Homeward bound! Bowery tenants ready for end-of-Aug. return

Residents of 85 Bowery celebrated the news of their signed agreement with their landlord last week.

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA |Last Friday, the 85 Bowery tenants and their landlord, Joseph Betesh, signed a legal agreement setting the tenants’ return date at Aug. 31.

“Tragedy after tragedy occurred to our families who reside at 83-85 Bowery,” Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou said in a statement. “The beginning — almost exactly six months ago — was an unforgettable night all of us.”

The settlement between Bestesh and the tenants includes the landlord’s commitment to uphold units’ rent stabilization, and Niou said they should be receiving renewal leases soon.

If repairs aren’t completed by the end of August, Betesh will pay tenants $150 per day per apartment. If there are delays extending to Sept. 16, the payment per day increases to $250, and if the delay could have been prevented, those sums double, according to court records.

The tenants will also receive $25,000 per apartment and a lump sum of $200,000 split between the apartments for their belongings that were discovered in the garbage back in April. The Department of Buildings will give the final O.K. before tenants can return.

“This agreement represents a positive outcome for the families of 83-85 Bowery, the building owners and the Chinatown community,” the 83-85 Bowery Tenants Association and Betesh’s Bowery 8385 LLC said in a joint statement Friday. “As has been our shared goal from the beginning of this process, 85 Bowery will now be a safe, affordable, quality building for generations to come.”

Chinatown activist Don Lee, speaking to tenants, after the agreement was signed.

All permits for construction are in place and work should be finished by the Aug. 31 return date, the statement said, adding that “the tenants and the owner look forward to putting this unfortunate situation behind them and are glad that they were able to reach an agreement.”

Niou recounted the cold winter night when the tenants were locked out of their homes without explanation. Even Niou’s office couldn’t obtain clear answers then, she added. Then, after a vacate order was issued, lengthy construction to rebuild the deteriorated and dangerous stairway was delayed after asbestos was found. Asbestos abatement and further construction led to more delays. Meanwhile, tenants at 85 Bowery had to leave behind their belongings and find shelter. Betesh eventually paid for rooms at a hotel in Brooklyn and later at the Wyndham Garden Chinatown, where tenants are currently housed until their return home.

“Since the beginning of this nightmare,” Niou said, “we’ve stood with the tenants and we will continue to stand with them making sure that all of these agreements are met.”

The Bowery tenants have fought for months to return back to their homes, and prior to that, had been in litigation with their landlord over other issues. The tenants and organizers became frustrated with D.O.B., as well, though a department spokesperson has said previously construction workers are on site six days a week and that the agency has been committed to holding Betesh accountable.

The tenants organized a hunger strike in February outside of the offices of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and a second one at the end of May in front of City Hall. The hope for the latter was that the mayor would enforce a return date for the tenants. One of the mayor’s only public comments on the matter was on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC in mid-April, calling it a “thorny case” and saying he didn’t know “why it took so long for this to be acted on.”

Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou said that, although the Bowery tenants have won a major victory, tenant displacement is a problem that continues citywide and that more affordable housing is needed.

Organizers from around the city have rallied alongside the 85 Bowery tenants, including Youth Against Displacement, the Democratic Socialists of America and the Coalition to Protect Chinatown & the Lower East Side. Community organizers Shirley Ng, Corky Lee and Don Lee raised an extra few thousand dollars for the tenants as well, according to Ng’s LinkedIn post.

“It’s been a great couple of days for the tenants,” said Caitlin Kelmar, a spokesperson for the tenants. “They’re so relieved and excited that this is really finally almost over and that the next step is just them going home, and there’s no more obstacles in their way.”

The Coalition to Protect Chinatown & the Lower East Side said in a statement, “This is an astounding accomplishment for all the tenants and supporters involved, and it has become an example for tens of thousands of working families across New York City who are facing displacement.”

Coalition members, however, say they are still “furious” over the extensive efforts required to protect the tenants, when they could have been protected under the Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan — a plan community activists worked on at regular meetings over several years going as far back as 2009. The city has refused to adopt the rezoning plan.

“We say to Mayor de Blasio: Not one more eviction!” the coalition added in a statement. “Not one more family displaced. Pass the full Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan, now!”

Assemblymember Niou kept her focus looking forward, noting the widespread problem of tenant displacement. She stressed the need for better state laws to protect tenants across the city from displacement and increase affordable housing.

“Safe and affordable housing,” she said, “is a right which is clearly not reflected in the current state of housing in New York.”

Shuo Jin, a leader of the 85 Bowery tenants, thanked everyone who helped play a part in ensuring the tenants’ return.

“We are so happy to have reached this agreement,” he said. “We want to thank the whole community for their support, and the elected officials, media and organizations. Every action, including the hunger strikes, our marches and our rallies, you have been there and we couldn’t have done it without your support.”

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