The Strangest Landlord-Tenant Relationship In Town?


The smell of piss and fish paste are palpable even outside the locked door of 81 Bowery, a four-story tenement just a few buildings up from Canal Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

The stairwell inside gives off an air of abandonment. On the second floor, a door opens to reveal a nice enough wood-paneled registration counter—a lobby for the hotel on the second and third floors that has been uninhabited for almost a year. There’s a statuette of a golden Buddha on the counter and a “Welcome” sign for visitors, along with a plaque advertising a deluxe room for $150 a night. A stack of business cards gathers dust. The rooms aren’t bad—each one has a television, and some have neatly made-up queen-size beds.

The fourth floor is very different. The rooms crammed inside are tiny, with walls about eight feet high but no ceilings, and each one about the size of an office cubicle. The dozen or so residents who live on this floor pay about $100 a month to live in what amounts to a broom closet, and all of them share a bathroom with two shower stalls, a urinal, and four toilets. The cubicles are jam-packed with possessions the residents have been piling up for decades. There is no kitchen on the floor.

On a recent afternoon, the man who lives in cubicle 26 squats on a tiny stool in the narrow hallway, eating his dinner of steaming vegetables and rice on a makeshift table—a slab of plastic laid atop a bucket. His neighbor in cubicle 27, Mr. Jiang, stir-fries a watery green gourd on an electric camping stove set up on the floor, while the man in cubicle 28 has placed a metal bowl full of little gray clam shells out in the hallway; he’ll soak the shells before boiling them into a broth for soup. In the evenings, the murmur of electric rice cookers can be heard coming from every room.

81 Bowery has been the home for at least a generation of Chinese laborers, men and women who work in the kitchens and on the construction sites of Chinatown. It’s actually one of the longest-running and last remaining lodging houses in the city—a relic of a different period in New York history, when such places served poor immigrants who arrived with no cash and needed a dirt-cheap, temporary place to stay. To immigrants arriving in the late 19th century, 81 Bowery was known as the Germania Hotel, an infamous place where recently arrived Irish workers suffered from typhus, once-upright citizens whose reputations had been ruined went to waste away, and drunks were dropped off by police to pass out for the night. By 1923, the Salvation Army was running the place.

Today, the building is flanked on one side by a tenement that has been rehabbed with market-rate apartments, where young professionals in suits leave for work. On the other side is an Asian supermarket that sells giant chocolate pigs in red department-store-size boxes. About 10 times a day, a Fung Wah bus stops at 81 Bowery, unloading dozens of passengers, some of whom need to find a place to spend the night.

Life on the fourth floor of 81 Bowery is invasively communal: When someone snores, everyone hears it. If one person gets sick, so do all the rest. While someone is washing his dishes in the bathroom sink, others are waiting to wash their own. When the boiler breaks in the winter—a frequent occurrence—everyone shivers.

And yet, over the years, the tenants have managed to create a life they describe as comfortable, a life revolving around work, frequent visits from family members, occasional spats with neighbors, and many winters without heat. If the lodging house was originally intended as temporary housing for new immigrants, some of the residents of 81 Bowery have been living in their cubicles for 10 and 20 years. It’s poverty that keeps them there, but some of the tenants can make a small profit on their tiny quarters by cramming in additional bunks and subletting to roommates. Needing more space for beds, tenants build up their walls, construct ceilings, and push the limits of what the building can accommodate.

Last November, that activity came to a sudden halt when the city declared the building a fire hazard. The residents were all evacuated within hours and sent to live temporarily at a building in the Bronx.

The Bronx facility was a step up from what they were used to in Chinatown. Suddenly, these poor Chinese immigrants had rooms with real ceilings. And kitchens. And actual privacy.

So what did they do? They filed suit and spent a year fighting to get back into their cramped, smelly cubicles at 81 Bowery with three dozen people to a single bathroom and soup made on hot plates in the hallway.

Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

Donald Lee is an amiable man in his forties who can usually be found working afternoons behind the counter of his video store, Hua Min, at 97 Bowery. The DVDs and videotapes on sale and for rent (yes, videotapes—the elderly folks like them) include not only films but row after row of soap-opera episodes produced in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China, slices of life from home that are very popular with the recently arrived. Upstairs, Lee is building a new karaoke bar. He and a partner purchased the tenement on the next block, 81 Bowery, six years ago.

