Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez speaking (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez speaking (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Landlords are on notice–yesterday Steve Croman was charged with 20 felony counts and using illegal tactics to push tenants out of his buildings. Today Public Advocate Letitia James and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez kept up the heat, using their clout to influence the outcome of a prominent tenant-landlord dispute in Chinatown. Standing outside the state supreme courthouse, the two railed against landlord Joseph Betesh (also owner of the Dr. Jays streetwear brand), accusing him of using “illegal practices” to evict 27 families at 83 and 85 Bowery.

“The landlord says he has to kick the tenants out in order to make the necessary repairs to the buildings because the buildings are structurally unsound,” said Velazquez. “Well, what is really unsound is Mr. Betesh’s reasoning and his belief that he can treat our neighbors this way. We are here to say to this company and this developer: We are watching.”

The buildings, bought by Betesh’s Milestone Equities in 2013 for $62 million, are mainly filled with low-income Chinese families living in rent-stabilized apartments. Last March, Betesh refused to renew rent-stabilized leases, arguing that the building was not in fact rent-stabilized because it underwent substantial rehabilitation. But when that didn’t work (they dropped a court case against one of the residents and paid his legal fees) they seemingly changed tactics–now they deemed the building “structurally unsound” and ordered all the tenants to vacate.

Public Advocate Letitia James (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Public Advocate Letitia James (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

The tenants agree that repairs are needed–they complain 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. An engineer hired by the tenants says they don’t need to leave in order for the work to be completed.

And if they leave, there’s little guarantee they could come back, especially–as we’ve seen time and again–if the landlord argues that costly repairs to the building allow them to bump apartment rents up to market rate. So they’ve joined together and fought back with rallies and legal counsel, garnering press coverage many buildings suffering from landlord harassment don’t get.

At the court hearing today, Betesh (who did not attend) hoped to convince the judge that the building was dangerous and unsound. But he was in for a lot of pressure to reverse course or alter his efforts to force tenants to vacate the buildings permanently. James didn’t just lead the rally–she also served as co-counsel to defend the families in danger of eviction, along with Janet Ray Kalson, the tenants’ lawyer.

“Mr. Betesh only sees a community that is changing rapidly. He only sees how much money he can make by evicting these tenants,” James said. “He has tried to evict these tenants by saying they are not protected by the law. When that failed, now he is saying it is structurally unsound, despite what DOB has indicated: That the building is structurally sound. So we are here today in court to challenge him.”

Given James’ forceful words, some expected to see a showdown in the court room. Instead, in a surprise move, Betesh’s lawyers announced they would work with the tenants on a settlement to temporarily relocate them while the repairs are made. Under a new agreement, the landlord would provide the tenants with a stipend to cover the time away, and move them all back in with 99-year-leases.

Afterwards, Kalson, the lawyer for the tenants, called the new direction “a sea change.”

“The landlord, all of a sudden, decided he is interested in settling this,”she said. “I think that the landlord really is not interested in this barrage of bad publicity that his course of action was leading to.”

But, she conceded, “the devil is in the details.” There are still many aspects that need to be worked out in a new settlement before the next hearing on June 15. “We’ll have to see if this works or not,” she said. “Obviously, the amount of the rent is a very important consideration. It has to be affordable for the tenants.” Though the apartments would remain rent regulated, there will still likely be a rent bump due to the improvements and it’s not clear yet how high that might be.

Kalson added that she had represented clients who achieved similar results after elected officials and the media applied extra pressure. She has also seen cases where tenants were successfully returned to apartments after being temporarily moved out. “I see landlords settling these cases when the heat is hot enough,” she said.

The tenants said they were heartened by the news. “We are really happy with the development of the case and how we’ve been able to push the landlord to get this far,” Ya Qin Li, the 83-85 Bowery Tenants Association representative, said through a translator. “We have all these people’s support and we have the help of a lawyer who can negotiate, who can make sure things go well. We will make sure we can go back, otherwise we will not agree with any offer.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated “substantial rehabilitations” as “capital repairs.” It also said Betesh lost a court case against a resident—in fact, he decided to drop it and was ordered to pay the defendant’s attorney’s fees.