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?

Before the cone of silence descends, however, Tauber does offer this one-size-fits-all defense. "Press coverage in New York," he whines, "is always slanted toward the tenant." That, of course, was before he read this article.

Tauber isn't without the blemishes that mark the complexions of many New York City landlords. He faces credible harassment complaints from dozens of tenants besides Peckham. In this case, though, Peckham seems more like the exploiter than the exploited. He admits he's dabbling in a rental poker game of sorts, upping the ante on his landlord, hoping his appeals pay off. His story shows the lengths people will go to keep their rent-stabilized apartments in a city where such units are fast disappearing and such tenants can wield a certain advantage.

Peckham says he's holding out for the cause, for what he calls "my full rent- stabilized rights." As he explains it: "Tauber wants to swindle me out of my rent-stabilized rights. My rights are worth a fortune." But in this high-stakes rental game, as the suit proceeds and the negotiations stall, he stands to lose it all—not only the West 69th Street apartment, but also his own.

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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If you saw Daniel Peckhamout on West 21st Street these days, you might never suspect that he remains a poker play away from losing his home. Neighbors often find him in front of No. 244, tending to a garden of impatiens, trimming morning glories that snake up the facade. He grows tomatoes on the roof and ferns in the window. The homey touches make it easy to forget he lives there alone.

Walk inside, though, and Peckham's self-inflicted isolation becomes evident. That's when you spot the seven mailboxes in the vestibule, each labeled "VACANT." On every floor, the apartment doors are shuttered, some with big metal chains. No loud conversations can be heard, no blaring televisions. An eerie silence pervades the building. Chris Thomas, 38, who has known Peckham since the early 1990s and has recently spent time in his apartment, describes it this way: "It's scary to live in a building alone. I wouldn't want to live there all by myself."

Nor does Peckham. He claims he would gladly lose all the negatives that come with his last-man-standing status—the loneliness ("I try to avoid telling people I live alone because they get uncomfortable and want to leave and I want them to stay"); the spookiness ("I hear a noise and I have to get out of bed and open the door and wait")—if not for his circumstances. As he tells it, he's standing firm out of necessity. He insists that he struggles to meet his rent, supplementing his income by teaching yoga classes, part-time. He collects $149 in food stamps to get by. It seems certain he can't afford New York City's exorbitant market rents—at least not in his neighborhood, or in the 10-block radius around which he's organized his daily life.

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The brownstone building at 117 W. 69th St., where Peckham's landlord, Larry Tauber, recently offered to relocate him.
photo: Brian Kennedy

"I'm not losing my rent-stabilized rights," he says, by way of explanation. "I need them."

His former neighbors once said the same thing—before they took the compromise offers Peckham has refused. In March 2004, all eight tenants at No. 244 got a letter in the mail from the Manhattan law firm of Belkin, Burden, Wenig & Goldman, which represents Tauber, laying out the landlord's plan to gut the building, offering alternatives for settlement. Take a $75,000 buyout, the letter proposed, or move to an adjacent Tauber property, where he offered to keep tenants paying their current rent for seven and a half years. After that, the price would follow the market, which at the time was $2,200 a month.

The news came as no surprise to Peckham and his fellow neighbors. Two years earlier, Tauber had begun converting the rent-regulated building next door into luxury rentals. Once, during the construction, contractors managed to bust 13 holes in the supporting wall between the two row houses, shaking tenants in No. 244, sending bricks and plaster into their hallways and homes. Some tenants saw it as a sign of things to come. "I could see straight through the holes to the other building. It was scary and I thought, 'We're next,' " recalls one former neighbor, who lives in another Tauber building and asked not to be named for fear of recriminations from him. When the letters finally arrived, the tenants—all but Peckham—agreed that they didn't have much choice. One by one, they took the offers.


Peckham had the opposite response to the proposed settlement. "That offer was a joke," he insists. That month he filed a harassment complaint against Tauber, which the agency would dismiss. In two follow-up appeals, he also accused his landlord of an "incorrigible pattern of harassment," to no avail.

Today, Peckham can't get past the idea that his landlord's main intention is to make his life miserable. He loves to display piles of pictures to prove his point, and indeed, some do—like the ones of bubbling ceiling paint and water leaks and buckets stationed throughout his bedroom. Over the last 17 months, four Housing Court judges have ordered Tauber to repair his tenant's ceiling and provide adequate heat and hot water, among other things; collectively, they've reduced his rent by 75 percent and fined Tauber $6,000. But other pictures actually hurt Peckham's cause—like the ones of stacks of cement blocks and metal beams and stairs covered in inches-thick dust. He says they show how bad he's had it since his building became a construction site in late 2004. He fails to acknowledge that he remains there by choice.

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