Tenants Be Gone
The blocks west of Tenth Avenue, past the railroad cut in Hell's Kitchen, have always been a no-man's-land, an anything-goes kind of place where bad things can happen to good and not-so-good people alike. So when the big bald-headed guy with the pit bull stepped into the concrete courtyard of an aging industrial complex now filled with artists' living lofts, bellowing that he would kill the next person who called the authorities on him, it wasn't the biggest shock in the world for those who heard him.
Hell's Kitchen knows from tough guys. The sunken railroad line just east of the property is where the old Gophers gang used iron spikes to clobber the guards before they looted the boxcars. In the '70s, when the artists moved in, a savage crew called the Westies shook down everyone in sight. These days, however, it's the land itself that's worth the most. The new bandits are more likely to swipe homes than wallets.
And as near as the beleaguered tenants of 517-25 West 45th Street could figure out, the man screaming in the courtyard, a Vin Diesel-style bruiser with a criminal record named Kaine Rosado, was there at the request of their landlord to make their lives somewhat less than comfortable. After all, when Stavros Papaioannou, owner of a couple of pizza restaurants in the Bronx, bought the place, he promptly told the building's rent-protected residents they would all have to go.
Records show that Papaioannou paid a hefty $5.2 million, a price that bought him an ailing four-building property with 18 units containing a hodgepodge of eight rent-regulated tenants who'd been there for years, paying less than $500 apiece, and 10 free-market units topping out at an impressive $3,200 a month. Papaioannou first told his tenants their days were up at a meeting in the courtyard. Then, incredibly, he put it in writing. "You have been here long enough," the landlord wrote in May 2004. They had "two choices": "the good way," which meant a modest $12,000-each buyout, or a vague "second choice" that included "lawyers, city clerks, etc." They had a month to decide.
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The tenants didn't budge. Last week, Papaioannou's lawyer, Michael Hartofelis, dismissed the letters as a "feeble attempt" at eviction that had been "misconstrued" as harassment. "He took a shot," said Hartofelis. "Let's not kid each other. A landlord is looking to displace the lower-paying tenants. So the tenant goes and finds out what his rights are and says, 'Hey, go scratch your ass.' "
As for the trouble with the big guy with the dog, Hartofelis insisted his client had absolutely nothing to do with that. Residents, however, couldn't help but wonder.
Their suspicions began when Rosado, 32, moved in last summer, telling everyone that he was friendly with Tommy, Papaioannou's son, who serves as building manager. Rosado announced that he was installing an eight-bedroom bed-and-breakfast on the fourth floor of the rear building. While the bed-and-breakfast gambit was a new one, tenants knew that the space had already been scouted by massage parlor entrepreneurs, and wasn't even supposed to be used for residential living.
"He was this big guy, all bulked up with tattoos, and he had three other big guys with him," recalled Branden Solotoff, who lives on the ground floor. "I asked him what it was going to be, and he said, 'There's going to be people coming and going here all the time.' I was like, 'I'm not sure that's such a good idea,' and he said he was going to do whatever he wanted and we better stay out of his way."
Things went downhill fast from there. Rosado let his 70-pound pit bull roam unleashed and menacing around the courtyard. At three or four in the morning, his work crews were still hammering away over the heads of Tom Cayler and his wife, Clarice Marshall, who live on the floor below.
One night in the wee hours, Rosado and a girlfriend took a stroll on the roof of an adjoining two-story building in the property, awakening Edward Jaheed Ashley and his family downstairs. Ashley, who's lived there since 1978, enduring countless leaks in the fragile roof, went to see what was up. Words were exchanged in which Rosado suggested he didn't appreciate being questioned and that the complainant could "just go fuck himself." That was Rosado's version, anyway. Ashley heard something more along the lines of "I'll deal with you tomorrow," a threat that disturbed him enough to file a complaint with police.
Cayler and others called everyone they could think ofthe buildings department, the fire department, the cops. They got crucial help from the Mayor's Office of Midtown Enforcement. Robert Sacklow, an inspector from the office, along with two police officers assigned to the unit, warned Rosado that his construction was illegal and posted violations. Rosado didn't appear fazed. "He went around giving everyone these long, hard stares," said Ashley.
