Housing

Chinatown Tenants Forced Into Shelter Fear Landlord Won’t Let Them Return

Residents of 85 Bowery worry a broken staircase could be used as a pretext to evict them

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More than 85 people were forced out of their embattled Chinatown building last Thursday when the city declared the building unsafe — and they fear the landlord, who has been trying to evict them for years, will now refuse to do the repairs and use it as a pretext to kick tenants out.

The New York City Department of Buildings issued a full vacate order at 85 Bowery on January 18 after an inspector ruled that the building’s main staircase was structurally unstable and therefore a “significant life-safety hazard.” The city gave the landlord, Joseph Betesh, two weeks to replace the stairway.

The Red Cross says it registered 29 households, including 71 adults and 15 children, after the eviction, and reports that as of yesterday it is providing emergency shelter for 27 of those families. The displaced families, including newborns and people up to 90 years old, were sent to a hotel in Brownsville that the city uses to house homeless people. Tenant association representative Jinming Cao says they were initially sleeping in one large room on mattresses with no blankets. Blankets were provided after a TV news crew showed up Sunday night, says Sarah Ahn of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, a neighborhood activist organization working with the tenants. The displaced families were moved into separate rooms as of yesterday, Cao tells the Voice.

While the Red Cross normally only provides emergency shelter for 24 to 48 hours, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development says it “will continue to extend their stay at their current hotel until space becomes available at one of our family centers.”

Betesh has been trying to evict all the tenants of 85 Bowery and the building next door, 83 Bowery, for more than two years, claiming in court that the buildings were not rent-stabilized and that necessary repairs can’t be done while people are still living there. Last month, the Division of Housing and Community Renewal recommended that the State Supreme Court judge handling the case declare that the buildings are rent-stabilized.

“The main thing is the landlord wants all the tenants out,” says Cao, whose cousin lives in one of the buildings and who has become a spokesperson for the tenant association because, unlike the Chinese-immigrant tenants, he speaks English. City emergency workers, he says, told the evicted tenants that if the landlord doesn’t cooperate, it would be a long time before they could come back.

“We’re determined to make the owner fix these stairs quickly, get residents back in their homes, and meet his legal and moral responsibility to have a safe building for residents,” the Department of Buildings said in a statement.

Tenants have been demanding repairs for more than two years. In February 2016, a Housing Court judge ordered Betesh to fix the staircase at 85 Bowery by the end of that April, in response to “HP actions,” lawsuits demanding repairs filed by both the tenants and HPD. Betesh never made the repairs. The engineer the building owners hired argued that the staircase could not be replaced while the tenants were there because of “badly cracked joists.” An engineer the tenants hired responded that the tenants could stay while the joists were being replaced if protective barriers were installed in the hallways.

In September 2016, Betesh agreed to hold off temporarily on his eviction attempts in exchange for tenants agreeing to stay the HP action and extend the deadline for repairs. Later that month, however, he filed another motion demanding their immediate eviction.

In a statement given to NY1 after it broadcast a story on Thursday’s eviction, a spokesperson for Betesh’s Bowery 8385 LLC said the owners were “taking immediate steps to repair building infrastructure and make the property safe for habitation.” The woman who answered the phone at Betesh’s Milestone Equities Monday told the Voice that “no one is in the office. Everyone is on vacation.”*

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While tenants have a guaranteed right to return to apartments after they’ve been repaired, says Adam Meyers, a staff attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, “this right is somewhat empty when it can take years for the landlord to restore a building to habitable condition.”

Meyers represents tenants at 94 Franklin Avenue, a seven-apartment rent-stabilized building in Bedford-Stuyvesant that the Department of Buildings ordered vacated in July 2015, he says, after its Hasidic landlords built a synagogue in the backyard without a permit, blocking the fire escape. Two and a half years later, some of the tenants are renting apartments for “significantly more” than they had been paying, according to Meyers, while others are still in a city shelter in East New York.

The Department of Buildings and HPD “have done little to address the issue,” Meyers says. The buildings department “has not required the landlords to remove the illegal structure from the backyard,” he says, while HPD has refused to back tenant demands that the building be turned over to a court-appointed 7A administrator who could get repairs done more quickly.

The city itself used unsafe building conditions as a pretext for a mass eviction in 1995, when the Giuliani administration ousted squatters from three abandoned buildings on East 13th Street on the Lower East Side that the city had seized from tax-delinquent landlords in the 1970s. The squatters had won a temporary restraining order in the fall of 1994 protecting them from eviction until a court ruled on their claim that they were entitled to keep the buildings under an obscure legal principle called “adverse possession” — that because they’d lived there for ten years and the city hadn’t previously tried to kick them out, the property was legally abandoned.

The three buildings passed a safety inspection, but after heavy rains in April 1995, the Giuliani administration declared them “in imminent danger of collapse.” After a bit of litigation, it sent in a massive paramilitary force to kick the squatters out.

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In his statement to NY1, Betesh blamed the tenants for the delay. “Over the past two years, we repeatedly told city officials that it was necessary to vacate this property in order to safely perform much-needed repairs and ensure structural stability,” the statement said. “We repeatedly communicated all of this information to the building’s occupants and have spent the past two years working to find a positive resolution, but our proposals were rejected at every turn by their lawyers and other representatives.”

The statement also accused the tenants of doing “illegal renovation work that further contributed to the building’s structural instability,” saying it had discovered that “11 of the building’s 16 apartments were illegally converted into nearly 40 single-room-occupancy (SRO) units,” and that those rooms were a fire hazard.

“That’s a lie,” says Cao. “Those rooms have already been like that for 20 to 30 years.” He says tenants told him those rooms were constructed by the building’s previous landlord, who also installed fire-safety equipment.

A buildings department spokesperson tells the Voice that if the landlord doesn’t get the repairs done on time, it could issue a violation, the State Supreme Court judge could step in, or HPD’s Emergency Repair Program could do the work. “We don’t see any indication as of now that any of that will be necessary,” the spokesperson says.

HPD referred questions about what happens if the owner doesn’t comply to the buildings department.

“The tenants have no trust in the landlord that he will adhere to the court’s timeline of two weeks, nor that he will not purposely do a shoddy job,” Sarah Ahn tells the Voice. She said the group would “continue to fight for a guarantee” that the tenants would get back to their homes.

“I don’t know what is in the landlord’s head,” says Seth Miller, the lawyer representing the tenants. “We are afraid it will be used as a pretext” for permanent evictions.

As of Monday, says Cao, 85 Bowery’s tenants were being allowed to return to their apartments for 15 minutes at a time, to retrieve medications and anything else they urgently needed. The Betesh statement said the owner is “already taking steps to clear out debris.”

On Monday night, two dumpsters in front of the building were filled with garbage bags and thin sheets of wood with nails sticking out of their edges. The building’s first-floor commercial space had been stripped down to timbers. The staircase was still there, listing to the right.

The 83-85 Bowery Tenants Association and the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side are planning a protest outside HPD’s Gold Street offices at 3:30 p.m. today, to demand that the agency do the repairs itself, before the two-week deadline.

“If the city can force tenants out, why can’t it force landlords to make repairs?” Cao asks. “If he doesn’t repair, why not put him in jail?”

*UPDATE: After publication of this piece, a spokesperson for Bowery 8385 LLC emailed the Voice to say that the landlord is working with the Department of Buildings and the Mayor’s Office on repairs. “Any reports claiming that we seek to demolish 83-85 Bowery or replace it with a hotel or condominiums are false,” said the spokesperson. “We all share the same goal — moving families back into their homes as quickly as possible. As we have been saying for years, and as we believe all parties would agree, those homes must be safe.”

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