It takes a certain kind of real-estate market to drive a man to a Brooklyn rooftop in the bitter chill of January, ready to break the law for a chance to have a home. But David Kirchner would tell you his whole life in New York had been leading up to this.
It was two years ago, just a few days after New Year’s Eve, and Kirchner, a 32-year-old freelance film editor, was doing pretty much what he did every day—coveting the abandoned building next door. He’d been fantasizing about the place on and off ever since he and his girlfriend, Courtney Aison, had moved to Park Slope two years earlier. They were caught in a typical New York trap—renting in a neighborhood they loved, but couldn’t afford to buy in—and somewhere along the way, Kirchner got it in his head that this building could be their ticket out of perpetual-renter purgatory and into a home of their own.
The truth is, this wasn’t your typical dream house. The building at 67 Fifth Avenue, near St. Marks Avenue, wasn’t a house at all, but a vacant commercial storefront with two ordinary apartments above it—a three-story brick box on a bustling business corridor. The windows were boarded up, and the metal front door was covered with graffiti. But to Kirchner, who’d been sharing and subletting and couch-crashing in New York for eight years, it was a stately pleasure dome—or at least a potential one. Since the building he was renting in next door was an exact twin, he had a rough idea of what the adjoining property must be like: thousands of square feet spread over three full floors, one already set up to be a store, all going unused. He imagined redesigning the space according to his every desire—the perfect kitchen, maybe a hot tub. He’d be not just a homeowner but a landlord—kicking back while the rent paid for his mortgage. And from his third-floor bedroom window, he could see the building’s lush but deserted backyard, a rose bush growing errantly. What really fed the fantasy was the location. Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue renaissance was briskly advancing toward his block; before long, two new bistros and a yoga center would open across the street. To the north was the Atlantic Center mall and the site where Bruce Ratner wants to build an arena for the Nets.
If only he and Courtney could afford to buy the place. Kirchner had just $20,000 in the bank, barely enough for a down payment on a studio, let alone a three-story mixed-use home, and as an editor who lived from job to job, he couldn’t carry too heavy a monthly mortgage payment; Courtney was going back to school.
Every morning he would wake up, pondering the essential mystery: Why would anyone give up this building? Kirchner heard from neighbors that no one had seen Pauline and José, the old couple who apparently owned the place, for at least three years. Some said they’d left in a hurry—Spain, possibly; no one knew. He also learned he wasn’t the only would-be poacher on the block. Two people, including his own landlord, said they’d haggled with Pauline over the building. Pauline had apparently flaked out, demanding more money, before the couple vanished.
Most of his neighbors thought the city would get around to foreclosing on the building one day. Then it would be auctioned, perhaps for as much as a half-million dollars. That was a good deal—the land alone was probably worth that—but still too rich for Kirchner’s blood. What Kirchner needed was a steal. Suppose he searched for Pauline and José, tracked them down in some far-off land, and learned that they were highly motivated—desperate, even—to sell? Suppose he made an extremely lowball offer—say, about the same price he would have paid for a studio—and they accepted? “This was my ticket,” he decided. “I’d have the deal of the century, and have a huge place to live in. Even if it’s modest, it’s a place where you could start a family. Where you could have a life.”
Kirchner was the first to admit he hadn’t really thought the plan through: What would he do if he did find Pauline and José—ask them nicely for the keys? Courtney, meanwhile, started worrying that he wasn’t ready to think about having a normal future. Why couldn’t he walk into one of the neighborhood’s dozens of real-estate offices and find a place that was actually for sale? One he could afford?
Between editing gigs, Kirchner started doing recon on the building. He visited the Kings County Courthouse and learned the city hadn’t scheduled an auction for the building yet—despite being owed a few hundred thousands of dollars in back taxes. Until a property is sold at auction, the owners on the deed still have possession. This meant that Pauline and José could still sell the building, paying back their debt and clearing encumbrances like unpaid power bills. This seemed perfectly plausible: “It was obvious that the building was worth much more than what they owed,” Kirchner says. Maybe he actually had a chance.
When Kirchner tracked down ownership records with two names on them—José Barrero and Pauline Dean—his heart skipped a beat. Last names . . . He jumped onto the Internet and searched the phone listings in Spain. But he quickly learned that to find someone in Spain, he needed a second surname—the matrilineal name—that didn’t appear in any of the courthouse documents. He was back where he started. Worse, he worried that his phone calls about the building had alerted the city that it hadn’t been auctioned yet. Others wanted the place, too, and could pay more for it. If he didn’t find José and Pauline, the deal—if it existed at all—might slip through his fingers. On January 2, 2003, Courtney moved out; they’d grown apart, she said. Kirchner was crestfallen. On the other hand, now there was no one left to keep him from doing what he’d been tempted to do for months. Which explains why, the next day, on that cold January morning two years ago, he broke into the place.