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After 1 year, Briarwood homes still uninhabitable

One year ago, the Treskas family thought they had finally acquired their own version of the American dream. Then their newly paid-off home — and their hopes — literally sank into the ground and they were forced to evacuate the small brick house at 83-48 159th St.

Now Omorfoula and Panagiotis Treskas have been living in a daughter’s basement for more than nine months, thieves have twice targeted their abandoned home and the city has provided no answers in an investigation into the cause of the sinking.

The Treskas are not alone: four other homes were declared too dangerous to inhabit and numerous others were damaged in January 2001, when shifts in the soil caused extensive cracking and sinking in the Briarwood neighborhood.

“The value of my house is zero because I can’t sell it,” complained Elvira Lascarides, who says she has cracks in her walls and is waiting for the results of the investigation in hopes that the city will have to pay for repairs. “We can’t fix the house, we can’t sell the house. There’s nothing we can do.”

Residents hoping for remediation from the city — or at least answers — have filed 25 claims with the city comptroller’s office, which ordered an investigation to determine liability, spokesman Scott Taffet said.

The comptroller’s office declined to identify who was conducting the investigation, which involves legal aspects as well as geological questions.

The investigation has not yet yielded any conclusive results and City Councilman Jim Gennaro (D-Jamaica Estates) is blasting city agencies for taking so long to respond.

“There’s no reason the city couldn’t have acted faster and acted better to give these people the answers they need,” Gennaro said. He believes the delays have been intentional.

“It is my belief that the city has some liability here,” he said. “I think the city has been working hard to protect itself against liability in this case ... a lot harder than it has been working to help these people find the answers they deserve,” Gennaro said.

Contractors for the city conducted initial soil tests several days after the first reports of sinking and found there had been shifts in the water table level. But the tests did not determine if the city was at fault, nor did they explain the ultimate cause of the soil shifts and property damage.

Residents at the time said they suspected a broken underground water main was the culprit, but only an investigation will corroborate or debunk their suspicions. Buildings constructed over landfill or other unstable soils have been known to naturally shift or sink.

If the city is not found liable in the Briarwood cases, residents will probably have little legal recourse for recovering the cost of repairs, according to real estate lawyer Jack Slepian. The buildings’ developers can not be held liable for damage to the houses, which were built more than 60 years ago, he said.

Although most homeowners’ insurance plans cover burglaries, they rarely cover this type of structural damage because buyers are responsible for verifying the quality of their homes before purchase, Slepian said.

In the meantime, five houses sit empty behind lines of blue police barricades, their owners unable to return or to rent to tenants as they wait for the results of the investigation. The Treskas home lists gently southward, its concrete front porch leaning at an unmistakable angle.

Maria Treskas, one of the Treskas’s two daughters, said the year has left her parents not only without a home, but without rent from a tenant or protection for their possessions.

Police had to abandon the 24-hour surveillance service they had provided before the events of Sept. 11 sapped staff for local enforcement.

Unable to afford a storage space rental, the Treskases left many of their belongings behind, Maria Treskas said. She said her parents, who are Greek immigrants and bought the house in 1986, checked on their home last week and found they had been burglarized.

The officer at the 107th Precinct familiar with the abandoned Briarwood homes could not be reached to verify the break-in.

“They steal everything inside — they steal television, radio, movie camera,” Omofoula said.

“It’s terrible,” Maria Treskas said. “My mom is 60, my dad is going to be 69. Now was their time to relax.”

Reach reporter Patricia Demchak by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155..

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