Warning: Gentrification in Progress

A Case Study in Displacement on Elizabeth Street

Yang, a 45-year-old restaurant worker who came to New York from China in 1990 and has lived in the building for seven years, lives in just such an apartment, and Shaoul's lawsuit against him is typical of the landlord's charges against other Chinese tenants. Yang pays rent—he says it is $772 a month for two bedrooms—in his own name, even though he is not the leaseholder. The apartment is leased by Zhen Shuan Guo, and Shaoul has sued both men, alleging that Guo has moved out and was charging Yang and five other borders to live there. In addition, Shaoul's suit claims that having more than one roommate who is not an immediate family member violates the lease.

In court papers, Yang argues that for years Tsang Realty accepted his rent checks, which he says acknowledged him as a legal tenant, and that Shaoul is now obliged to do the same. Haeyoung Yoon, a staff attorney at MFY Legal Services who represents Yang and several other tenants, acknowledges that Guo has moved out, but insists that Shaoul's charges that Guo is profiting off the tenants "is absolutely not true." Instead, she says that Yang and other tenants meet the state's standard of a nontraditional family because they have interdependent financial and emotional commitments, giving them rights to succeed Guo in the apartment.

"They share the rent, the food, all the expenses," says Yoon. "It's very consistent among the tenants. The rents are about $750 to $800, and it comes to about $150 per person." Yoon says that Chinese tenants in other apartments have similar arrangements.

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New York law more commonly grants succession rights to spouses, children, parents, stepchildren, stepparents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, grandchildren, parents-in-law, and children-in-law who have lived in the apartment for two years prior to the original tenant leaving. Yoon says her clients are relying on a Fuzhounese definition of family. "What's really unique is that they're all from the same province within Fuzhou and they see each other as brothers and sisters," says Yoon. "It's a nontraditional family. When you ask them, 'Why do you consider your cousin a sister?' they'll say, 'Well, because she's my sister.' It's about the closeness of family ties here and in Fuzhou; it's a very cultural thing." All the eviction cases are pending but one, which is being settled.

Just as Shaoul's rooming-house suits against the Asian tenants are almost identical, the tenants' responses end in a standard way: They recite the fact that Shaoul has brought such cases against seven of 11 Asian tenants, but has instead offered to pay Latino tenants to move. Further, they say, he has thus far rented only to white tenants, and claim he is violating city, state, and federal human rights laws.

Late last year, 12 Shaoul tenants, including Chinese and Latinos, brought three separate suits against him in housing court, alleging a range of housing-code violations including sagging floors, water leaks, falling plaster, and moldy walls. Their main complaint, however, was that the building had no cooking gas after a fire broke out in July.

By November, Shaoul restored the gas for all but one tenant (whose service was restored in December) and agreed to make repairs. Much of the work has been done, but tenants say some items remain. Two of the remaining Latino tenants have joined two of the Chinese tenants in withholding rent while awaiting repairs. Yoon is working with Shaoul to get him to offer the old tenants something he gave to the new ones, rent rebates for the months without gas.

The protracted litigation seems to have taken a financial toll on Shaoul, whose family runs an antiques business on Broadway. This spring, the Dime Savings Bank sued his firm for failing to pay the monthly $10,675 note on his $1,050,000 mortgage. On March 26, the case was discontinued, presumably because Shaoul paid. In November 2000, and again in March 2001, Shaoul's own landlord at 80 Madison Avenue sued him for back rent (about $1900 a month) but managers there say he is currently paid up.

Despite the rancor between the landlord and the long-term tenants, relationships between them and the newcomers are cordial, at least superficially. "The Chinese people are always very polite," says Alena Slamova, who shares the apartment with King. "Even though they live on the floors beneath us, they help me to carry my laundry up all the way to the top." King himself says that he feels no "residual hostility" from his neighbors. "They may feel forced out, but I don't see it. Everybody makes an effort to say hello.

"This is really about the law of supply and demand," King says. "I don't think living in Manhattan is for everyone. I'm sure there's loads of upcoming young stockbrokers and lawyers who travel an hour or more to get to Manhattan. What keeps lower-wage workers from that kind of commute?"

Gillian Jabin's feelings are more conflicted. A housing dilemma brought her to Shaoul's building: She lost a $400 illegal sublet on Ludlow Street, then had to pay a $4000 finder's fee for the Elizabeth Street apartment that she calls overpriced and says makes her feel claustrophobic. That has helped her to appreciate the plight some of her neighbors face. "I've been inside some of the Chinese people's apartments, and they're crowded, but running rooming houses? I don't know what he means," she says. "But I do feel bad that they're losing their homes, and that all of New York is becoming a city of 20- or 30-year-olds, full of dotcommers."

As for the food stamps that come for Maria Perez, she says, "I just don't know what to do with them. I put them on the ground floor and hope maybe some of her old neighbors know where she's gone."

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