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On a recent day, he was at the DVD store, sipping congee soup from a plastic take-out container, when he talked about his building and the lawsuit that enabled the residents to return to it. Speaking in his native Mandarin and also some English, he said, "What is there to write? It's never a good thing being written up in a newspaper."
Like most of the newer Chinese arrivals, Lee is from Fujian, a southeastern Chinese province that began supplying immigrants in waves in the 1980s. His parents were already living in New York when, as a child, he was sent to join them and grew up in Manhattan's Chinatown.
In 2003, when he bought 81 Bowery, Lee had high hopes. With property values in town steadily growing, he seemed assured of a good return. And he had plans for those arrivals coming in on the bus at his doorstep every day. He renovated the second and third floors, transforming them from a Buddhist Association into a clean, cheap hotel. Business was going well, he says, until the tenants on the fourth floor began giving him problems.
In 2005, Lee was renting out 32 of the tiny cubicles. He says the entire floor was bringing in only about $4,000 in rent, but electricity and utilities for the floor were costing him more than that—well more than he expected to pay for 32 people in 32 small rooms.
The problem, he says, was that, over the years, residents had figured out a way to make a profit on their own cubicles—they built up the walls so they could add bunks. Two, three, even four people would cram into the tiny rooms, with each person paying the original renter.
"They had too many people in those cubicles," Lee says. "They had entire families living in there. They were using too much electricity!"
Lee says he had told residents that no more than one person could live in each room. A (somewhat murky) housing law, he points out, requires that rooms for two persons be at least 130 square feet. The cubicles are only about half that size. "These are not real apartments, not a normal place to live for people to stay for long," he says. "People are not supposed to stay here for 10, 20 years."
He understands that there are few lodging houses left in the city. (How many places of any kind in Manhattan cost $100 a month?) But for Lee the entrepreneur, the old-school rattraps of the fourth floor were becoming his biggest headache.
"I inherited these tenants from a previous owner who inherited these tenants from other owners over the years," Lee says. "Somewhere along the way, somebody got the idea of making bunk beds, and renting out those beds. These tenants have become landlords of their cubicles!"
They were also complaining to the city incessantly about the lack of heat. In 2005, Lee sued to evict all of the tenants from the fourth floor. But for an owner concerned about too many tenants, the grounds for his suit were odd: Citing a certificate of occupancy that allowed for 62 cubicles—nearly double the number already in place—Lee argued that tenants were breaking the law by living in too few rooms.
In other words, Lee dealt with overcrowding in his lodging house by suing so that he could get even more rooms built. Three years later, the lawsuit was dismissed by a Manhattan judge.
"I had a stupid lawyer," Lee says, shrugging.
Left mostly to themselves over the years, the residents of 81 Bowery made creative use of their tiny spaces. To create privacy, they extended the walls of their rooms upward toward the ceiling with wood partitions. To these partitions they attached planks for storing things like clothing and bags of rice or, as Lee pointed out, for creating beds for additional paying roommates.
Tenants also installed televisions—sometimes three or four to a room, depending on the number of roommates. They made makeshift shelving units to drop their cell phones and keys on. They brought in hot plates and drank tea out of plastic cups and reused jars. At night, drying clothes were hung all over the place—in cubicles, in hallways, and on the fire escape.
Every so often, inspectors from the city's Department of Buildings showed up and issued violations, though it appears from documents that little changed: In 1989, 1993, and 1994, inspectors found that tenants were unlawfully cooking with hot plates in their rooms. In 1994, and again in 1999, they found that residents had been piling up too many bunks. In October 2000, an inspector issued a violation to the tenant in cubicle 10 for mounds of paper that he had piled up. In 2006, they found exposed electrical wires.
One night in September 2009, an elderly man walks up the four flights of stairs carrying a small plastic shopping bag. Nothing but skin and bones, Pui Tak Wong is 83 and seems to have lost all his teeth, but the stairs haven't winded him at all. He is retired, having worked as a cook in Chinatown restaurants for 26 years. His wife works as a nanny in another part of the city—he isn't exactly sure where, but he knows that it's more than an hour away by train. "She comes here once a week," he says, "and we have tea."