The Squatter


Daniel Peckham has a mantra, and it goes like this: Top floor, rear, facing south. Top floor, rear, facing south. Top floor, rear, facing south.
He chants it whenever anyone tries to reason with him about the drawn-out battle with a Chelsea landlord that has sapped every ounce of his psychic energy for the last 29 months, a battle that suggests a level of obstinacy one might expect of a bullheaded building owner, not a rent-regulated apartment dweller. But Peckham is nothing like most New York tenants; he cares more about being right than being comfortable, and feels more strongly about winning his case in court than about living in the lap of luxury.

Take the deal, think many of the neighbors, friends, and even reporters who Peckham has enlisted for support in his fight to be the last tenant living in his Chelsea walk-up—an apartment that, of course, meets his mantra in every respect, and where he has lived for the last dozen years.

Two years ago, his landlord, Larry Tauber—by accounts, neither a sleazy slumlord nor a chummy pushover—offered Peckham $75,000 to leave his $1,007-a-month West 21st Street one-bedroom, so that he could begin a gut renovation of the building to convert it to swanky rentals. Peckham’s refusals led Tauber to up the offer; by this summer, he’d tried to tempt the tenant with an $800-a-month lease governed by rent-stabilized guidelines on a renovated one-bedroom on West 69th Street between Columbus Avenue and Broadway, a five-minute walk away from the apartments of Steven Spielberg and Bruce Willis.

But Peckham kept saying no, and the chanting continued. Top floor, rear, facing south. Top floor, rear, facing south. Top floor, rear, facing south.

“It’s your business,” one of Peckham’s West 20th Street neighbors in a Tauber-owned building told him when they ran into each other the other day, “but if I were you, I wouldn’t be holding out for any southern exposure. If you can get an apartment at a decent rent in a decent building, take it.” Had the neighbor known of the apartment Peckham has refused to take—at a rent less than half what its previous tenant paid—he surely would have shared his shock at Peckham’s seeming greed.

What drives a tenant to fight a landlord making what would appear to be a reasonable relocation offer? Therein lies a baffling story of litigation run amok, of a landlord who has left himself open to harassment charges that could cost him the case, and of a tenant whose passion for winning may have overtaken his sense of reason and compromise. It’s a battle that will have no winners, and may take months to resolve. In the meantime, Daniel Peckham sits alone in an otherwise empty four-story Chelsea brick walk-up, chanting his mantra to anyone who will listen. His audience decreases by the day.

For 29 months, Peckham has lived alone at 244 West 21st Street, amid four floors of vacant and bolted-shut apartments, despite the fact that the structure is set for demolition, already partially ripped apart, with units stripped down to wooden shells.

It has been two years since Peckham began his battle against his landlord, Chelsea Partners, which needs him to leave to carry out its plan to convert the building into luxury rentals. So far he has successfully managed to block those plans, fighting the landlord’s application to end his lease before the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which oversees rent stabilization. He has challenged the application at the agency three separate times, accusing his landlord of harassing him out of his home. He has lost all three challenges. Last week, Peckham filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court against the agency and Chelsea Partners in a last-ditch effort to reverse his eviction.

But Peckham cannot bring himself to stop playing the role of beleaguered tenant. “I never asked for this,” he repeats, another of his mantras. And some facts do support his version of events as the victim in his lonely battle.

The two combatants suggest a study in stark contrasts. Despite his youthful appearance,
Peckham, 54, suffers from degenerative arthritis. A botched hip replacement has left one leg shorter than the other; he collects $722 a month in disability benefits. Whereas Larry Tauber—the chubby-cheeked face of Chelsea Partners—manages a real estate dynasty of sorts. His family owns 41 buildings in Manhattan, many rent regulated, many on the Upper West Side. He bought the West 21st Street address in June 2000, one of 13 buildings that cost him $13 million. Tauber quickly made plain his plan to turn some of these buildings into market-rate rentals.

But in one sense the two men share an identical view. Each thinks the other is behaving in an unreasonable manner, and negotiating badly.

“Everyone is calling me the Dracula landlord,” Tauber says. “I’m the Dracula landlord for trying to kick this guy out and for a list of bad things he says I did. None of it is true.” Tauber is speaking over the phone, in rapid staccato, a 20-minute, uncensored soliloquy. As he describes the offers he’s made to Peckham for his apartment—the 18 alternatives, the monetary sums—his frustration becomes evident. At first, he’s eager to tell his story, agreeing to meet in person and disclose all the legal paperwork. Two days later, though, he withdraws his cooperation through his attorney, Sherwin Belkin, of the prominent real estate firm of Belkin, Burden, Wenig & Goldman, whose newsletters tout ways for landlords to “recover” rent-regulated buildings.

Before the cone of silence descends, however, Tauber does offer this one-size-fits-all defense. “Press coverage in New York,” he whines, “is always slanted toward the tenant.” That, of course, was before he read this article.

Tauber isn’t without the blemishes that mark the complexions of many New York City landlords. He faces credible harassment complaints from dozens of tenants besides Peckham. In this case, though, Peckham seems more like the exploiter than the exploited. He admits he’s dabbling in a rental poker game of sorts, upping the ante on his landlord, hoping his appeals pay off. His story shows the lengths people will go to keep their rent-stabilized apartments in a city where such units are fast disappearing and such tenants can wield a certain advantage.

