Tenants of 83 and 85 Bowery poured into the streets of Chinatown yesterday afternoon to protest their landlord Joseph Betesh, again, who they say is a “slumlord” who has been harassing and trying to evict his tenants.
Betesh, owner of Dr. Jay’s, bought 83 and 85 Bowery along with other buildings in 2013 for $62 million; according to a press release, tenants believe he has maintained that the building isn’t rent stabilized. Both parties have gone back and forth in court. In May of last year, Betesh’s lawyers agreed to work toward a settlement wherein Betesh would make repairs, relocate residents, and return them to their refurbished apartments with 99-year leases. However, tenants ultimately rejected the deal because Betesh would not agree that the units were rent-stabilized, according to one of the residents.
That brings us to yesterday’s protest, which drew over 100 tenants, advocates, supporters and hopefuls for city council. Among the many protestors of all ages and diverse backgrounds, Kaiden Yang helped translate much of what the speakers were saying on stage and in the residents’ homes.
Yang, who works with Youth Against Displacement, said he visited the buildings before some of the minimal repairs were done and remembers seeing umbrellas used to stop leaks from the floors above. “It wasn’t even a leak, it was like you turn on the water and it goes directly to the second floor,” Yang said.
Zunjin Zheng is one of Betesh’s elderly tenants at 85 Bowery. She climbs three steep and sloping flights of stairs past garbage bins in the hallways to her unit on the top floor. On the way up to Zheng’s apartment, residents opened their doors and showed how their floors slope, by rolling a ball down the uneven hallways into a dip in the floor.
Zheng said her apartment has its fair share of issues. She’s had a faulty sink that she said was addressed only after a lot of back and forth with Betesh, which wasn’t easy because she speaks little English. The floors look like they need fixing and so do her kitchen cabinets and the space above the stove. But much of the repairs have been done herself. There have been leaks in the roof and in the bathroom. “Right next to the leak is where people would sleep,” Zheng said. “So I had to tell the landlord and finally that’s when he tried to fix it. They’re really reluctant to fix anything here.”
Shu Qing Wang, a resident of 83 Bowery, said her apartment doesn’t need extensive repairs, but said the doors and windows are broken and the floors in the building are also sloping. If Betesh succeeds in his claimed attempts to vacate the building for renovations, Wang says she won’t be able to afford raises in rent and says she doesn’t know where she’ll go. Bedford + Bowery’s messages requesting comment from Betesh went unanswered.
Even though Betesh might be the tenants’ immediate concern, Yang and several other protesters warn that it’s not only Betesh they need to worry about.
Dashia Imperiale, a lifelong Lower East Side resident, is running for city council against Margaret Chin. Imperiale stresses the importance of passing the Chinatown rezoning plan, which would put height restrictions on new buildings and hopefully prevent rising rents and displacement in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. The plan would be similar to the East Village zoning plan passed in 2008.
Wealthy white people aren’t the only ones who like sunlight, views and habitable apartments was sentiment that was heard throughout the afternoon. “How come a middle-class white community in the East Village can be protected from all these high rises whereas lower income, people of color communities like Chinatown and Lower East Side are not protected?” Yang wondered.
While the tenants and advocates of 83 and 85 Bowery continue to try to hold Betesh accountable, Yang says the community should hold the city accountable too.
“The issue is not just about one or two buildings.” Yang said, adding, “The real key people here who should be responsible for displacement is the mayor. Also the city council member Margaret Chin who represents this district. These are the people, together with the developers, who are displacing us. These are the people who should be responsible. Know your enemy.”
Correction, July 26: An earlier version of this post was revised because it incorrectly stated that a court ruled that the units were rent-stabilized; in fact, the rent-stabilization status is currently being considered by the Department of Homes and Community Renewal.