New York

Elder Hostile

by

When Sidney Friedman moved into a 14th-floor apartment at 277 West End Avenue in 1948, it was a good deal for the young lawyer and his family. For $210.84 a month, Friedman got three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a dining room, a kitchen, and even servants’ quarters. After the building went co-op four decades later, Friedman did not buy, choosing instead to remain a rent-controlled tenant in what was to become a pricey building. But when Friedman died in 1997 at age 83, the apartment that had once been such a perk became a source of agitation to his widow, Annette.

“After my husband died, whenever I sent in the rent checks, the landlord sent them right back with a letter saying, ‘You are not a tenant because you’re not on the lease,’ ” says Friedman, now 82. “He sent me an eviction letter. I didn’t know what to do.”

The landlord who rejected Friedman’s checks is 269 Realty Company, which does not own the building but owns several of the unsold apartments in the 5-story manse at 73rd Street. In June 1998, 269 Realty sued Friedman for nonpayment, claiming she owed $3589.22 in rent and fees. She countersued, complaining that the landlord’s neglect had caused her classic New York apartment to deteriorate into what her daughter, Sandra Friedman-Alpert, calls “a work of art that is falling apart.” Now, after two years and a recent courtroom drama, the case seems headed for a conclusion.

While challenging the tenancy of an octogenarian with 52 years in the same apartment might seem unnecessarily aggressive, Friedman’s case is by no means singular. At least five other elderly tenants at 277 West End Avenue complain that they too have been sued, or otherwise bothered, by 269 Realty, particularly investor Joseph Alpert (who is no relation to Sandra Friedman-Alpert), in an effort to get them out.

“It’s really very simple,” says 73-year-old Sally Spiro, whose long-deceased mother moved into the building in 1941. “The apartment is valuable and he just wants us out so he can make money. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived here or anything else,” says Spiro, who has lived in the apartment since 1975.

Spiro’s economic analysis is on the mark: Most of the building’s renters are under rent control and, like Friedman, typically pay just under $2000 for apartments that could bring three times as much or sell for well over $1 million. But a tenant’s longevity is indeed relevant because the building’s original co-op plan forbade eviction of renters who were covered by rent laws. Spouses and children have tenant rights, even if they’re not on a lease. The trouble arises when landlords try to advance their financial goals over renters’ legal rights.

“When you have a woman who is 82 years old, you sue and just hope you outlast her,” says Allen Brill, whose law firm represents Friedman. “Because rentals have become so dear in the city, landlords are doing everything they can to get people like this out.”

Alpert and 269 Realty did not return calls for this story. But attorney Lauren Popper, who was put on the case for 269 Realty only last week, commented, “This is not a situation where they’re trying to evict an old lady, and there are not terrible violations in the building.” Popper declined to elaborate, but remarked, “Do you know how big this place is?”

The suit began with 269 Realty’s claim that Friedman owed rent; she says she had sent it in but that the firm had rejected it. She responded with her own lawsuit listing problems in her otherwise gracious apartment, where antique furniture fills rooms so large that a grand piano is hardly noticed in a parlor corner. Paint and plaster silt the floor, woodwork is broken, and city housing inspectors have found exposed electrical wiring, broken sink and tub faucets, and broken ceramic tiles in the apartment. In 1993, the state housing agency found that new windows were defective—Alpert-Friedman says she won a $25,000 settlement after what she calls a “guillotine” window sliced off her fingertip. The state barred the landlord from boosting the rent for the “improvement.”

In fact, Sidney Friedman, whose clients included Audrey Hepburn and the New York Yankees (Friedman sprang several players after a famous 1957 brawl at the Copacabana, where they were celebrating Mickey Mantle’s birthday), represented some tenants who complained about the windows to the state housing agency in the early 1990s. “He did it for free, and when the tenants won against the co-op and 269 Realty, that’s when they really began to cut back on our services,” says Friedman’s daughter, who has a home in Washington, D.C., but who lives most of the time with her mother. “It appeared to be some kind of punishment.”

Last month, the case took an unusual turn. In mid March, Friedman was sworn in before Manhattan Housing Court judge Peter Wendt. For three hours, she testified about her 57-year marriage, her 52-year tenancy, and her ever growing frustration with Alpert. On March 27, all parties signed an agreement recognizing Friedman as a rent-controlled tenant. Then, as the trial was progressing, 269 Realty decided to take its lawyer, Jason Garber, off the case. Garber declined to comment. The move obviously annoyed Wendt, who admonished the landlord, saying that he thought Garber had done a fine job. Ultimately, Wendt recused himself, making Friedman’s testimony moot. She is now scheduled for a late May trial before another judge.

“This happens all the time with older people who are vulnerable,” says Christopher Schulze, an attorney who specializes in law related to the elderly and who represented a tenant in her eighties who was being sued by 269 Realty because she failed to respond to a city form on time. “But we demonstrated that the reason she was late was because she was in the hospital,” says Schulze. “At that point, the landlord should have backed off and walked away. But he pressed it and lost.

“This happens in neighborhoods where the markets are advancing, and these days, there’s no neighborhood that’s not hot. But it gets no hotter than the Upper West Side.”