Dozens of Bowery tenants who were forced out of their apartments in January rallied outside the Department of Buildings office Wednesday after learning they may have to wait at least a month before they can return to their homes.
The tenants of 83-85 Bowery were expecting to get back into their building by Wednesday, but the landlord now says asbestos has been found in the ceilings, making the building unsafe to live in.
“The city is saying with these damages, it will take another two months to move the tenants in,” Caitlin Kelmar, a representative for the tenants, said. “For the tenants, this further delay is unacceptable because they have already waited so long.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Buildings, however, said the work should only take about 30 days.
"DOB and our fellow agencies are pushing an aggressive plan for repairs at 85 Bowery — and this work is well underway," spokeswoman Avery Cambridge said. "DOB remains committed to holding the landlord accountable for his legal and moral responsibility to provide a safe place to live for his tenants."
The tenants gathered outside the DOB’s office at 280 Broadway in Manhattan around 4 p.m. and demanded the city provide a specific date by which they can return to their building and a written guarantee that it will be enforced.
A spokesman for the building’s owner, Bowery 8385 LLC, and landlord, Joseph Betesh, said while they are committed to moving the families back into their homes, they need to take the asbestos discovery seriously.
“In the process of investigating additional structural issues that predate our ownership, our team discovered asbestos inside the ceilings of the third and fourth floors,” spokesman Sam Spokony said. “We immediately reported this finding to the Department of Buildings and are coordinating with relevant city agencies on a plan to abate the asbestos.”
The tenants were forced to evacuate from their building on Jan. 18, after a court-ordered inspection by the DOB determined the staircase was unstable and needed to be replaced.
After a brief stay in a Brooklyn motel, the tenants were moved back to the Bowery area with the help of the city department of Housing Preservation and Development. Bowery 8385 LLC said it would pay for most of the tenants to stay at the Chinatown hotel until they could move back into their apartments.
Bowery 8385 LLC and Betesh are embroiled in a lawsuit with the tenants over whether the apartments are considered rent-regulated units. The tenants believe they are attempting to push them out so the units can be turned into luxury, market-rate apartments — a claim that Betesh and Bowery 8385 LLC have repeatedly denied.
Spokony said the owners replaced the staircase ahead of the city’s deadline, which shows they have every intention of allowing the tenants to return.
“We recognize how difficult this situation has been for the families and we will continue to provide high-quality hotel accommodations at our expense until the conclusion of work,” he added.
Eight tenants had gone on a hunger strike in February, hoping to put pressure on the city and the landlord to set a clearer deadline for them to be able to return. The hunger strike ended after five days, with the tenants citing impending Chinese New Year preparations.
“It is also worrying that these further repairs are only mentioned now that the deadline is close, as the tenants feared an excuse like this might happen,” Kelmar added, though she said media coverage of the hunger strike had forced Betesh into discussions with the tenants about the status of their rent stabilization. “This is a big step forward because prior to the hunger strike, the landlord was not open to communicating with the tenants.”
Kelmar said the tenants now plan to have their own inspection done on the building to examine the asbestos that was discovered and find out whether the inspector agrees with the new timeline for completion.
“The memory of the DOB’s initial promise that the eviction would only be for two weeks is still fresh in the minds of the tenants, so they are wary to trust the city’s estimations,” she added.