Tenants claim win on right of return at Bowery building

Last Friday, displaced tenants from 85 Bowery were on the third day of their second hunger strike outside City Hall. But the hunger strike was called off that day after their landlord set a firm date for the tenants to be allowed to return home.

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | Tenants from 85 Bowery started their second hunger strike of the year last week. On Wed., May 30, tenants camped outside of City Hall, demanding a guaranteed return date from their landlord, Joseph Betesh, and for Mayor Bill de Blasio to enforce that return date.

“The hunger strike’s primary purpose was to get the mayor’s office to commit to enforcing some sort of deadline,” said Caitlin Kelmar, a spokesperson for the 85 Bowery Tenants’ Association. But the tenants feel there has been a lack of action from the mayor’s office since their displacement back in January.

One mayoral representative who came by the hunger strike actually impeded its viability by blocking a portable bathroom from being set up on the site, according to Zishun Ning, a longtime organizer of the Bowery tenants who works for the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association. According to Ning, the de Blasio rep said they could not have a porta potty set up because the action was a protest. If it were a block party, one would be allowed, Ning recalled the rep telling the group.

“We find it really insulting,” Ning said. “Even the landlord is more progressive than him.”

Jose Bayona, a mayoral spokesperson, said, “It’s not a city policy to authorize portable bathrooms at protests due to security concerns.”

Despite some representatives speaking to tenants during the strike, the overall response from the mayor’s office during the ongoing fiasco has been disappointing, according to Ning and Kelmar.

“It’s been more radio silence from the mayor,” Kelmar said.

“Appropriate city agencies are making every effort to ensure that this landlord completes all necessary repairs in an expeditious and safe manner, so these families can return to a home that is safe and structurally sound,” Bayona said in a statement.

In January, the 85 Bowery tenants were evicted from their homes after the Department of Buildings ruled the site dangerous due to an unstable interior staircase and apartment floors at risk of collapsing. Since then, tenants have been living with family, at an emergency shelter and a Brooklyn hotel, and now many are housed at Wyndham Garden Chinatown hotel at the corner of Bowery and Hester St., paid for by their landlord Betesh of 8385 Bowery LLC.

In February, in the middle of winter, tenants organized their first hunger strike in front of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, but it was cut short by the Chinese New Year. In early April, tenants found their belongings thrown into a sidewalk dumpster, and accused Betesh of trashing their possessions. These items included photo albums, financial documents and other belongings important to the families.

“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,” a D.O.B. spokesperson said in an e-mail. “We remain committed to holding the landlord responsible for providing tenants with a safe place to live.”

The asbestos problem was remedied on May 11, and floor joists replacement is currently in the works and expected to be complete by June 21, according to D.O.B. Following that construction, kitchen and bathroom replacement will begin — work that became necessary because of how extensive the joist replacements were. Mid-August is when that work is expected to be complete — aligning with the expected end-of-summer return date.

In their second hunger strike of the year, the tenants feel they are making progress, Kelmar and Ning said. After multiple promised dates for the tenants to be able to return went unmet — most recently due to the discovery of asbestos — tenants demanded a guaranteed return date from Betesh. By last Friday, on the hunger strike’s third day, Kelmar said the tenants reached a verbal agreement with the landlord on an Aug. 31 move-in date.

“We’re hopeful that this is going to wrap up soon and that the tenants will be back by the fall,” Kelmar said. “Which, of course, is kind of ridiculous because the initial vacate order was supposed to be two weeks.”

The hunger strikers were prepared for the long haul, but the action was called off last Friday after tenants were satisfied that they had been given a firm return date.

But a spokesperson for Betesh and 8385 Bowery, Sam Spokony, said an end-of-summer return date has been on the negotiating table for weeks.

“As the tenants are well aware, we have been working for months to repair the dangerous conditions which predated our ownership and caused the D.O.B. to vacate the building,” Spokony said in an e-mail. “As per our previous updates to the tenants and their representative, they have also been aware for weeks that our goal is to complete that work by the end of the summer, barring unforeseen circumstances.”