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.”

At his age, the evacuation to the Bronx last year was a strain. While he’s grateful to be back home, he’s furious at Lee.

“This landlord, he wants to turn it all into a hotel,” Wong complains. Like other tenants, he figures it was Lee who called in the inspectors who arrived last year and decided that the wall extensions were a fire hazard because they were blocking fire sprinklers. (The same walls had been inspected for many years previously.)

Lee denies that he called in the inspection, saying that the city ordered it without his prodding. It’s a bitter irony, tenants acknowledge, that for years, they’d been calling the city asking for better conditions—but then the city had come, and had kicked everyone out.

Of course it was Lee who dropped a dime, Wong says, remembering that the landlord had already tried to kick them out with a lawsuit. “That was 1907,” he says, and then a neighbor points out that he’s off by a century, and Wong laughs. But he gets serious again when he talks about the evacuation.

It was a chaotic scene when Fire, Police, and Building Department officials showed up on the Thursday morning before Thanksgiving last year and gave tenants only about three hours to pack up what they could carry. Red Cross vans took them to a hotel near JFK Airport, where they stayed through the holiday weekend. Soon after that, they were taken to a four-story dormitory at 101 Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. Some are still there.

Unhappy with their removal, the residents filed suit. Lee, however, resisted pulling down the partitions that were causing the problem. Instead, he hired a private inspector who disagreed with the city and found that there was no fire hazard. After eight months, in late August, Lee finally agreed to take down the illegal wall extensions—but his lawyer then argued that just because Lee was taking down the partitions, that didn’t mean he necessarily had to take back the residents. That frustrated housing judge David Cohen, who gave Lee 48 hours to allow tenants back in.

Lee appealed.

On a warm day in mid-September, the tenants of 81 Bowery were gathered on the sidewalk in front of the building, some holding stuffed suitcases and others carrying signs that said, “Shame on You, Donald Lee.”

It had been months since their evacuation, and they were still fighting to get back into their cubicles.

It was one of those New York scenes in which everything seems to be happening at once: Tony Avella, who was still a mayoral candidate at that point, showed up in time to take the microphone and express his sympathies. A reporter from a local Chinatown newspaper came by to take notes. As other people made speeches into a megaphone, a saleswoman from the neighboring cosmetics store shooed the protesters off of the sidewalk. Tourists being led by a Fung Wah bus operator marched in single file directly through the gathered crowd.

At around 3 p.m., someone got a call on a cell phone. An announcement was made in Chinese, and, suddenly, everyone broke into a collective cheer. Lee had dropped his appeal. He would have to let everyone back in.

While the skeletal Wong is talking about the ordeal of living in the Bronx and his eventual return, people pass by him on their way to the bathroom. Some are wrapped only in bath towels. Others are on their way to clean out their dishes in the bathroom’s four sinks. Others hang up clothes on nails that serve as hooks outside their cubicles. In a nearby cubicle, a man with hepatitis C is throwing up into a bucket. His son is taking care of him, rushing back and forth between the room and the toilets.

The man who had introduced himself as Mr. Jiang observes as Wong speaks. A longtime resident of 81 Bowery, Jiang is 58, but looks much older. “You only stay here and continue to stay here because you are poor,” he says, stepping into the conversation.

Jiang says that he came to the U.S. by boat in 1993, from Lang Qi Dao, an island in the Fujian province. Relatives had scraped up $30,000 to pay for the trip—a huge sum of money for a family of villagers. The voyage was supposed to last only 45 days, but it took 60, and the group of 250 ran out of food. Nobody died, Jiang says, but there was a lot of vomiting off the side of the boat. The ship finally landed in Mexico, where the immigrants were divided into small groups for their dash across the border.

“Those were bad times,” he says.

