The suffering continues for tenants of 85 Bowery, who were driven from their homes on January 18, after inspectors from the City’s Department of Buildings (DOB) determined that an interior staircase in the building was unstable, and in danger of collapsing. More than 75 residents of the building — including 17 young children and dozens of elderly residents — have been living in hotels and shelters ever since. On Wednesday, employees of the building’s owner, Joseph Betesh, began tossing the residents’ belongings into a dumpster in front of 85 Bowery.
This move followed a legal motion by Mr. Betesh, asking for a court order requiring the tenants to remove their personal effects, in spite of the fact that he has conceded to their right to return once the building is deemed safe. The residents agreed to begin taking out their possessions last week, and began making arrangements to do so, when they discovered on Wednesday the landlord was bundling their possessions into trash bags and throwing them into a bin parked in front of the building. This caused the residents to converge on the building and scramble through the dumpster, where they found items like prescription medication, stuffed animals, and children’s clothing.
Local elected officials reacted with fury to this development. City Council member Margaret Chin said, “Joseph Betesh’s haphazard treatment of his tenants’ personal belongings is utterly disgusting. For nearly three months, through no fault of their own, the families of 85 Bowery have been forced to live a nightmare, and continue to face what seems like a never-ending timeline of repairs.”
State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou said, “Joseph Betesh’s actions today were beyond unacceptable. Carting out tenant’s belongings and dumping them into a garbage container on the street is not only disrespectful, but inhumane. These families have been out of their homes for months now, and to be treated like this by their landlord is a slap on the face to not only them, but to everyone who has been working to get these tenants back home quickly and safely.”
This is only the most recent travail for residents of 85 Bowery, who had originally been told they would return to their homes by mid-February. When repairs were not completed by that deadline, the landlord promised the staircase would be replaced by the end of February, and then by March 28. This project appears to have been successfully completed by that third deadline, but while it was underway, Mr. Betesh announced this his contractors had found asbestos in the building, which required immediate remediation. This extended pushed back to the end of April the deadline for moving displaced residents back into the building. In the meantime, he decided to dump into a trash cart the belongings those tenants had left behind. The reasons for this decision, or whether is was even legal, were not immediately clear.
In January, shortly after the mass eviction at 85 Bowery, Ms. Chin introduced a bill in the City Council that would require landlords in similar circumstances to pay for lodging for displaced tenants, while repairs were underway. The Council has yet to take action on this bill, although Mr. Betesh subsequently agreed to cover expenses incurred by residents staying at a hotel near 85 Bowery, after they had spent more than a week in shelters and emergency accommodations provided by the Red Cross.
In February, Ms. Chin demanded that the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) use the authority granted by its Emergency Repair Program to take over work at 85 Bowery, and complete the structural remediation itself. (In such a case, the City would do the work on the landlord’s behalf, and then demand reimbursement for its costs.) HPD declined to step in, however, stating doing so “would slow down the projected timeline and would delay residents from moving back into their homes.”
Also in February, Ms. Chin and Ms. Niou were joined by City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in calling upon New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance and State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to open investigations of Mr. Betesh’s conduct.
Shortly after these developments, a group of these displaced tenants began a five-day hunger strike outside the DOB’s headquarters at Broadway and Chambers Street, to draw attention to their plight.
In 2013, Mr. Betesh’s firm, Milestone Equities, paid $62 million in cash for a portfolio of 11 apartment buildings on the Bowery, between Canal and Houston Streets. (In addition to 85 Bowery, located half a block north of the Manhattan Bridge, he bought the buildings at 83, 88, 103, 105, 219, 221, 262, 276, 280, and 284 Bowery.) Shortly after taking possession of 85 Bowery, Mr. Betesh began trying to evict the 27 families who had lived there, in many cases, for decades.
This proved legally dubious, because the tenants argued that their apartments were rent stabilized, which (in addition to limiting rent increases) gave them the right to automatic renewal of their leases. Mr. Betesh’s lawyers argued that renovations performed on the building in the early 1980s had made the units ineligible for rent stabilization.
Essentially, the landlord’s case rested on three arguments: First, that 85 Bowery, which was built in 1900 as a rooming house, instead of a true apartment building, was excluded because the State’s 1974 rent stabilization law originally covered only apartment buildings. Second, that its 1981 conversion into a genuine apartment building predated that law’s expansion to cover rooming houses, albeit by only a few months. And third, that the renovation by which the structure was transformed from a rooming house to an apartment building was so extensive that 85 Bowery became the legal equivalent of an entirely new building.
When most of the tenants still refused to leave, Mr. Betesh sued to have them evicted. But after the tenants’ lawyer hired an engineer to analyze the building and determine how extensive the 1981 renovations had been, Mr. Betesh dropped that case and offered every tenant $15,000 to leave voluntarily. Most of the residents rejected this offer, as well. At that point, Mr. Betesh resumed legal action, this time arguing that the building was so badly in need of repair that it had to be emptied before work could safely begin. His lawyers also resurrected the allegation that the units in the building were not legally subject to rent stabilization, which (if upheld by the courts) would effectively mean that residents forced to leave during repairs would never be allowed to return.
All of these machinations come against the backdrop of a development frenzy along the Bowery, and throughout Chinatown and the Lower East Side, where comparatively few zoning restrictions limit the height or bulk of new buildings. Often, the only significant obstacle to development is the tenants occupying apartments within buildings that new owners wish to demolish. In this context, removing residents from such buildings has become a high-stakes game that potentially promises rewards in the tens of millions of dollars to any landlord who can successfully empty the structure.
During the round of litigation leading up to forced evictions on January 18, the State’s Division of Homes and Community Renewal filed a brief with the State Supreme Court, concluding that the apartments in 85 Bowery are, in fact, covered by rent stabilization.
In the meantime, Mr. Betesh held off on doing repairs that his lawyers said were urgent and essential, arguing at the same time that these repairs could not safely begin while tenants were still residing in the building. An engineer hired by the tenants agreed that the repairs in question were critical, but filed papers indicating that they could be performed while residents remained in their apartments.
It was at this point, on January 18, that DOB inspectors showed up at 85 Bowery, examined the staircase, and ordered everyone to vacate the premises immediately. Thirteen weeks later, it remains unclear when — or even whether — residents of 85 Bowery will be able to return to their homes.
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