The Squatter

Daniel Peckham won't leave his Chelsea apartment—not even for the $800 one-bedroom on West 69th Street his landlord offered to get him out. Is he crazy?

Daniel Peckham has a mantra, and it goes like this: Top floor, rear, facing south. Top floor, rear, facing south. Top floor, rear, facing south. He chants it whenever anyone tries to reason with him about the drawn-out battle with a Chelsea landlord that has sapped every ounce of his psychic energy for the last 29 months, a battle that suggests a level of obstinacy one might expect of a bullheaded building owner, not a rent-regulated apartment dweller. But Peckham is nothing like most New York tenants; he cares more about being right than being comfortable, and feels more strongly about winning his case in court than about living in the lap of luxury.

Take the deal, think many of the neighbors, friends, and even reporters who Peckham has enlisted for support in his fight to be the last tenant living in his Chelsea walk-up—an apartment that, of course, meets his mantra in every respect, and where he has lived for the last dozen years.

Two years ago, his landlord, Larry Tauber—by accounts, neither a sleazy slumlord nor a chummy pushover—offered Peckham $75,000 to leave his $1,007-a-month West 21st Street one-bedroom, so that he could begin a gut renovation of the building to convert it to swanky rentals. Peckham's refusals led Tauber to up the offer; by this summer, he'd tried to tempt the tenant with an $800-a-month lease governed by rent-stabilized guidelines on a renovated one-bedroom on West 69th Street between Columbus Avenue and Broadway, a five-minute walk away from the apartments of Steven Spielberg and Bruce Willis.

Daniel Peckham, standing outside one of the now-vacant apartments in the building where he lives, 244 W. 21st St., and where he refuses to leave.
photo: Nicholas Burnham
Daniel Peckham, standing outside one of the now-vacant apartments in the building where he lives, 244 W. 21st St., and where he refuses to leave.


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But Peckham kept saying no, and the chanting continued. Top floor, rear, facing south. Top floor, rear, facing south. Top floor, rear, facing south.

"It's your business," one of Peckham's West 20th Street neighbors in a Tauber-owned building told him when they ran into each other the other day, "but if I were you, I wouldn't be holding out for any southern exposure. If you can get an apartment at a decent rent in a decent building, take it." Had the neighbor known of the apartment Peckham has refused to take—at a rent less than half what its previous tenant paid—he surely would have shared his shock at Peckham's seeming greed.

What drives a tenant to fight a landlord making what would appear to be a reasonable relocation offer? Therein lies a baffling story of litigation run amok, of a landlord who has left himself open to harassment charges that could cost him the case, and of a tenant whose passion for winning may have overtaken his sense of reason and compromise. It's a battle that will have no winners, and may take months to resolve. In the meantime, Daniel Peckham sits alone in an otherwise empty four-story Chelsea brick walk-up, chanting his mantra to anyone who will listen. His audience decreases by the day.

For 29 months, Peckham has lived alone at 244 West 21st Street, amid four floors of vacant and bolted-shut apartments, despite the fact that the structure is set for demolition, already partially ripped apart, with units stripped down to wooden shells.

It has been two years since Peckham began his battle against his landlord, Chelsea Partners, which needs him to leave to carry out its plan to convert the building into luxury rentals. So far he has successfully managed to block those plans, fighting the landlord's application to end his lease before the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which oversees rent stabilization. He has challenged the application at the agency three separate times, accusing his landlord of harassing him out of his home. He has lost all three challenges. Last week, Peckham filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court against the agency and Chelsea Partners in a last-ditch effort to reverse his eviction.

But Peckham cannot bring himself to stop playing the role of beleaguered tenant. "I never asked for this," he repeats, another of his mantras. And some facts do support his version of events as the victim in his lonely battle.

The two combatants suggest a study in stark contrasts. Despite his youthful appearance, Peckham, 54, suffers from degenerative arthritis. A botched hip replacement has left one leg shorter than the other; he collects $722 a month in disability benefits. Whereas Larry Tauber—the chubby-cheeked face of Chelsea Partners—manages a real estate dynasty of sorts. His family owns 41 buildings in Manhattan, many rent regulated, many on the Upper West Side. He bought the West 21st Street address in June 2000, one of 13 buildings that cost him $13 million. Tauber quickly made plain his plan to turn some of these buildings into market-rate rentals.

But in one sense the two men share an identical view. Each thinks the other is behaving in an unreasonable manner, and negotiating badly.

"Everyone is calling me the Dracula landlord," Tauber says. "I'm the Dracula landlord for trying to kick this guy out and for a list of bad things he says I did. None of it is true." Tauber is speaking over the phone, in rapid staccato, a 20-minute, uncensored soliloquy. As he describes the offers he's made to Peckham for his apartment—the 18 alternatives, the monetary sums—his frustration becomes evident. At first, he's eager to tell his story, agreeing to meet in person and disclose all the legal paperwork. Two days later, though, he withdraws his cooperation through his attorney, Sherwin Belkin, of the prominent real estate firm of Belkin, Burden, Wenig & Goldman, whose newsletters tout ways for landlords to "recover" rent-regulated buildings.

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