Peckham says he’s holding out for the cause, for what he calls “my full rent- stabilized rights.” As he explains it: “Tauber wants to swindle me out of my rent-stabilized rights. My rights are worth a fortune.” But in this high-stakes rental game, as the suit proceeds and the negotiations stall, he stands to lose it all—not only the West 69th Street apartment, but also his own.

If you saw Daniel Peckham out on West 21st Street these days, you might never suspect that he remains a poker play away from losing his home. Neighbors often find him in front of No. 244, tending to a garden of impatiens, trimming morning glories that snake up the facade. He grows tomatoes on the roof and ferns in the window. The homey touches make it easy to forget he lives there alone.

Walk inside, though, and Peckham’s self-inflicted isolation becomes evident. That’s when you spot the seven mailboxes in the vestibule, each labeled “VACANT.” On every floor, the apartment doors are shuttered, some with big metal chains. No loud conversations can be heard, no blaring televisions. An eerie silence pervades the building. Chris Thomas, 38, who has known Peckham since the early 1990s and has recently spent time in his apartment, describes it this way: “It’s scary to live in a building alone. I wouldn’t want to live there all by myself.”

Nor does Peckham. He claims he would gladly lose all the negatives that come with his last-man-standing status—the loneliness (“I try to avoid telling people I live alone because they get uncomfortable and want to leave and I want them to stay”); the spookiness (“I hear a noise and I have to get out of bed and open the door and wait”)—if not for his circumstances. As he tells it, he’s standing firm out of necessity. He insists that he struggles to meet his rent, supplementing his income by teaching yoga classes, part-time. He collects $149 in food stamps to get by. It seems certain he can’t afford New York City’s exorbitant market rents—at least not in his neighborhood, or in the 10-block radius around which he’s organized his daily life.

The brownstone building at 117 W. 69th St., where Peckham’s landlord, Larry Tauber, recently offered to relocate him.
photo: Brian Kennedy

“I’m not losing my rent-stabilized rights,” he says, by way of explanation. “I need them.”

His former neighbors once said the same thing—before they took the compromise offers Peckham has refused. In March 2004, all eight tenants at No. 244 got a letter in the mail from the Manhattan law firm of Belkin, Burden, Wenig & Goldman, which represents Tauber, laying out the landlord’s plan to gut the building, offering alternatives for settlement. Take a $75,000 buyout, the letter proposed, or move to an adjacent Tauber property, where he offered to keep tenants paying their current rent for seven and a half years. After that, the price would follow the market, which at the time was $2,200 a month.

The news came as no surprise to Peckham and his fellow neighbors. Two years earlier, Tauber had begun converting the rent-regulated building next door into luxury rentals. Once, during the construction, contractors managed to bust 13 holes in the supporting wall between the two row houses, shaking tenants in No. 244, sending bricks and plaster into their hallways and homes. Some tenants saw it as a sign of things to come. “I could see straight through the holes to the other building. It was scary and I thought, ‘We’re next,’ ” recalls one former neighbor, who lives in another Tauber building and asked not to be named for fear of recriminations from him. When the letters finally arrived, the tenants—all but Peckham—agreed that they didn’t have much choice. One by one, they took the offers.

Peckham had the opposite response to the proposed settlement. “That offer was a joke,” he insists. That month he filed a harassment complaint against Tauber, which the agency would dismiss. In two follow-up appeals, he also accused his landlord of an “incorrigible pattern of harassment,” to no avail.

Today, Peckham can’t get past the idea that his landlord’s main intention is to make his life miserable. He loves to display piles of pictures to prove his point, and indeed, some do—like the ones of bubbling ceiling paint and water leaks and buckets stationed throughout his bedroom. Over the last 17 months, four Housing Court judges have ordered Tauber to repair his tenant’s ceiling and provide adequate heat and hot water, among other things; collectively, they’ve reduced his rent by 75 percent and fined Tauber $6,000. But other pictures actually hurt Peckham’s cause—like the ones of stacks of cement blocks and metal beams and stairs covered in inches-thick dust. He says they show how bad he’s had it since his building became a construction site in late 2004. He fails to acknowledge that he remains there by choice.

“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 case—that 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

25K stipend

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

Crown molding

24″ Viking Stove

Stack W/D

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.

“I advised Dan not to sign it,” explains Jack Newton, his lawyer. “I can’t agree to something that doesn’t give Dan his full rights.”

Last week, Peckham found yet another legal venue for his quixotic and perhaps misguided campaign, now suing the DHCR for its failure to investigate his harassment claims, among many other claims. He also sees his case involving the issue of what he calls “phony” demolition—a trend of recent vintage that has gained attention among housing advocates and politicians who argue that landlords are coming up with new ways to remove rent-stabilized tenants from their homes. These tenants’-rights advocates disagree with a 2002 DHCR rule change qualifying internal gutting as a demolition, rather than a razing. “The DHCR is bending over backwards to make this loophole as cheap and as easy as possible for landlords to get rid of rent-regulated tenants,” Newton argues.

If Peckham loses this latest round in court, Tauber says he’ll make no more offers.
“He could end up with nothing,” Tauber says.

Tauber and Peckham will next meet in court on October 23.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.