Warning: Gentrification in Progress

A Case Study in Displacement on Elizabeth Street

Two floors below, DeFang Wang, a 37-year-old construction worker who has lived in the building since 1995, said through an interpreter that last summer the landlord called police when Wang's wife left their children with an older cousin while she bought take-out food—a necessity, since the building's gas had been off for more than a month. Several Chinese tenants say Shaoul has come to their apartments demanding to see identification. As they produced their wallets, they say, Shaoul snatched them and searched for IDs. And one former commercial tenant, Benjamin Liepelt, alleged in court papers that Shaoul threatened that unless Liepelt vacated his space, he would "hire 'rogue cops' to rid the building of its illegal tenants." Although Liepelt appears to have been a legal tenant, he has moved out.

Shaoul declined to answer a lengthy list of questions the Voicefaxed him at his request. In response, Shaoul wrote, "Unfortunately, on advice of counsel, I am unable to respond . . . due to pending litigation."

New tenant King says Shaoul is a "great landlord" who's improving the neighborhood. "He's fair, very ambitious, very accessible to us," King says. Jabin calls Shaoul "nice" and is pleased that he is not hiking her rent on her upcoming lease. Old tenants, however, don't share that feeling.

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"The landlord is looking to kick people out of poor neighborhoods, and it's easy for them to find reasons," says Wang. "The rents are high and wages low, so a lot of people are facing a crisis." Li Jian Yang, whom Shaoul is trying to evict, suspects Shaoul is not suing the tenants for economic gain: "The landlord wants us out because he's racist and wants to earn more money," says Yang. "It's not fair. We've been here a long time, and this is our home."

In fact, tenants say that at a court date, Shaoul made an explicitly racist comment to an Asian housing organizer that led to a neighborhood-wide campaign against the young landlord. "I don't have anything against Chinese people," Shaoul allegedly told Rosie Wong from the University Settlement, which has assisted many of the tenants. "I just don't want so many of them in my building."

Shortly thereafter, posters with Shaoul's picture and the quote were taped to walls, lampposts, and doors around the Lower East Side. Several community groups, including the Good Old Lower East Side, the Cooper Square Committee, and Community Board 3, wrote letters to local politicians asking them to help the tenants at risk for displacement.

Jay King appears to be the kind of tenant Shaoul doeswant in his building. The Southern-born 31-year-old, who describes himself as a "money manager for myself," moved to his Elizabeth Street penthouse five months ago after a decade in Europe, followed by a brief stint on Mulberry near Houston. "This neighborhood is much better, much more quiet, much more real," says King, "at least as I interpret reality."

King's comfort in the building is obvious. "I like this very much," says King, clearly pleased as he sits in his chicly styled space, a computer set off by the tenement's now exposed brick walls. Delicate linen curtains hang from pewter fixtures. A spiral staircase leads to a rooftop bedroom. "This was exactly what I was looking for. It's very functional and has beauty." King calls the rent "a good deal."

Why? Because, aesthetics aside, this slice of downtown is the place to be. "I like that this neighborhood is in flux and that you can see that it's changing," says King, who shares the apartment with his girlfriend. "You've got cool Nolita kids and Soho combined with Little Italy and Chinatown all right here. This is a crossroads."

King has made friends within the building. Three of the four apartments on his floor are occupied by what he calls "new-income transplants." His next-door neighbor, who has the other penthouse, is "very, very successful in the Internet business, very interesting, very affluent. We're certainly friendly among ourselves. But we certainly don't socialize among the lower floors," where long-term tenants live. "The mix in the building doesn't bother me. I mean, the Orientals we have here are very clean. They certainly don't party hard at night."

Perhaps that's because many of them work at night in restaurants, or long hours in construction or sweatshops. Most of the Asian tenants of 166 Elizabeth are Fuzhounese men in their forties, and they are among the city's newest and poorest immigrants. When they moved into 166 Elizabeth, the landlord was Tsang Realty, whose owner "never cared who lived here or how many people, so long as he could collect the rent," says Wang.

That casual relationship ended when Shaoul bought the building in March 2000. In June of that year, seven Asian tenants got notices charging them with running rooming houses for up to eight boarders and charging them more rent than they themselves paid. Stop or be evicted, Shaoul warned. Tenants consulted with the Committee Against Asian American Violence, and organized to fight the evictions. In September, Shaoul filed suits against the seven tenants.

There's no denying that the apartments of the Asian tenants are crowded: In one, a single toothbrush rack holds six brushes, and six facecloths line the wall, each hung on a nail. Beds are stacked two- and three-high. Seating space in the kitchen is supplemented with stools and milk crates.

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