Tenant jitters increased when it was learned that Rosado had a record, stemming from a kidnapping incident involving an underage girl in New Jersey. In 1999 in New York, records show, Rosado also pled guilty to criminal contempt for harassing a woman. He got probation on both charges.
The cops warned residents to steer clear of the big guy. But that was hard to do. A couple of days later, Cayler and his 10-year-old son, Cai, encountered Rosado in the stairwell. Rosado addressed Cai. "Tell your father I'm coming after him," he said.
A disturbed Cayler took that story to the Midtown North precinct, where Detective Joe Cornetta agreed to have a talk with Rosado. That evening, Cornetta and three officers went to see him on the fourth floor. There, according to a criminal complaint, they spotted illegal steroids and 20 hypodermic needles. When cops tried to cuff Rosado, he broke away and had to be subdued. As he was led downstairs, past Cayler's door, he screamed, "I'm going to kill you!"
Rosado was hit with four misdemeanors, including drug possession, resisting arrest, and harassment. Cayler got an order of protection. But Rosado made bail and was back in the building the next day.
He'd been bailed out by Tommy Papaioannou, Rosado told Solotoff. He tried to go back to work, but inspectors kept the pressure up, and after a few weeks, Rosado packed his bags and left. He skipped town to Boston, where, reached last week by cell phone, he acknowledged that there are warrants for his arrest from the incident. "I'm going to take care of them when I get my life back together," he said.
As to his involvement with the Papaioannous, Rosado said he too was a victim. "That's right, Tommy paid my bail. I called him from jail and said, 'You got me into a lot of trouble.' " Not only did the younger Papaioannou spring for the $2,000 bail, Rosado said, he also repaid him nearly $40,000 to cover expenses from the failed construction project. It had been Tommy's plan, Rosado said, that the "bed-and-breakfast" would somehow help the owners win eviction of the loft tenants.
"He said I would be a tool for him to get them out. Not a physical tool, but like political," said Rosado. "But he was supposed to get the permits. He got nothing. Tommy is a con artist."
Hartofelis, the owners' lawyer, said he knew nothing about those details, including why Tommy Papaioannou would've paid Rosado's bail. "That Kaine was a very bad guy," said Hartofelis. "He called me a few times. Very nasty."
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Although they never quite bargained to have a tough guy and his dog prowling the property, the loft dwellers knew when they moved in that life could get rough. Cayler, an actor, and Marshall, a dancer, rented the third-floor loft at the rear of the courtyard in 1979. They joined painters, sculptors, and musicians who had been there for years. Back then the buildings were owned by a smelter operator who brewed metals there. He was happy to rent raw space to anyone willing to pay the rent in cash and put up with no heat or hot water after 5 p.m. and on weekends. Any improvements were up to them.
Cayler and Marshall installed a kitchen, bathroom, and wiring, a kind of sweat equity without ownership. They also contended with local hazards. On the street, the couple often encountered hookers servicing commuters catching a quickie on the way to the Lincoln Tunnel. Drug dealers dueled for control of the block. On Christmas Day, 1981, one dealer torched another's Cadillac right out front. Cayler snapped a photo of the flaming auto and made it into a greeting card. "Merry Christmas from Hell's Kitchen," he wrote.
But the price was right. Their 1,600 square feet of bare floor and walls back then went for $300 a month; today it's $480, a fraction of what the market would bring. "We're what John Tierney of the Times calls the 'rentocracy,' " said Cayler. "We pay very little for a lot of space. But we've paid a lot of dues, and we're part of the reason this area's attractive now to developers."
Whatever the rent, lofts like those on West 45th Street are protected under a 1982 Koch-era law that declared existing lofts "Interim Multiple Dwellings"IMDs in housing jargon. The deal brought relative peace to years of bitter landlord-artist battles. To get out from under the law's constraints, owners must obtain a proper certificate of occupancy. The lofts are then shifted into the rent stabilization system; owners can also legally try to take one unit every two years for their own use.
Many have done just that. "There were 950 buildings originally in the system, and almost half of those owners have done what they were supposed to do and are no longer covered," said Chuck DeLaney, a loft tenant and longtime member of the city's loft board. "The rest collect the rent. And there are always a couple of wild men."
