into cardiac arrest the next day. His heart function was restored, but after doctors determined days later that he was brain-dead, his lawyers with the Legal Aid pressed for his release. Brooklyn prosecutors and state parole officials eventually agreed to it.
Department emails show that Molina was made aware on the morning of Sept. 22 that Pondexter’s release could be delayed. He responded with the email about keeping Pondexter off the department’s count.
Pondexter was taken off life support that afternoon.
The Legal Aid Society said in a statement that the department’s actions and a lack of transparency supported the idea that a federal judge should appoint an independent official to oversee the troubled jail complex.
I was walking my dog on an extremely hot, humid July morning when I passed a porter hosing down the sidewalk in front of an apartment building in Lenox Hill.
There was a garbage truck stopped at a nearby traffic light. Suddenly, a sanitation worker jumped out of the truck’s cab, ran onto the sidewalk and threw his arms straight up in the air.
Accepting the invitation, the porter turned the hose on him.
“Way to go!” I shouted to the two of them through my laughter.
The sanitation worker climbed back into the truck.
“Hey, baby,” he yelled as the truck began to drive off, “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood!”
— Kristen Bihary
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Francis Mateo, Ed Shanahan and Mihir Zaveri contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].