Dozens of tenants and activists gathered blocks from the Tenement Museum on Thursday morning to protest what they claim are unsafe living conditions in two Lower East Side apartment buildings. A group of predominantly Chinese residents of 247 Broome Street and 135 Eldridge Street, many of whom live in rent-controlled units, complained of eviction threats, chronically ignored maintenance requests, shambolic common areas, and illegal construction in the buildings. The residents claim that R.A. Cohen & Associates, which manages both buildings, is deliberately mistreating low-income renters in an effort to push them out of their homes.
In two separate lawsuits filed in New York City Civil Court in August, residents of the building allege that their owners have “repeatedly failed to respond or take any action” in response to tenants’ complaints regarding conditions in apartments and common areas that allegedly violate housing codes and disruptive construction.
Huddled beneath scaffolding at the entrance to 135 Eldridge Street, residents chanted slogans like, “Chinatown is not for sale,” and took turns speaking about their grievances with the landlord. “R.A. Cohen stop harassing tenants,” read one sign held by a demonstrator.
One of the plaintiffs, Xue Ting Huang, told the crowd of reporters and demonstrators Thursday that she has lived at 247 Broome Street for 25 years. “We used to love living here,” said Huang, speaking through a translator. But Huang said that since a New York corporation associated with R.A. Cohen & Associates purchased the building in 2013, tenants’ maintenance requests have been fulfilled with shoddy repairs or disregarded completely. Huang and other residents claim that R.A. Cohen & Associates is pressuring them to leave their homes so that the apartments can be renovated and rented out for more money. “We older tenants pay a lower rate, so the landlord wants us to leave,” she said.
Records from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development show dozens of open violations at each of the properties, including the presence of unsafe electrical wiring, lead-based paint, mold, roaches, and mice. One complaint at 247 Broome Street refers to the presence of an unauthorized garbage chute in a public hallway breaching the floor between the cellar and first story. Inspectors were unable to access the building to verify the complaint, records show.
Xiao Ling Chen, who is also a plaintiff in one of the suits, broke into tears as she prepared to address the crowd. Holding a sign that read, “I want my basic human rights,” Chen spoke through a translator about what she said was unfair treatment at the hands of her landlord.
Chen said that two years ago, she requested that lead removal work in her apartment at 135 Eldridge Street be delayed until after she returned from a planned visit to China, which she claimed Cohen’s representatives agreed to. But upon her return, she said she was shocked and angered to find that the construction had proceeded in her absence and been left incomplete. Chen said that unrepaired holes in her walls had rendered one of her bedrooms uninhabitable and forced her to sleep on the floor with one of her grandchildren. Two years later, Chen complained that repairs have yet to be completed in a satisfactory manner.
Melanie Wang, an organizer with the Chinatown Tenants Union who works with residents of the buildings, said that since the lawsuits were filed in August, Cohen’s representatives have begun “hastily doing repairs” in the buildings. “We see he’s responding to the pressure of the suit, but not working in tenants’ best interests,” Wang said.
A total of twelve tenants from the two buildings have filed suit against Cohen with the assistance of MFY Legal Services, a not-for-profit law firm. The plaintiffs are seeking civil penalties and an order that the landlord correct the dozens open HPD violations at the buildings. “It’s almost sad that we have to sue to do this,” said Shi-Shi Wang, an MFY attorney working on the case. Wang is optimistic that the plaintiffs will eventually reach a settlement, which she said could come as soon as tomorrow, when the parties’ first court appearance is scheduled.
R.A. Cohen & Associates did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“We’re willing to work with them,” said Loren Wong, a resident of 135 Eldridge Street. “We just wanted to be treated fairly.”