More than 85 Chinatown residents forced out of their apartments on January 18 when their building’s staircase was declared unsafe won’t be coming home for at least another six weeks.
The New York City Department of Buildings, which gave 85 Bowery landlord Joseph Betesh two weeks to fix the staircase, now says the repairs are too complicated to be completed that fast, as the staircase and structural supports need to be completely replaced. It estimates that will take another six to eight weeks, and says the initial two-week deadline was intended to light a fire under the owner.
The tenants, most of whom were initially placed in a Brownsville hotel the city uses as a homeless shelter, are incensed. “On January 18, we were kicked out in two hours,” tenant Jin Shou told a rally of about a hundred people outside the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s Lower Manhattan offices on Friday. “The landlord has still not repaired the building,” she said, speaking through an interpreter. “We want HPD to take over and repair the building now.”
Betesh’s Bowery 8385 LLC has agreed to rent 18 rooms in a hotel on the corner of Bowery and Hester Street, down the block from 85 Bowery, and says that 63 of the displaced tenants are now staying there. “We are paying for the 18 rooms until the repairs are complete,” a spokesperson for the company tells the Voice.
That leaves out more than 20 of the displaced tenants. Some are staying with friends or relatives, and some are still in the Brooklyn shelter.
“There’s nothing there. Just an empty room,” said Moy, a 79-year-old woman who wore a red baseball cap and pink parka to the rally, of her accommodations at the shelter. She said she was still using the blanket the Red Cross gave her after the tenants were ousted, and had no place to cook.
“They bring a little pot so you can boil some water,” she said. She was using it to make porridge in a thermos. The 85 Bowery tenants have not been allowed to retrieve anything from their apartments, she said.
“They’ve been wearing the same clothes and washing them in the sink,” added Don Lee, the Chinatown businessman and community activist translating for Moy.
HPD says it and the Red Cross are now checking a list of tenants and family members seeking relocation against the names of those they registered the day of the vacate order, and “will coordinate to identify additional emergency housing in a Lower Manhattan hotel.”
HPD and the Department of Buildings said in a joint statement that they are coordinating with City Hall and “working closely with the tenants’ representatives to get displaced families back to their community and homes as soon as possible. The owner is working to make needed repairs and has now agreed to pay for hotel rooms for most of the tenants, until the building is safe for them to return to. He has much more work to do, and we will be closely monitoring his progress.”
The buildings department says it concluded that “repair was not an option” for the staircase at 85 Bowery. The stairs had separated from the wall on the fifth floor, and several support timbers were cracked and out of position, according to the inspector who issued a violation January 19.
The department has approved Bowery 8385 LLC’s architectural and structural plans. The owner, it says, has already installed emergency structural-stability shoring on the first and second floors, and hired a steel company to manufacture prefabricated stairs for all five stories. No work will be done until those stairs arrive, but the city has “directed the landlord to give us a plan to allow tenants to retrieve their belongings.”
The stairs are expected to arrive in about two weeks. Once they do, the department projects that it will take at least four more weeks to install them, and another week or two after that to “demolish interior partitions that are blocking emergency exits.”
There is no trust lost between the tenants and the landlord, who has been trying to evict them and those at 83 Bowery next door for almost three years, and little more for the city government, which tenants see as slow to enforce a 2016 court order mandating repairs, but quick to throw them out when the building was deemed unsafe.
“They refuse to enforce the law, allowing the building to fall into disrepair,” Francesca Benitez of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side told the February 2 rally, once in English and once in Spanish. “But when it’s time to vacate the building, they act with incredible efficiency.”
Betesh, who bought 83 and 85 Bowery as part of an 11-building, $62 million package in 2013, refused to renew the tenants’ leases in both buildings in March 2015. In March 2016, he filed a suit in State Supreme Court to evict all tenants of both buildings on two grounds: that they had no right to stay because the buildings were not rent-stabilized, and that the buildings were not structurally sound enough for them to stay.
A month earlier, a Housing Court judge had ordered Betesh to complete the repairs, including the 85 Bowery staircase, within 60 days. He failed to make that deadline, as well as a second one that, according to the tenant association, came after a stay both sides had agreed to expired in January 2017.
Last December, the Division of Housing and Community Renewal recommended that the buildings should be declared rent-stabilized. State Supreme Court Justice Kathryn Freed is now considering how to rule on that.
“They don’t want the tenants to come back,” tenant association representative Jinming Cao says of the landlords.
“Any reports claiming that we seek to demolish the building or replace it with a hotel or condominiums are false,” the landlord’s spokesperson said in a statement to the Voice. “We all share the same goal — moving families back into their homes as quickly as possible.”
That denial, however, does not exclude the possibility of turning the building into luxury rental housing — a primary goal of investors buying rent-stabilized buildings in Chinatown and the Lower East Side over the last decade — or of charging a large rent increase based on the cost of the repairs. State law allows landlords to raise rents permanently for building-wide “major capital improvements,” which can include replacing components such as windows or boilers that have outlived their “useful life.”
In 2016, tenants rejected Betesh’s offer to give them 99-year rent-stabilized leases in part because he wanted them to agree to an unspecified rent increase. The tenants, almost all Chinese immigrants, are mostly restaurant or garment-factory workers and generally pay $1,000 to $1,200 a month rent, Cao told the Voice last year.
Betesh did not respond to a question asked through his spokesperson about the possibility of a rent increase.
The delay in repairs means the tenants won’t be home for the Lunar New Year on February 16, a family-dinner holiday as important to the Chinese as Thanksgiving is to Americans and Passover to Jews. “In China, people travel a thousand miles to go to their hometown,” says Cao.
“We want to go home for New Year’s,” says Zun Jin Zheng, 70, who has lived in the building for 20 years. She and her 80-year-old husband have been given a room in the hotel down the block. But it has no cooking facilities, and their middle-aged daughter, who normally lives with them, is staying with friends.
Several tenants say they will start a hunger strike February 8 if they’re not back in their homes by then.
Zheng throws her head back and raises her voice in anger. “If they don’t repair,” she says via an interpreter, “I will be here for hunger strike.”