By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Neighbors often spotted Eddie Merrill, illuminated by candlelight, sitting beside the center window on the third floor in the only room in his building not yet gutted. The other half-dozen tenants at 331 West 22nd Street, pressured by owner Margaret Streicker Porres, all vacated. Merrill, alone in the building from autumn into last winter, refused to leave. He was in his seventies, diabetic, and had a weak heart. Merrill returned in December from a hospital stay to find the bathrooms demolished, the electricity cut off, and a boarded-up door in the lobby of his building.
"It was pretty awful. This place was clearly abandoned," says Terry Poe, supervisor of organizing at the West Side SRO Law Project. Streicker Porres even changed the locks on the front door, and Merrill couldn't get in. When he finally did get in, Merrill had no way to refrigerate his insulin because he had no electricity.
Merrill finally decided to relocate to temporary housing, where he died a couple of weeks later, on January 13. Though the medical examiner's office attributed his death to natural causes, his neighbors and lawyers thought otherwise. "I don't think it's a stretch to say he was affected. When you take someone's homethe only thing they haveit breaks their spirit," says Doug Farwell, who lives at another Streicker Porres building, two doors down. Farwell says Streicker Porres tried to push Merrill out so she could complete renovations that would enable her to replace low-income tenants with those willing to pay far more for housing in Chelsea.
"Her actions must have, at the very least, caused him a lot of stress, and maybe all that stress had something to do with the heart attack," says Poe. Once Merrill was gone, Streicker Porres quickly obtained demolition permits from the Department of Buildings, authorizing her to finish the interior gutting job. Nestled among other exorbitantly priced Chelsea housing on a tree-lined street, Merrill's building became the first, though probably not the last, to be successfully emptied by Streicker Porres. Major renovation work is currently underway.
Merrill's building is one of four Streicker Porres owns on 22nd Street. The other, adjacent buildings between Eighth and Ninth avenues are, like Merrill's, decaying, four-story walk-ups, each with a single, creaky staircase leading upstairs to eight small apartments. Some apartments are in better shape than others, but most have leaking floors and ceilings, broken doors and windows, and rodents and bugs.
Last December, Merrill's persistent calls to DOB about violations at the building moved the agency to issue a stop-work order. Streicker Porres's lawyers conceded in subsequent court filings that "the building did not contain a heating system" and tried to get the stop-work order revoked on the grounds that it "would prevent her from installing one," an apparent effort to turn Merrill's victory with DOB into a weapon against him. Molly Doherty of the West Side SRO Law Project sent a letter to Streicker Porres's attorneys making the point that her obligations to provide essential services "exist irregardless of the issuance of the stop-work order to your client." But the stalemate continued, heat and hot water were not restored, and when a water spill turned Merrill's bathroom floor to ice, he finally left.
Streicker Porres initially "obtained a permit to renovate the entire existing building from a rooming house to a two-family dwelling, without indicating that it is partially occupied by tenants and that it is an SRO," says Deborah Rand, who heads the city's housing litigation bureau.
"There's no question she's going to push me out," says Doug Farwell, who's one of only three tenants left in another Steicker Porres building, 327 West 22nd Street. Barry Berkowitz, who has lived in the same building for 35 years, is disabled and cannot work, having undergone six surgeries over the past 15 years due to a back injury. Walking is difficult for him, but with a cane, he makes his way to Emunath Israel at 236 West 23rd Street regularly, where he serves as president of the congregation. If forced to move, he says, "I don't know what I would do. They're dependent on me and me on them." Tenants at another Streicker Porres property, 442 West 22nd Street, are actively fighting her recent filing for a certificate of no- harassment, which would allow her to begin interior demolition.
In addition to Streicker Porres's 22nd Street buildings, she owns 10 others in Manhattana total of 198 units. The buildings have 692 violations, including 70 C-level violations, which require immediate attention and include inadequate supply of heat, hot water, or electricity; leaking ceilings; broken stairwells; exposed live wires; and rodents.
Because of a 1997 change in state law affecting the demolition and conversion of rent-stabilized apartments, "we estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 apartments have been lost," says Wasim Lone, director of organizing at GOLES (Good Old Lower East Side Inc.), a group that champions low-income tenants. According to the NYC Rent Guidelines Board, "the Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1997 made it easier for landlords to demolish buildings with only a few rent-regulated apartments." But renovation can only begin under this law if the building is empty. So landlords, observes Lone, are resorting to harassment, aggressive buyouts, and "a real hemorrhaging of rent-stabilized apartments."
There are indications that Streicker Porres may be attempting to repeat this 22nd Street pattern on Perry Street. She lives at 106 Perry Street and recently filed papers with the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) seeking to take over additional space in the building for her own family use. Apparently the 2,375 square feet that she currently resides inthe average size of a five-bedroom suburban house complete with a two-car garage, front and back porches, and a sunroomis not enough.
Michael Lavery has been living in the pleasant, rent-stabilized building for 35 years, where he pays $570 a month for his little apartment. Streicker Porres purchased the building in the fall of 2001 and has bought out all the tenants but Lavery. Several attempts to evict Lavery, a self-employed attorney, have failed. "She was hostile from the beginning," Lavery says, adding that she is turning the remaining apartments into duplexes.
Efforts to reach Streicker Porres, or her attorney, were unsuccessful. She was co-chair for the Catalog for Giving charitable fundraiser and was quoted in the Times in 2003 bemoaning the fact that someone stole her azaleas from in front of her building. "When Porres bought the building two years ago, I allowed her into my apartment to measure and look around. I thought, she's a young woman, what's the harm?" says Farwell. "Little did I know I was measuring my coffin."