Bowery tenants bash Betesh, saying he ditched return date

Displaced tenants from 85 Bowery rallied outside the building on Mon., June 18, charging that their landlord is not abiding by a previously agreed-to return date for them. Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Updated Tues., June 19, 11 p.m.: The tenants from 85 Bowery who have been displaced from their apartments since January say their landlord, Joseph Betesh, has reneged on his word to agree to a guaranteed return date for them of Aug. 31.

Dozens of tenants and organizers rallied outside the tenants’ now-vacant apartment building Monday morning. They called on the New York State attorney general and Manhattan district attorney to investigate the landlord for tenant harassment, and demanding a guaranteed return date from Betesh.

“How can we live like this?” Shuo Jin, one of the tenants, said, as her words were translated by Zishun Ning, an organizer for the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association. “We can’t even use our own belongings,” Jin said. “What kind of society is this? What kind of country is this?”

Jin also questioned the city Department of Buildings’ oversight of ongoing repairs. She and other tenants said they only see construction workers on site between one and three times per week.

According to a D.O.B. spokesperson, however, construction crews are on site six days a week, and the department conducts scheduled inspections, unannounced spot-checks and meetings with the contractors. Monday was the most recent meeting between the department and the contractors. The spokesperson said that workers may not have been on site for safety purposes during the asbestos abatement process, which was completed May 11.

Jin said Monday that Betesh broke his word after the tenants’ launched a second hunger strike, in front of City Hall, two weeks ago. Tenants ended that hunger strike after organizers said a verbal agreement was reached to allow the tenants to return home by the end of August. Repairs at the building are expected to be complete by Aug. 16, according to a D.O.B. spokesperson.

A spokesperson for Betesh and his Bowery 8385 company, Sam Spokony, said that an end-of-summer return date has long been a part of the agreement between lawyers for the tenants and Betesh. Neither party has signed an agreement, though, according to both Spokony and Caitlin Kelmar, a spokesperson and organizer for the 85 Bowery tenants.

“Weeks ago, we stated publicly that our goal is to complete the necessary repair work at 85 Bowery by the end of summer, barring unforeseen circumstances,” Spokony said in a statement for Bowery 8385. “That has not changed. At that time, we also noted that no agreement had been signed by either party in this case. That has not changed.

“Apparently, these facts have not stopped certain groups from continuing to make false statements about the situation regarding 85 Bowery, which helps no one,” Spokony said. “Regardless of any false claims made against us, we remain focused on moving the residents of 85 Bowery back safely into their homes as quickly as possible.”

Betesh wants the tenants to sign the agreement, according to Kelmar. Yet she said the agreement as written lacks a guaranteed deadline and offers only a “lowball” amount of money — $10,000 — for belongings that were thrown away back in April. Hoewer, in mid-April, Betesh told local politicians he would agree to giving tenants $25,000 per family. The monetary amounts are tentative until an agreement is signed.

Kelmar pointed out, though, that the landlord has not given tenants sufficient time to evaluate how much of their belongings were thrown away or put into storage in East New York. Until then, Kelmar said, tenants feel they cannot agree on a monetary cost of what was lost.

“How can you take 20 bucks for the photo of your grandma?” Kelmar said. She added that Betesh’s compensation offer might be adequate, but it is still unknown since it is unclear how many belongings were thrown away versus stored. Belongings that were discovered in the garbage back in April included wedding photos, children’s drawings, financial documents and other priceless items, according to tenants and organizers.

Kelmar added that tenants don’t want to sign an agreement until the language is “tightly phrased,” since they fear Betesh could take advantage of loopholes. For instance, Kelmar said, the landlord could be absolved of abiding by the return deadline should circumstances beyond his control occur, such as a natural disaster.

At 85 Bowery, the main possibility of a natural disaster could be a fire, Kelmar said, adding that “landlords attempting to evict low-income tenants have a long history of burning down their own buildings, or getting them condemned, in order to sell the land or build something for the wealthy.”

Spokony, Betesh’s spokesperson, said that an summer’s-end return date has been a part of the agreement for weeks, barring unforeseen circumstances. He declined to detail what those circumstances could be.

The tenants — who are Asian-American families, including young children and seniors — have been displaced since January, after D.O.B. issued a vacate order upon finding the six-story walk-up building to be unsafe.

“D.O.B. and our fellow agencies are pushing the owner to complete major repairs at 85 Bowery as quickly as possible — and substantial work has been completed,” the department said in a statement earlier this month after the tenants’ hunger strike. “We remain committed to holding the landlord responsible for providing tenants with a safe place to live.”

Eliciting the vacate order, D.O.B. engineers initially found the building’s stairway to be structurally unstable, and later found that the “floor joists” holding the stairway up were unstable during repairs. Asbestos was also found, further extending the repair time. Repairs of floor joists on the third, fourth and fifth floor are expected to be completed by Thurs., June 21, according to D.O.B., after which kitchen and bathroom replacement will begin. All the construction work is expected to be complete by Aug. 16, according to D.O.B.

Tenants are currently being housed, on Betesh’s dime, at the Wyndham Garden Chinatown hotel at the corner of Bowery and Hester St.

“The most insulting thing to say about all of this stuff is that they are living in a luxury hotel,” said Don Lee, a longtime Chinatown activist and chief information officer for the Coalition of Asian American IPA and Asian American Accountable Care Organization.

Lee has been helping organize the tenants since they were first displaced at the beginning of the year. All that the tenants want, Lee said, is a home where they can cook and watch their children do their homework. Speaking after the protest, Lee told The Villager that to say that the tenants are living in luxury is simply privileged people speaking without understanding what the tenants are experiencing.

He said that two seniors lost their jobs because they had to leave Chinatown. (Tenants were originally housed at a hotel in Brooklyn). They are now collecting cans for money to pay for meals in a senior center, according to Lee.

When Lee asked why they don’t sign up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a. SNAP or food stamps, the two tenants told him they feared it would affect their chance for family reunification because they are in the midst of sponsoring their son, who is from China.

“This is the reality of what happened to these tenants,” Lee said.

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