Residents of the embattled 85 Bowery protested in front of the Department of Buildings at 280 Broadway Wednesday afternoon.
The tenants were evicted from the 16-unit residential building in Chinatown on Jan. 18 after an inspection ordered by a judge in the lawsuit between the tenants and landlord Joseph Betesh brought up safety violations, including an unstable staircase. The residents have been staying at a hotel since the eviction.
— Sylvia (@sylvia_nyc) March 28, 2018
During the protest, a crowd of over fifty people gathered at the Department of Buildings, chanting “Bring the tenants home” and “DOB, shame on you.”
Zishun Ning, a member of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, told the crowd that the quandary the tenants are facing speaks to the issue of gentrification spreading throughout the city.
“The city agencies did not fulfill their responsibility and let the landlord just keep the building in disrepair,” Ning said. “Are you [Department of Buildings] going to evict every family from New York City out? Are you going to displace all the rent-stabilized tenants? You’re sending a very concerning message to the city of New York that everyone is in danger of eviction now.”
— Lori Chung (@lorichung) March 28, 2018
Following the eviction, Betesh was given two weeks to repair the staircase. But after two weeks passed and Betesh was not penalized for failing to make the necessary repairs, several tenants went on a hunger strike outside of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development in early February. They ended the strike after five days to partake in the Lunar New Year festivities.
The tenants were later told they could return to their homes on March 28. However, a letter dated March 20 from New York state assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou to the Department of Buildings and several other city agencies detailed the discovery of asbestos in the building. This will again delay the tenants’ return. According to a resident at the protest, the hotel bills are being paid for by the landlord.
“We have heard that it could take up to two weeks for the [Department of Environmental Protection] to inspect the building,” Niou wrote. “As a result, repairs could be seriously delayed.”
Many tenants are skeptical that asbestos is to blame, arguing that Betesh knowingly let the building fall into disrepair so he could implement a rent increase while the tenants were evicted during repairs.
“You’ve been working on fixing the staircase for as long as you have, but yet through that process, you did not notice the asbestos, the defective beams then?” protester Han Dia said to Niou.
In an email statement to WSN, a spokesperson for the 85 Bowery owner described their committment to finishing building updates as soon as possible.
“We are committed to safely moving the families of 85 Bowery back into their homes as quickly as possible,” the statement said. “We have already taken steps to demonstrate that commitment by installing a new steel staircase ahead of schedule. As we have made clear all along, and as city officials have been fully aware, a significant amount of additional work — including replacement of supports and beams — is required to ensure the long-term structural stability of the building.”
Nikki Pagulayan, a member of 7 Train Coalition, which aims to combat gentrification and housing displacement in neighborhoods along the line of the 7 train, claims that Betesh is not the only one at fault for negligence: the city is responsible too.
“We see privatized development hurting our working-class immigrant communities,” Pagulayan said. “As the needs of 85 Bowery tenants and tenants across New York City go unanswered, is that what community protection under the city looks like?”
The crowd also expressed their support for a rezoning plan proposed by the Chinatown Working Group which would limit overdevelopment in the area and promote affordable housing.
“We’re trying to get the CWG plan passed to limit the luxury development on the Lower East Side and Chinatown and to cap the height limits and to make sure that any development that happens is responsible development,” CWG member Antonio Queylin said.
An email press release issued Tuesday stated the tenants’ demands.
“The 85 Bowery tenants’ demands on the Mayor and City agencies remain: immediately give the tenants a written guarantee specifying a date by which they can return home and enforce it; and stop siding with negligent landlords and developers and start prosecuting them,” the statement reads.
Protesters in the crowd said they intend for the hunger strike to resume at the end of May — this time in front of City Hall.
Update, March 29: At 8 a.m., a statement was sent to WSN on behalf of the owner of 85 Bowery. The article has been updated with the statement.
Email Sarah Jackson at [email protected]