14th St. refugees still homeless four months later

By Patrick Hedlund 

Four months after the city evacuated a group of W. 14th St. tenants due to dangerous structural conditions at their building, many of them remain without permanent homes while awaiting the results of a lawsuit against their landlord.

The five-story, single-room-occupancy, or S.R.O., building near Seventh Ave. had to be vacated suddenly May 7 when the Department of Buildings determined a crack in the facade posed an immediate threat of collapse.

Before the emergency vacate order, tenants had charged that the building owner willfully let the structure deteriorate as part of a scheme to force tenants out and remove the building’s rent-stabilized status.

In response to a litany of D.O.B. violations for dangerous conditions at the building, the tenants banded together before the evacuation to pursue a case in Housing Court against owner Stanley Wasserman for his failure to make the needed repairs. While the tenants wait for a ruling in the case, as well as a determination regarding the building’s safety, some of the former 152 W. 14th St. refugees have endured a nomadic existence since their abrupt uprooting.

“My life is a complete mess, if you want to know the truth,” said Laurent Medelgi, 41, a musician and composer who lived for 10 years at the building and is currently staying at friends’ homes. The stress from the instability has begun affecting his work, and Medelgi blames both his landlord and the city.

“This system is just not working for me,” he said. “There’s no justice in leaving people homeless for four months when it would take one week’s work to fix the building.”

The tenants were allowed back inside to gather belongings during the few days following the evacuation, but soon thereafter the building’s locks were changed — leaving some with only the possessions they carried out hurriedly in suitcases and bags.

“I have stuff in there that I’m missing and I need to use, and I don’t have access to it,” Medelgi added. “They’re treating us like cattle. We’re just pieces of meat.”

Susanna Blankley, a tenant organizer for the West Side S.R.O. Law Project, said the tenants don’t have any legal recourse to regain access to the building and their personal property. However, their lawsuit against Wasserman seeks to make him bring the building up to code, something that would ostensibly stymie his attempt to convert the building to market-rate housing.

“[Wasserman] has done no maintenance, no repairs of the building since August 1995, when he bought it,” Blankley said. “I think it’s become unlivable for the tenants.”

The Department of Buildings’ online records show a history of poor conditions at the building, including a September 2007 violation citing a “failure to maintain front facade” after inspectors observed “bulging and buckling at various locations throughout.” Another violation, issued in February of this year, found that “bricks are dislodged, bulging and cracked, with loose mortar joints.” Yet another, issued two months before the evacuation, found that the facade was “pulling away from flooring approximately 3 inc[hes].”

“The tenants fighting him in court is the only thing keeping him from demolishing the building,” Blankley added. With the rent-stabilized residents out — they paid $400 per month for their rooms — the owner could theoretically put up a brand-new, market-rate building on the site. Wasserman has offered to move tenants to one of his properties next door at 148 W. 14th St. in exchange for dropping their court cases, but so far none have given in.

Dan Terchek, 37, a bookstore clerk who has lived 11 years in the building, is staying at the Upper West Side’s Yale Hotel in the meantime. While his living situation hasn’t provided the most glamorous of accommodations — Medelgi and other tenants declined to stay at the Yale, despite the city covering all costs — Terchek said it’s currently his only option.

“I have no hope of getting back in there soon,” he said of his former apartment. “I feel like they’ve really violated my rights, as their tenant and as a human being in general.”

But, he said, “I’m not going to give up my rights to that room and stop trying to get back in there.”

At least one tenant, Victor Luna, 27, moved next door to 148 W. 14th St. after a partial evacuation of the building back in March due to similar declining conditions. Luna said his new digs at the neighboring building aren’t much better than before.

“There’s been improvements as far as painting, but the actual structure of the building is [similar to 152],” he said. “You can tell this building is going the same direction as 152.”

An independent engineer recently inspected 152 W. 14th St. at the request of the tenants, which took almost six weeks because of Wasserman’s “delay tactics” in court, Blankley charged. That assessment found that the building “appears to be structurally sound” based on a visual inspection, she said, but the landlord’s own engineers need to produce a more in-depth report to determine the extent of the damage.

“I think if the tenants knew that the building is sound and can be fixed, they’d be in it for the long haul,” Blankley said, regarding the lawsuit, which is set to go to trial Oct. 13 after the results of the inspection by Wasserman’s engineers are delivered Sept. 21.

Meanwhile, the tenants have gotten continued support from local elected officials, who have lobbied the Department of Buildings to punish Wasserman for his neglect and unwillingness to cooperate.

“[Wasserman] deliberately allowed the buildings to deteriorate, creating a serious danger to tenants and pedestrians,” read a letter signed by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, state Senator Thomas Duane, Assemblymember Deborah Glick and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to D.O.B. Commissioner Robert LiMandri. “Even now, after the facades have been removed at 150 and 152 West 14th Street and the tenants remain homeless, the landlords have done nothing to restore them. Therefore, we ask D.O.B. to take sanctions against these landlords to the full extent of its authority, up to and including pursuing criminal penalties.”

Wasserman’s lawyer did not return a phone call by press time.