Papaioannou didn't appear interested in the slow, bureaucratic route. Instead, tenants say, he immediately began trying to get the IMDs out, while shortchanging everyone, market-rate residents included, on services.
When Elissa Patterson, her husband, and their baby moved in a year ago, paying $2,800 for about 1,000 square feet, Tommy Papaioannou promised in writing that the elevator would work. Instead, Patterson said, the manager made a series of excuses and then confessed that he didn't really want it to operate. "He admitted to me he had IMDs in the building and he had to get them out and that was why the elevator wasn't working," she said.
Patterson was also appalled when the landlord rented to an auto body spray-paint operation on her building's ground floora violation cited repeatedly by city inspectors. "The fumes were so strong you didn't even want to be in the apartment," said Patterson.
Others paying top dollar also voiced gripes. Richard Meyer, who pays $2,500, said he had to run his stove and electric heaters the past two winters. "They just weren't paying the oil bill," he said. Meyer said Tommy Papaioannou also suggested to him that his game plan was to get the IMDs out. "He said he was going to raise the rents really high and get everybody out," said Meyer.
Aric Zagon, who rents 1,200 square feet, said the new owners' arrival coincided with a slide in services and other headaches. Roof leaks went unrepaired, he said. One night, hundreds of teenagers filled the courtyard. It turned out that a vacant space had been rented for a rave. "It was a lot of noise, fights. I just kept my door closed."
Hartofelis pinned the elevator outages to a Con Ed snafu, and denied that the heat was cut. As for Tommy Papaioannou's alleged vows to rid the place of the IMDs, he said, "Landlords talk that way all the time. I explained to him he couldn't force people out."
The lawyer also insisted that his clients were not responsible for the most recent development at the complex, in which units have been broken up into what city inspectors have dubbed illegal single-room-occupancy apartments, with as many as six bedrooms each. Tenants scoff at that claim, saying the Papaioannous have overseen the work.
This month, the Sunday Times real estate section featured one such fragmented apartment. An article headed "Habitats/Hell's Kitchen" described a happy-time Friends-style arrangement in which five strangers had rented individual bedrooms through Web ads for $1,050 to $1,285 apiece. Tenants of that apartment, No. 401 at 517 West 45th Street, didn't respond to a note requesting an interview, but Patterson, who lives down the hall, said they had moved in after the Papaioannous allowed another tenant to make the changes.
Illegally carved-up apartments are a threat to everyone, city officials say, whether it's relatively affluent Manhattan singles or jam-packed immigrants in the outer boroughs. In January, two firefighters were killed battling a blaze in a maze of illegal bedrooms in the Bronx, a tragedy that moved Mayor Bloomberg to call for a crackdown on such units.
Sacklow, the inspector from the mayor's Midtown Enforcement office, served both Stavros and Tommy Papaioannou with criminal court summonses for failing to correct such violations. The men failed to answer court dates, and bench warrants were issued for their arrests, officials said.
"What they did in those units is not just illegal, it is potentially dangerous," said Richard Plansky, the city's deputy criminal justice coordinator, whose office oversees the enforcement unit. "You have to make sure it's safe, that people have sufficient egress to get out in case of fire or other emergencies."
Hartofelis said he thought that the criminal summonses had been dealt with. "I'm really not sure. I thought they'd been answered," he said.
Meanwhile, tenants in the buildings have formed a popular front, with the low-rent loft dwellers and the high-end tenants mutually seeking a court order appointing an outside administrator to run the buildings. The court action is being pressed by a local neighborhood group, Housing Conservation Coordinators, long a bastion of tenant protections in the area.
Bob Kalin, a veteran organizer at the group, said the Papaioannous have failed to live up to numerous promises made in court to make repairs. "These buildings really typify this Wild West mentality you see out there these days," he said. "The owners think they can do whatever they want." The attitude has been stoked by the feverish West Side development market and the recent Hudson Yards rezoning to the south, Kalin said. "The fiercest and most aggressive development activity we're seeing is between Tenth and Eleventh avenues," said Kalin. Even the railroad cut, avoided since the days when the Gophers prowled there, is a target for development now. "Before," he said, "it was just too expensive."
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