More than 100 Chinatown residents and their supporters crowded onto the sidewalk in front of 83 and 85 Bowery yesterday afternoon, marching around the block and gumming up traffic. The rally was part of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown’s ongoing effort to draw attention to tenant harassment cases and push for height limits and rent stabilization in the neighborhood.
The residents of 83 and 85 Bowery say they have been fighting their landlord’s efforts to evict them since last year and their struggle is still pending. It’s an unfortunately familiar story of a landlord’s failure to make repairs or renew rent-stabilized leases. The buildings, along with nine other Bowery lots, were bought by Milestone Equities in 2013 for $62 million. One of the owners is Joseph Betesh, of Dr. Jay’s streetwear brand.
It seemed like a plum deal in an area ripe for new developments– 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.”
It continued: “Over the last decade, the Bowery has benefitted from an influx of nightlife and dining as a result of developments […] Bowery is in the midst of a dramatic transformation as many high-end residents and upscale retailers populate the area from neighboring SoHo and NoLIta.” That didn’t sound too promising for the mainly low-income Chinese families living in the building, many for 10 years or more.
Sure enough, residents say Betesh refused to renew rent-stabilized leases last March and took one tenant to housing court to try to evict him. They also complain that they’re still waiting for repairs on problems like leaking ceilings and slanted floors, and some have had to rely on electric heaters all winter. The Department of Buildings database showed that the first-floor rear extension at 83 Bowery had deteriorated, with a structurally defected rotted wooden joist. It also cites failure to maintain plumbing materials and work without a permit in 85 Bowery. The city has ordered parts of both buildings vacated. Yesterday’s ralliers believe this fits the pattern of a common shady landlord tactic: Let the building fall into disrepair so the tenants are forced to leave, then flip the building into luxury condos those same residents can’t afford.
The tenants responded by forming an association and enlisting the help of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown, an umbrella group for about 60 neighborhood organizations. Things were looking up– in March the landlord dropped the case against the tenant and was ordered to pay legal fees after the tenant’s lawyer said she was hiring an engineer to fact-check claims that the building had been renovated and was no longer was eligible for rent regulation. But now the landlord has brought a lawsuit to State Supreme Court, arguing that all tenants must leave so the buildings can be repaired.
“Joseph Betesh knows he’s losing but he doesn’t want to concede defeat,” said David Tieu, the spokesman for the Coalition to Protect Chinatown. “What he’s hoping to achieve with that, I think, is that he knows it takes a lot of money to take a case to the Supreme Court and it takes a lot of time.”
Though a translator, the tenant association president Ya Qin Li said one resident had used an umbrella to stop up a leak until the Housing, Preservation and Development department investigated in October and forced repairs. She hoped the rally would galvanize the landlord to give the tenants the rent-stabilized lease and the mayor to pass the Chinatown Working Group plan.
“This is just what’s happening in the community, we see it every day,” said Tieu. “We definitely made this an example because the people here have come together very powerfully over the last few month. They have not allowed the slumlord to intimidate and harass them, and instead they’ve provided a lot of inspiration and leadership to the rest of the community. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
When B+B asked Tieu if the tenants had been able to use de Blasio’s new tenant support unit, established last July to monitor landlord harassment and direct tenants to free legal support, he said no. “A few lawyers? that’s not going to help. You may be able to protect one family, but what about the thousands of families being pushed out?” he said. “If de Blasio really cared and wanted to get to the heart of the issue, all he has to do is pass the Chinatown Working Group proposal. If we put height limits […] developers like Betesh wouldn’t have any incentive to push people out of their homes.”
Milestone Equities did not respond to our request for comment.
Correction: A previous version said Milestone Equities was apparently also known as Honest Buildings. Honest Buildings is a separate platform for real estate management.