When he got to New York, he began working in restaurants and in construction, sending money home to his wife and kids. A friend told him about 81 Bowery. In 1996, he discovered he had kidney failure, which eventually made him lose the fingers on his left hand. He took on a roommate, sometimes two, to help pay the bills. Now, he goes to dialysis three times a week. “I was hoping to make more money,” he says. “But then you come here. You have no talent, no skills, and you get sick. What can you do?” Despite a life of much hardship, he smiles frequently. “You have to be happy. Even if you are poor, you have to be happy.”

Jiang has other relatives in the States, but he says they are just about as poor as he is and don’t have room for him. They live in New Jersey, and visit him from time to time, bringing him money and clothes. His wife is in China, but he hasn’t seen her in decades. “I have no money to send her,” he says, but the two talk occasionally on the phone.

Jiang recalls a stabbing that occurred in a cubicle near him about eight years ago—between a man from the Guangdong province who worked in a casino, and the Fujianese roommate he had taken on to help pay the rent. He’d gone to see what was happening, and was slashed. He still has a nasty scar on his right wrist where, he says, he was struck by the knife. “Here, it’s life and death,” he says, looking down the hallway toward the room where he was injured.

Apparently, not much has changed in a couple of centuries. In 1875, 81 Bowery housed a saloon, where a bartender was fatally stabbed while trying to smuggle out liquor in his coat pockets. In 1892, The New York Times reported that a resident of the Germania Hotel named John Carson had his throat slit by a local killer known as John the Slasher. The Times described Carson as “once a lawyer and a respected citizen of Baltimore,” and “a handsome and well-built fellow,” who had squandered his fortune on “electrical inventions” and later succumbed to drink. He had been working as a canvasser for Scribner’s Sons, and died owing the publisher $12.

In 2005, the Chinese-language newspaper Tsing Tao spoke with the residents of 81 Bowery, who then numbered about 60. An elderly tenant of 97, Lu Yi Cai, told the paper that in the 1960s, the men on the fourth floor had only beds, no cubicles. At that time, he said, gang activity was bad, and he joined a triad to make money collecting debts. By the 1970s, Lu said, he had $17,000 stuffed under his bed, but later lost it all as his health began to deteriorate. A Mr. Wong—the same Wong who spoke to the Voice—told Tsing Tao that Lee’s first ploy as landlord to get rid of the men on the fourth floor was to stop taking their rent payments for several months after he purchased the building in 2003. Wong said Lee was hoping to refuse their payments long enough to kick them out for nonpayment, but the scheme failed.

The article noted that nearly all of the older men were facing the same situation: They had left China for their families, but now were cut off from them. Nearly all of them spoke of their abject loneliness. Said one man: “Eight years without a woman’s warmth. Who will embrace me now?”

Like the other tenants, Mr. Jiang had fought to return to 81 Bowery. But when he came back, with the tenant-built partitions gone, a life that was merely tolerable became difficult to bear. Jiang says he can’t sleep because of the fluorescent lights in the hallway that are on all the time and shine into his room. Even worse, Lee has installed video cameras on the ceiling.

“Even a prisoner doesn’t live like this,” says a longtime tenant, Ai Jian Jiang (no relation to Jiang, but the two come from the same province in China). Ai Jian, who says he is over 60, works in construction. He says he was “heartbroken” the day he was relocated to the Bronx. While living there, he was robbed and lost work opportunities because of the difficulty of the commute. Like the others, he was unused to living out of Chinatown and was at a loss in a place where no one spoke Chinese.

But now that he’s back at 81 Bowery, he, too, is furious about the removal of the partitions—even though it was part of the court’s order to get the tenants back in the building. “If there really was no light and no ventilation, then you fix it properly. You don’t just cut off people’s ceilings,” he says. “If it was a fire hazard, then just put one sprinkler per cubicle.”

Ai Jian had two bunks in his cubicle—one for sleeping, and one that was filled with shopping bags full of clothes and household items. Standing on one of the bunks, he shows how easy it is to peer down into his neighbor’s cubicle. He points to other cubicles, where Lee has placed chicken wire across the top. “It’s like an animal cage,” he says.

