Warning: Gentrification in Progress

A Case Study in Displacement on Elizabeth Street

While Gillian Jabin says she's happy with the move she made to a downtown apartment on Elizabeth Street, she finds one thing troubling. After living there for nearly a year, she still gets letters meant for the tenant who lived in the apartment before she moved in last September.

"I know she was a woman and she was on welfare," says Jabin, a soft-spoken 23-year-old ballet dancer and model who shares the $2300 two-bedroom with a roommate. "I know because I get all her food stamps. It feels kind of funny. I never even saw a food stamp before."

Usually, getting an old tenant's mail is no more than an annoyance. But to Jabin, it is a telling detail, and an uneasy reminder of what she calls the turmoil that long-term tenants at 166 Elizabeth Street have endured and are still undergoing so that the landlord can make room for higher-paying renters like herself.

The effort to vacate rent-regulated apartments is being replicated throughout this downtown neighborhood, and across the city. In Washington Heights and Fort Greene, Long Island City and Bed-Stuy, tenants are organizing to fight displacement. Squeezed by a hyper economy that is brutal even in its shrunken state, working-class renters are being replaced by the latest generation of affluent, twentysomething newcomers. Thousands of rent-regulated units are being converted to market-rate apartments, lost forever as affordable housing. No one keeps track of how many units are deregulated, or where displaced people go, so the dimensions of the problem are not measured. But the effects are plainly visible at 166 Elizabeth.

For decades, the 22-unit, six-story walk-up has been home to poor and working-class tenants, mostly Chinese and Latino. But in March 2000, seizing on the frenetic real estate market that has turned Chinatown and Little Italy into Nolita, an amazingly young landlord bought the property. For more than a year, 24-year-old novice landlord Benjamin Shaoul has been turning the century-old building from a hard-used, low-rent tenement into a hip, high-end rental. Even spaces like Jabin's, which she describes as "no bigger than a dime," cost more in one year than the median annual household income of most city renters.

The resulting contrasts are astounding. On the top floor of Shaoul's building, for instance, the rent-controlled apartment of Petra Otero, whose family has lived there for three decades, costs $138.12 a month. Twenty-five feet down the hall is Joseph "Jay" King's penthouse, one of two that Shaoul created by tearing through the ceilings of vacant top-floor apartments and constructing living areas on the building's roof. King's rent? About $3000 a month.

While a unit like King's or Jabin's is graced with polished granite tiles and new appliances, a typical unit occupied by Chinese immigrants features an old stove and refrigerator sitting on a slanting floor where bare wood peeks through mismatched linoleum. Bunk beds are crowded into small bedrooms. Rent is about $800 a month.

Remarkable as the differences are, Shaoul's tenants have two things in common: They are, by and large, new to New York City. And they are all victims of the housing shortage, though it affects the new and old in profoundly different ways. Some tenants who pay thousands a month are still in walk-up apartments too small even for bathtubs. And long-term renters, forced to cram into apartments for lack of affordable options, risk eviction for doing so.

Indeed, Shaoul has sued nine of the building's 11 Chinese tenants, alleging in seven cases that they are running rooming houses in their apartments and profiteering off the enterprise—charges that they all deny. Two others are being sued for non-payment of rent and say they won't pay until Shaoul makes improvements. Both sides are in court, and Shaoul faces a July 6 court date to show Judge Margaret Parisi McGowan that he has made repairs.

Besides suing to evict tenants, Shaoul has also rid the building of some low-rent occupants by paying them to leave. That was the case with Maria Perez, who had been paying $400 a month to live in the apartment where Jabin now pays nearly six times as much. Sources say Shaoul paid Perez $7500—an amount he'll recoup from Jabin's rent in less than four months. Neighbors are not sure where Perez and her family have gone. Some say she's in Santo Domingo, others say the Bronx.

In paying tenants to leave apartments and pursuing so many court actions, Shaoul is simply taking advantage of the ordinary resources landlords use to clear out a building. But tenants say he has also used extraordinary means. Otero says that Shaoul has harassed her by strolling into her apartment when her door is ajar, turning down the TV, and demanding they discuss a buy-out. She has repeatedly refused his offers. Otero believes that the landlord reported her to state child-abuse officials, who told her they were investigating a claim that her two children were in danger because of drug use in the household. Otero's brother, who lives with her, does have a five-year-old drug conviction, but she says he is tested for drugs every week in a rehab program, and is consistently drug-free. Sources say a final determination in the case is imminent.

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