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The meeting quickly became contentious when one resident asked why it fell on them as individuals to fight a landlord who was potentially breaking city and state housing regulations. The tenants had already gone to a lawyer the week before and were told that the retainer fee alone would be $17,000, a figure they balked at. ("That would be a lot of bake sales," one resident quipped.) Like many of his neighbors, Wilking left feeling that the situation was hopeless, that he should start packing.
However, since that meeting, tenants believe they have found a way to buy some time: Since 1978, the building has taken part in the city's J-51 tax-abatement program, which provides tax breaks to landlords as an incentive to renovate their buildings. The abatement had been repeatedly renewed, and city finance records show that Bhalla and the building's previous landlords saved more than $318,000 in taxes over the years. By reading the fine print in the building's decidedly unsexy financial records, residents realized that the J-51 program mandates landlords to provide rent-stabilization protections to all tenants while the building is getting the tax breaks. Those protections include the right for all tenants to renew their leases. According to their research, Bhalla had been illegally terminating leases.
"I was ready to move, but all the sudden I learn they're not doing this legally," Wilking says. "OK, wait a second. . . They're the ones who are changing the rules and making us move out. They have to be accountable and responsible for their actions."
Armed with this new information, residents got help from their elected officials once more. Senator Duane sent a letter to Marolda asserting that the lease terminations were, in fact, against city code and requested a meeting to discuss it. Despite the weight of officialdomthe letter was co-signed by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, Borough President Scott Stringer, and Congressman Jerrold NadlerMarolda says he sees no point in responding. "We're not doing anything wrong," he says. "There's no reason to respond unless a particular tenant challenges us." And that's exactly what is going to happen.
Earlier this month, Albert sent a letter back to Marolda challenging the lease termination. He expects it to wind up in Housing Court, where he hopes the judge will deem him worthy of rent-stabilization protections under the J-51 tax abatement rules. It's uncharted territory for any of the Bank Street residents, and potentially only a band-aid until the city passes real enforcement measures to stop hotel conversions. (The building has only three years left in the tax-abatement program, after which it is not obligated to renew market-rate leases.) "I'm the guinea pig," Wilking says, a hint of nervous energy in his voice.
A jazzy version of "A Very Merry Christmas" played on a stereo in the vast lobby of One Bank, but it was drowned out by toddlers chasing one another and the din of conversation. The lobby had been transformed for the holidays, as it is every year for the residents' annual pot luck. A Christmas tree was decorated with ornaments made by tenants, including a miniature replica of the building. An electric menorah glowed near several tables laden with wine, soda, pizza, and Italian desserts. But the usually jolly tone was muted, Wilking noted, because this could be the last celebration here. There may not be enough of the old guard left next year to host the pot luck.
|At the annual holiday party, six-year-old Felix tries to grab some treats before theyre all gone.
photo: Kate Lacey
But it's a divided one. Wilking, a regular organizer of the holiday party, is among the few willing to fight. Others have little hope, and see the inevitable transformation of the building as part of the unstoppable force of redevelopment in Greenwich Village and the city at large.
It is true that One Bank Street has always been a microcosm of the area around it. When the AIDS epidemic swept through the Village, it also left many apartments vacant here. When a new creative class of urban parents started moving into the neighborhood in the 1990s, children showed up at the annual get-togethers at One Bank. And now, as the Village has lost some of its old charm to corporate chains like Starbucks and Equinox, buildings like this one are squeezing the artists out to make way for the booming tourism industry and the corporate travelers in town to close big deals.
One such traveler, a young financial consultant from Boston who has taken up residence next-door to Wilking, breezes through the party on his way out. He says his company is saving close to $4,000 by having him stay here rather than at a hotel or a traditional corporate apartment. "But," he says apologetically, "if I lived here, I probably wouldn't be thrilled about it either."