This morning shoppers looking for American flag swimsuits or bright-patterned leggings at Dr. Jay’s streetwear store in downtown Brooklyn were greeted by a flurry of slogans and posters decrying the brand’s owner, Joseph Betesh, as a slumlord. Tenants from 83 and 85 Bowery were gathered with local activists out front, chanting against Betesh’s efforts to evict them.
The tenants, mainly low-income Chinese families, have been organizing against eviction for more than a year and trying to get their apartments recognized as rent-regulated. Back in 2013 the building was bought by Betesh’s Milestone Equities for $62 million. Last March, Betesh refused to renew leases, arguing that the building was not in fact rent-regulated because it underwent substantial rehabilitation. When that didn’t work (they dropped a court case against one of the residents and paid his legal fees) they seemingly changed tactics, deeming the building “structurally unsound” and ordering all the tenants to vacate so they could make repairs.
But after a high-profile court hearing between the tenants and their landlord last month (Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez showed up to rail against shady landlord tactics and Public Advocate Leticia James served as co-counsel), the tenants were in an optimistic mood. The hearing quickly yielded talk of a settlement that would provide a stipend for the tenants to move out during repairs and 99-year-leases once they could move back in.
But as the tenants’ lawyer Janet Ray Kalson at the time said, “the devil is in the details.” Turns out the details of that settlement are still causing consternation in advance of a settlement conference scheduled for tomorrow.
“He has tried every means to try to evict us, including harassment, threats and lawsuits,” said Ya Qin Li, the 83-85 Bowery Tenants Association representative, through a translator. “After we organized against eviction, the landlord claimed he wants to settle– but the 99-year-lease offer was not a rent-stabilized one. And he used repairs as an excuse to try to move forward with pushing us out.”
In particular, the tenants believe that their building is supposed to be rent-regulated and want to get the building registered and treated as such. But a lawyer for Betesh, Joseph Goldsmith, argues that the building can’t be rent regulated under any circumstances.
“These two buildings are not subject to rent regulation, they just don’t meet the test for whether they can be rent regulated or not,” he said. “In the 32 years or so that registrations have been required for rent-regulated buildings these buildings have never been registered as rent-regulated, never been treated as rent-regulated, never been found to be rent-regulated.”
But it’s not uncommon for buildings that should be rent-regulated (including most buildings constructed before 1974 with six apartment or more) to not show up on the registrations. A representative at the Division of Housing and Community Renewal said they get phone calls almost every day to investigate cases of buildings that lawfully fit rent-regulated criteria but are not registered. “It may be required but maybe [the owners] failed to register it,” he said. “We don’t know, and if they don’t know, then this agency can find out.”
To appease tenant demands, Goldsmith said the the landlord is prepared to include conditions similar to rent-stabilization in the settlement. “Even though the buildings are not rent regulated, since the owner has no interest in removing these people from residence, he has offered to provide the tenants of the building with a stipend to find alternate housing while the work is going on; to renovate and rehabilitate the building while they are out of the buildings in a safe and legal manner; and then to restore the tenants back to the building after the work is done with new long-term 99-year leases at rents that are the same as what they are now, with rent increases comparable to what rent regulated tenants would get,” he said. “That’s not something the owner is required to do but something the owner wants to do to make these buildings safe and to alleviate concerns by the tenants that they wouldn’t be allowed to come back after.” (A letter he sent to the judge on June 8 regarding the settlement also stipulated the rent post-construction would also include “rent increases to account for the work performed in/on the Buildings.”)
But the tenants stubbornly insist on rent regulations. Tenant activists who’ve seen their share of shady landlord tactics (and, perhaps, heard a recent presentation featuring a “guide to evicting rent stabilized tenants“) are wary and don’t want to take any chances. Sarah Ahn, a representative of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, said promises are not enough– tenants want the protections that come along with rent regulation.
“I think part of what the tenants feel is that the landlord is not negotiating in good faith,” Ahn said. “The landlord has really put them through the ringer for over a year. They have no trust. Without any real concrete protection, they will not leave the premises– it would be leaving it open for a disaster or anything to happen.”
Another point of contention is the repairs themselves. Both the tenants and Betesh agree repairs need to be made– the tenants have long complained of slanting floors, broken windows and leaking ceilings. The Department of Buildings database showed that the first-floor rear extension at 83 Bowery had deteriorated, with a structurally deficient rotted wooden joist. It also cites failure to maintain plumbing materials and work without a permit in 85 Bowery. The city has ordered the commercial parts of both buildings vacated (the sections that are likely a big part of the attraction to buying a $62 million mainly rent-stabilized tenement in a rapidly-gentrifying area) but not the residential apartments.
But do the tenants actually need to vacate in order for the repairs to be made? Engineers hired by each side have conflicting views. The tenants’ engineer found that repairs could be made while they remained living inside. But Goldsmith, Betesh’s lawyer, begs to differ–instead, the landlord’s engineer says that correcting the violations, which will entail removing the staircases, shoring up the buildings and putting in new beams to support the staircases, all need to be done in a vacant building.
“It’s not like the owner can remove the only staircase in the building, of a building that’s occupied, because there’s no way into the building rather than the one staircase,” Goldsmith said. “The information we’ve obtained from the tenants’ architect doesn’t contradict this, but says that it may be possible for the owner to do something else. But when our architect and engineer looked at it, they said the proposals that the tenants’ engineer set forth are not specific and not feasible and there’s no way the city would issue permits for the work to be done in the way the tenants are stating is possible.”
Ahn, from the Coalition to protect Chinatown, dismissed this. “I don’t think the tenants are unreasonable. They aren’t going to stay in an apartment when they can’t get downstairs. But they have this engineer saying they don’t have to relocate the entire building,” she said. “The purpose of today’s rally is the tenants are upset. They feel the landlord is trying to show himself to be this nice guy and that’s not what, in actuality, is happening.”
A settlement conference is scheduled for tomorrow. The tenant’s lawyer, Janet Ray Kalson, declined to comment for this article.