By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"The stuff Tauber has made me endure should be worth more than he's offering me," Peckham says, as he flips through pictures of his landlord. Whenever Tauber inspects the apartment, Peckham snaps a shot of his nemesis as possible future evidence for his court case.
"Here's a picture of Larry," he offers, showing Tauber inspecting his bathroom's faulty toilet. "Here's another picture of Larry," Peckham says, referring, as he always does, to his opponent by his first name. He says the picture captures Tauber in mid-sentence. "He's always saying to me, 'You should just take the deal,' " Peckham explains.
"All these allegations that I'm harassing him, they're not true!" Tauber is now exclaiming into the phone. For a good 10 or 15 minutes, he has sounded surprisingly level-headed, even aggrieved. He has calmly laid out his casethat he has offered his tenant numerous deals to end their battle; that the deals exceed what he's required to give his tenant; yet that his tenant has shifted the conditions and upped the ante so many times he's at a loss to resolve things outside of court. What finally rattles this smooth demeanor is a question about Peckham's harassment claims.
"He's the harasser! I'm telling you the God's honest truth!" Tauber says with a heavy sigh. "The press likes to make it seem like landlords are evil and greedy Dracula types, and he's done a good job convincing people of this. But he's doing it to me. He's making my life miserable."
Tauber ticks off his own body of evidence how Peckham has called city agencies to report building and housing code violations at No. 244 up to 53 times, and how he has used legal means to delay the building's construction. On this, Tauber must grudgingly acknowledge that Peckham has been effective. Since last November, he has had to stop work because he says he cannot continue to keep gutting the building while Peckham still lives there.
On some level, these protestations of innocence seem like typical landlord bluster. After all, other tenants have also alleged harassment by Tauber. Consider the 11 people who live next door to Peckham, at 246 West 21st Street, in a single-room-occupancy building with collapsing ceilings, moldy bathrooms, and broken electrical outlets. Tenants there have accused Tauber of failing to make repairs too, as well as having made more insidious threats. Their complaints have prompted an ongoing harassment investigation by a city housing agency.
At No. 244, though, Tauber does appear to have made a considerable effort to gain Peckham's cooperation. He began looking for a suitable apartment for his tenant in the spring of 2004, after the DHCR had ordered the two to settle their dispute. By July, Tauber had shown his tenant four desirable rentals on the Upper West Side.
But alas, all of those apartments happened to face north. Remember the mantra?
Tauber got a hint of just how picky his tenant would prove to be in a July 6 e-mail from Peckham, in which the tenant wrote:
My apartment is top floor, facing south, in the rear, overlooking a huge garden with an open sky, in the most currently desirable neighborhood, accessible to 4 subway lines, which if you ask any real estate salesperson is much more valuable than the north facing ones, with smaller gardens and facing taller buildings that you have shown me.
Over the last two years, Tauber has proposed 18 apartments, mostly uptown, located from West 68th to West 101st streets. Peckham says he has turned them down because he wants to remain in Chelsea. Yet the intransigent tenant has proven inconsistent even on that point; when offered four units on his own block, he has balked, citing the construction at No. 244. He keeps trying to bargain for more, better, and cheaper. There were wagers over a lesser rent ($550 and $700 a month); there were bids over a bigger buyout ($600,000). Once, while negotiating on the West 69th Street apartment, he requested what even he admits was an "over-the-top" wish list, which he laid out in a January 11, 2005, e-mail to Tauber:
Conditions: Rent 700/mo full stabilized rights
Pay for movers
Pay for lawyer
The e-mail went on to demand extensive renovation work, including:
Replace Door with full size door with glass panes from salvage Through the wall AC at least 8 ft high
24" Viking Stove
Cabinets to the Ceiling
Granite counter tops
New deep tub
Tauber shut down negotiations after that e-mail. "This is extortion," he now says.
Tauber has the law on his side, it seems. Once the DHCR determines a landlord can evict tenants to demolish a building, it gives the landlord the upper hand. That means they don't have to give tenants substantial relocation packages. Indeed, under an agency formula calculating relocation stipends, Peckham could end up with no money at all, since his monthly rent tops $1,000. Peckham's lawyer maintains that his client's disability at least entitles him to another rent-stabilized apartment at the same rent in a nearby area, but that has yet to be proven in court.
In any case, that's what Tauber has effectively offered, and then some. When he won the right to evict Peckham last winter, he put the West 69th Street apartment back on the table. He thought he would propose a deal too good to reject. Want to move back into your newly rehabbed No. 244 unit under your current rent? Done. Want to get a $15,000 relocation stipend? Done. Want to get a lease governed by rent stabilization? Done, except for granting Peckham's heirs the right to inherit the apartment, or Peckham the right to have his regulated rent registered with the state agency that governs landlords. Last March, attorneys even drew up an agreement, only to have it fall apart.