The bulk of the work involves replacing a staircase and “floor joists,” which structurally support each floor of the building, according to a post on Medium from 8385 Bowery published hours before the hunger strike began last Wednesday. Other issues with the building included “unpermitted partitions which contributed to dangerously overcrowded conditions, and blocked windows,” according to the landlord’s post.

“However, a great deal of work remains to be done,” Spokony said, “and while discussions are ongoing and we remain committed to moving families back into the building as quickly as possible, it is not correct to state that an agreement has been reached.”

Tenants from 85 Bowery and their supporters marched outside City Hall last Friday.

An agreement between Betesh’s lawyer and the tenants’ lawyer has not yet been signed. But despite the landlord contending that the return date has been known for weeks, 85 Bowery organizers claim the Aug. 31 guaranteed return date was a victory last week.

“We’re very positive that it’s a big development,” Ning said.

The mayor’s silence, however, was disheartening.

“We were also very angry because we’d been outside of City Hall for a few days and the mayor never answered any of the demands that the tenants put out,” Ning added.

Mayor de Blasio publicly commented on the tenants’ ongoing crisis on the “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC on April 13.

“This one’s been a very thorny case and I don’t understand honestly why it took so long for this to be acted on,” de Blasio said then. “I want to get to the bottom of that. There’s no question right now the city is working to make sure everything is fixed and making sure the landlord pays for all of it.”

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou has been one of the local politicians vocally advocating for the safe return of the 85 Bowery tenants, who say their landlord has been harassing them since he bought the building back in 2013.

Shortly after the tenants were forced to vacate the Bowery building, Niou wrote a letter to Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance and former state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, which was also signed onto by state Senator Brian Kavanagh, Congressmember Nydia Velazquez, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin. The politicians called on the A.G. and D.A. to review the matter and determine whether a formal investigation is warranted.

The D.A.’s office told Niou’s office they were already looking into the ongoing situation. The D.A.’s spokesperson said the office has been in contact with agenices that could have relevant information, but declined to comment any further.

“At this time, we are working to confirm the date for the 85 Bowery tenants to return home,” Niou said. “There hasn’t been a clear date for the completion of the construction, and that has resulted in ongoing frustration.

“The discovery of asbestos delayed the tenants’ homecoming, and while we are told that the asbestos abatement is now complete, construction work continues to take place at 85 Bowery,” Niou added. “Our priority has always been to get tenants back into safe homes as quickly as possible.”

Chinatown, the Lower East Side and the city at large are no stranger to tenant displacement and harassment and unsafe living conditions. Local politicians are trying to combat these issues through myriad newly passed laws and bills in the works. Late last year, the City Council passed a dozen laws aimed at improved monitoring by D.O.B. and preventing landlords from harassing tenants out of their apartments — in most cases, rent-regulated apartments.

But an amendment to one city law — Local Law 150 — wasn’t much help for the Bowery tenants, according to Kelmar. That law says that a vacate order must include the date that a building owner will solve the issues that caused the vacate order in the first place. The 85 Bowery tenants’ vacate order did include that date, but the deadline has since passed.

“This law has been in violation now for months, and even when the deadline is passed, there seems to be no consequences for the landlord or the D.O.B.,” Kelmar said.

The Assembly also passed a set of tenant-protection laws late last month, though they have yet to be passed in the state Senate. “My Assembly colleagues and Speaker [Carl Heastie] have continued to prioritize strengthening our rent regulations, and we’ll continue to push for this,” Niou said. “All we can do is continue fighting for laws that will empower tenants and shift the power away from bad landlords who take advantage of the system with no regard for the well-being of their tenants.”

Last week’s hunger strike, however, was focused on de Blasio and Betesh.

“Tenants are very appreciative of [Assemblymember Niou’s] support, and seeing her staff stop by does give some sense that at least we have a politician that cares enough to show up,” Kelmar said. “But I don’t know what’s within an assemblymember’s power to do about this one specific case other than advocate for better state legislation in the future.”

As for the second hunger strike, with Betesh now having given a firm date for the tenants’ return, it was ended last Friday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *