About 100 people came out to the Bowery today for a press conference, where 27 families living in 83 and 85 Bowery spoke out against poor living conditions, according to David Tieu of The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. The tenants say the new owner, Joseph Betesh of Milestone Equities, has allowed the buildings to fall into disrepair and is refusing to renew their leases, and they plan to fight back to remain in their homes.
The press release states that in one apartment the bathroom has multiple holes in the walls and ceilings, and the tenants use an umbrella to block the water that pours down every time a neighbor upstairs takes a shower. Tenants of both buildings have reported ceilings and floors collapsing, water damage and rat infestation, according to Tieu. “All tenants deal daily with uneven and sloping stairs, a particularly hazardous problem for the many seniors and children who live in the building,” the release says.
“We have to protect tenants who are being pushed out of their apartments, often through the most unscrupulous tactics,” said Public Advocate Letitia James at the rally. “Illegal harassment will not be tolerated, and the City must hold the landlord accountable for his actions.”
Betesh, whose family owns hip-hop apparel purveyor Dr. Jay’s, purchased the buildings from a family trust along with nine other Bowery buildings, numbers 88, 103, 105, 219, 221, 262, 276 and 280, in 2013. He did not respond to our requests for comment.
At the time of the purchase John Ciraulo, the lawyer representing the seller, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal speculating that Betesh would stand to make a lot of money from the commercial space in the rapidly gentrifying area. A press release by Ciraulo’s firm, Massey Knakal, stated, “these properties have been family owned since the 1930s which presented a rare opportunity for Milestone Equities to acquire a portfolio with tremendous upside.” There was no mention in the release of the residential portions of the buildings.
Some of the families residing in Betesh’s Bowery portfolio have been living there for three decades, according to Sarah Ahn, volunteer organizer for a tenants association. So far, though, it’s proved difficult to find records proving the building should be rent stabilized, said Michael Grinthal of MFY Legal Services, who represents the group of tenants. But, he stressed, it seems as though the old buildings would meet all the criteria for rent stabilization, which would mean they cannot be evicted without due cause. Unless there are documents MFY still hasn’t found that indicate otherwise, the burden in on the landlord to provide evidence that he has the right to raise rents and discontinue leases.
“There are various ways to take a building out of rent stabilization, and one is if you gut renovate it,” Grinthal said. “We’re trying ot see if there’s any record of that, but we haven’t seen it yet.” He explained that even if there wasn’t a formal agreement with the buildings’ former owners, it wouldn’t be unusual for the old landlord to keep the rent fairly steady. “It’s a common story in Chinatown/Bowery, where it wasn’t a tough market for a long time,” Grinthal said. “This was a place that even without rent stabilization rents could be cheap and landlords weren’t that ambitious, but now people are buying all these buildings with very big plan to obviously get a lot of revenue out of them.”
A check of the Department of Buildings database revealed that 83 Bowery has an outstanding DOB civil suit for $1,500 for failing to correct an “immediately hazardous” Class One Violation. The suit dates back to October 2013, four months after it was announced the buildings were changing ownership, and it’s related to the landlord not filing work permits for the replacement of all the boiler sections in the building and the reinstallation of old jackets, gas burners and controls.
85 Bowery has an unresolved 2006 hazardous violation for “failure to maintain plumbing and/or appurtenances hazardous.” At the time of the inspection, the DOB found water dripping from the ceiling, the report states, and it indicates the violation occurred in the commercial space below the apartments. And as of earlier today, both buildings have received complaints regarding the enforcement of a DOB work order to conduct special safety sweeps.
Tieu said it’s not uncommon for landlords to force out unwanted tenants by refusing to do repairs. “By any means we need to, we’re going to make sure those repairs are done,” he said, adding that his other goal is ensuring the tenants’ right to stay. Betesh’s alleged refusal to extend leases to all the tenants in the building is “a strong indication that eviction is what he had in the back of his mind,” he said.