Bowery tenants finally back — 8 months later

Tenants from 85 Bowery, displaced from their building for the better part of a year, finally were able to celebrate their return back home last Friday.

BY BILL WEINBERG | The traditional lion dance is seen on the streets of Chinatown every Lunar New Year, and on other festive occasions, such as weddings and business openings. The one held Fri., Aug. 31, was very short — from the Wyndham Garden Chinatown Hotel at the corner of Bowery and Hester St., just halfway down the block to 85 Bowery. But it was particularly poignant.

Leading the procession, just ahead of the dancer in the lion costume and an accompanying drummer, the marchers held a big banner reading — in both Chinese and English — “We Are Going Home.” When they arrived at the door of No. 85, a brief rally was held on the sidewalk. Then, they symbolically tore the word “Going” from the banner so that it simply read, “We Are Home.” And as onlookers cheered and the cameras of the assembled press corps flashed, they triumphantly crossed the threshold into the building.

It was a hard-won victory. The 85 Bowery tenants were rousted from their homes on no notice following emergency vacate orders issued by the Department of Buildings, way back on Jan. 18 — on grounds that the building’s interior staircase was in urgent need of repair. Return dates set by D.O.B. were repeatedly postponed at the landlord’s request. In February, eight of the tenants held a five-day hunger strike outside the offices of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, demanding that H.P.D. take over the renovation work at the building. A second hunger strike was held briefly at the end of May in front of City Hall.

The displaced families were initially dispatched to a hotel in distant East New York in Brooklyn. Later, as public pressure mounted in the case, the landlord moved them to the Wyndham Garden — on the same block as their home.

But there was deep skepticism that the landlord and city officials were acting in good faith.

Some of the building’s tenants, even before the vacate order, had filed complaints with state authorities, charging that landlord Joseph Betesh was seeking to illegally revoke their apartments’ rent-stabilized status and have them evicted. Betesh had already converted other properties of his around the city to luxury condos. The displaced tenants and their activist allies feared that was the same agenda for 85 Bowery.

But victory was declared on July 6, when Betesh — operating through his company Bowery 8385 LLC — and the 83-85 Bowery Tenants Association reached a legal agreement, formally settling the litigation that had been playing out in New York State Supreme Court. The deal set the date for the tenants’ return home for no later than Aug. 31.

Longtime Chinatown neighborhood activist Don Lee was among the speakers at the brief sidewalk rally before the tenants entered the building.

“I am humbled,” he said. “It’s not every day you have the little guys win. This fight is not just about 85 Bowery,” he added, “but all of us living in New York City and our rights.”

Yanin Pena of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side struck a similar note in her remarks.

“This is still a crisis,” she said. “Around the city, there are vacate orders being carried out in an atmosphere of harassment. We have to keep on organizing against displacement.”

The Coalition and the group Youth Against Displacement, the co-organizers of the rally, issued a statement noting that under the legal agreement, the tenants are returning to a safe building and repaired apartments at their original rents, and with their rent-stabilized leases intact. The tenants will not be charged for the repairs, nor face rent hikes for future repairs over the next years, they said.

Under the deal with Betesh, the tenants will also receive $25,000 per apartment, as well as a lump sum of $200,000 split between them, as compensation for their personal belongings that were found in a garbage bin outside the building in April. They were able to recover only some of the belongings.

By hitting the Aug. 31 deadline, Betesh avoided having to pay the tenants $150 per day per apartment — with the sum rising to $250 after two weeks.

The organizers’ statement also stressed the emblematic nature of the case of 85 Bowery: “Despite city agencies extending the deadline of their return numerous times and the enormous pressures to compromise and ultimately leave their homes and communities, the tenants remained steadfast and determined,” they said. “They recognize that it is only through everyone’s effort that they were able to break through the city’s corruption and win such an agreement… . Tenants, supporters and the Coalition encourage others who are facing displacement and eviction to fight back and not give in to the pressure to compromise… . The tenants wish to become an example that such victories are possible even when families are being kicked out left and right.”

Their statement called for “community-led rezoning,” like that advocated by the Chinatown Working Group, as a long-term measure “to protect the entire community from displacement.”

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