Ai Jian says he has a son who lives in Brooklyn. He holds up an MTA subway map, where the Myrtle Avenue J/M/Z station has been circled in red ink. “He lives there,” he says, pointing at the circle. He prefers to stay in Chinatown, however, because it’s close to work. But he also rents out his cubicle to roommates, to supplement his meager income.

Like the others, Mr. Jiang is disturbed about the removal of the wall extensions. Without them, he can’t take on roommates, as he has in previous years. He doesn’t know how he is going to make his rent. (Like some others, Jiang says his rent is $200 or more, but Lee insists that he’s still charging just a little over $100 per cubicle. There are no lease documents to confirm the amounts.) With the video cameras aimed down at the cubicles and the light on all the time, he can’t sleep.

Jiang’s voice is almost drowned out by the sound of a chain saw coming from the other end of the hallway. A group of young men are busy at work, sawing planks of wood and carrying them across the floor. The residents have only been back about a week, and they are already modifying their cubicles. Some have added hardwood floors. Two teenage girls, who are visiting their father, stand by watching. The noise from the chain saw sputters across the entire floor. No one seems to mind.

One man carrying a wooden board paces across the hallway in a state of agitation. He says his name is Ling, and he’s a driver. “Our lawyer tells us that we can’t have ceilings in these cubicles,” he says. “That’s not right. Every human deserves to have a ceiling.” He shakes his fist at the place where the partitions had been. “How could we be living in America—like this, living in a niu long (cow cage)?”

Ling leans on the board and smokes a cigarette restlessly. The wood is going to be a bunk that he’s adding to his cubicle. He and others are also fabricating ceilings for their rooms. If it blocks the fire sprinklers, it doesn’t matter to him at all. He will do whatever it takes.

Ling’s 80-year-old father is reheating some fried fish, vegetables, and rice outside his cubicle when the Voice comes by to take some photographs, and he offers up a helping of his dinner.

He apologizes for the state of his cubicle. The ceiling that his son had constructed for it had caved in on a top bunk. (There are two now, but there were four bunks before the evacuation.) The cave-in had created something of a mess.

“Look. How to live like this?” he says, and repeats his question. “I told someone to lower the TV sound last night. They got angry with me. Ah, argument.”

As he begins eating his fried fish, an elderly woman arrives. He introduces her as his wife. She is 74 and still living in the dormitory in the Bronx. “All by myself,” she says. “It’s too far from here.” She has brought her husband fruit and bottled water. With a smile, she offers to share. And she tries again, several times.

Lee says his headaches with the tenants will never end. “Just today, they sent me another violation order. The fire escape is being blocked by tenant belongings. They just move back in, and this happens already,” he says. But he’s given up on lawsuits. “These people will never leave,” he says. “I will never get them out.” After paying thousands in legal fees and a $10,000 fine, he says he’s done with legal wrangling.

Lee says he knows that living without the partitions and ceilings is difficult on his tenants, and he’s trying to think of an alternative. He had considered adding more chicken wire or other kinds of mesh. “But the tenants complain they are living in a birdcage,” he says. He also didn’t think there was anything wrong with the video cameras. “I need to know what’s going on,” he says, and shrugs.

While Lee deals with problems on the fourth floor, the city has shut down his hotel on the second and third floors because there are missing fire exits. Lee says he’s trying to comply with the city to get it open again. The video business a block north, he complains, just hasn’t been the same since 9/11. “And now you can watch free Chinese shows on the Internet,” he gripes.

If that weren’t bad enough, commercial real estate in the city is in the toilet. Lee’s investment is only giving him agita.

“These tenants, they may look poor, but they are not poor. They have money—they do their own renovations on the building,” he says. “They break all the rules. I tell them not to cook, and they cook. They can’t just build up to the ceiling. That blocks the sprinklers. They pay rent, and then they collect more rent!”

Despite the hassle, Lee just can’t give up on 81 Bowery. “My roots are here, and Chinese people like to stay close to their roots,” he says. “I will stay to do business here. I know how it works here.” He was worried, though, because business in Chinatown is getting increasingly competitive. “Buildings,” he declares, looking at the room full of DVDs and tapes. He makes a dismissive wave with his hand. “The only good investment is buildings!”

Additional reporting and translation by Fatimah Surjani Ortega