Facing the Loss of a Home, and a Quirky Experiment

These days, there is no shortage of compelling tales of New Yorkers facing foreclosure and battling bureaucracy in a struggle to pay their bills.

Still, the story of Jerome Johnson of Flatbush, Brooklyn, stands out.

Because he owes tens of thousands in overdue property taxes and water bills, Mr. Johnson, 81, may lose his rather unusual home, which he has owned for 50 years. From the outside it looks like some sort of houseboat, and inside it resembles something out of “The Swiss Family Robinson.’’

Before there were “green buildings,” there was Mr. Johnson’s house, which he called one of the city’s earliest solar-conscious homes. In 1979, he opened it as a research center, naming it the Johnson Energy Clinic and Cooperative.

“This place is a museum,” he said, walking through the house on Monday. “It was the city’s first three-dimensional research facility — not a bunch of talk — for conservation and retrofitting a house to harness solar energy.”

The place is a testament to Mr. Johnson’s innovative spirit and do-it-yourself approach. There are skylights made from plastic lids taken from stereo turntables. Reflective wallpaper on the ceiling refracts heat from electric lights, he said. There is no running water, and rainwater is collected from rooftop basins.

But for all of Mr. Johnson’s talent at tapping into the power of natural energy, he has fallen out of harmony with the powers that be.

He owes nearly $21,000 in unpaid property taxes and about $31,000 in water bills. Faced with losing the property, he said on Tuesday that he hoped to pay off the tax bill.

But Mr. Johnson, who lives on $650 a month in Social Security, challenged the water bill, arguing that his house has not drawn a drop of water from the city’s supply in nearly 30 years and does not have a water meter.

Mr. Johnson and his wife, Jacqueline — they divorced around 1970 — bought the two-story house in 1961 for $8,000. After the divorce, Mrs. Johnson stayed in the house, but in 1978 she moved out with their three children as crime became more prevalent in the neighborhood.

It was the following year that Mr. Johnson, inspired by the energy crisis, set up the research center. High school and college students and government officials were invited to discuss conservation. The water was shut off in 1982, Mr. Johnson said, and the lack of running water was central to using the house as a model of energy conservation.

Mr. Johnson installed wall-sized windows, using seat-of-the-pants engineering and architectural techniques, but he received citations from the Department of Buildings for not having the proper permits.

Starting in the 1950s, Mr. Johnson designed, manufactured and sold photography lighting equipment from a shop that he ran for years in Times Square. His innovations included products like the Reflectal, an umbrella-like device that diffuses light. In the 1970s his inventions turned toward energy conservation and contraptions that harnessed solar power.

“I’m basically an inventor, but if you tell people that, you’re crazy,” he said, sitting in his front yard, which is filled with plants and a shopping cart stuffed with compost.

He tweaked his Reflectal design and devised the umbrella food cooker, whose silver cover reflects heat onto a central grill.

“That’s my Para-Broiler,” he said, pointing to a umbrella with a wire grill where the handle would be. “You put that in the sun right now and you could cook a hamburger or hot dog with it in 45 minutes.”

“We only made a sample run of them — sold about 10,” he said.

He stepped onto his glassed-in front porch, which can be heated by a small wood-burning stove made from an old propane tank — another Jerry Johnson prototype. There were many more examples of his work inside.

There was a battery-powered skateboard made for his grandson; a solar-powered oven, complete with water-purification system, made but never marketed for use in poor countries; and a series of models on how to build a geodesic home. There were also countless binders filled with handwritten treatises on conservation methods.

Skylights in the roof of the house help heat the air, which is blown by a fan to other rooms. Rainwater collected from the roof drips through pipes to 100-gallon tubs in the basement.

Mr. Johnson, a vegetarian, does his limited cooking on a hot plate. He uses no gas or oil. He does not have a water heater, but if he needs to take a sponge bath, he can warm up his water by running it through a rooftop convection system made of hundreds of old tuna cans that are heated by the sun.

Mr. Johnson has water bills showing that the city has been billing him for almost 250 gallons of water a day. An official at the city’s Department of Environmental Protection said that since Mr. Johnson rejected the city’s attempts to install a water meter, he was billed at a rate based upon previous usage and the size of his home.

He has been charged a minimum annual fee for using the city’s sewage system and being connected to the water supply, and he has accumulated many years of interest and fines for nonpayment.

Mr. Johnson said that the city bungled his application for a Senior Citizen Homeowners’ Exemption, which could reduce his annual tax bill and quite likely prevent foreclosure. He said he still hoped to pay his taxes.

“You can see I don’t give up,” he said.

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