60 tenants thrown out as Chinatown tenement is shut


By Julie Shapiro

Sixty people lost their homes when the city emptied a crumbling Chinatown tenement last week.

City inspectors decided last Wednesday that the building, 128 Hester St., was in danger of collapsing and immediately ordered the rent-protected tenants to leave.

“It’s so horrible,” Alice Jean, a 52-year-old tenant, said the next day. “Suddenly, we are homeless.”

This is just the latest Chinatown building to be vacated because of a combination of owner neglect and city inaction, and the community activists and elected officials who spoke out immediately afterward said real changes are needed.

“There is a growing sense of outrage,” Borough President Scott Stringer said at a press conference held by Asian Americans for Equality, a group that is assisting the 128 Hester tenants and other tenants in similar situations.

Stringer pointed fingers at the landlord of 128 Hester, who racked up $10,000 in unpaid penalties over the past year for failing to maintain the building. However, Stringer also blamed the city Buildings Dept., which issued the same violations over and over but ultimately did not prevent the building from falling apart.

In particular, Stringer criticized the Buildings Dept. for allowing the construction of an 18-story hotel at Bowery and Hester St. to continue even after it became clear that the work was destabilizing 128 Hester, which is next door. Even worse, Stringer said, the hotel and 128 Hester are owned by the same people, who stand to benefit from 128 Hester being knocked down.

“This is really dirty and wrong,” Stringer said.

The Buildings Dept. declined to comment but on Tuesday issued a stop-work order for the hotel at 91 Bowery, which has risen to six stories. AAFE wants D.O.B. to go further and revoke the construction permit, preventing the hotel from finishing.

William H. Su, a Chinatown hotelier, is listed as an owner of the 91 Bowery hotel in city documents, and tenants said he also was responsible for doing repairs at 128 Hester St. Both buildings are owned by limited liability corporations that have mailing addresses in the same building. Reached by phone and asked about 128 Hester, Su said only, “I’m not the owner,” and hung up. He did not return subsequent calls for comment.

The current problems are nothing new for the 91 Bowery hotel construction, a site that has received violations for failing to underpin neighboring buildings, not having a safety manager and working without a permit. The construction also destabilized another neighboring building, 89 Bowery, which was demolished last year.

The construction manager of the 91 Bowery hotel, Calabrese Associates, owes over $140,000 to the Buildings Dept. for violations accumulated over the past two years, according to online documents. Calabrese did not respond to a request for comment.

Asian Americans for Equality pushed hard for two things in the wake of the 128 Hester vacate order last week: for the city to stop work at the Bowery hotel, which happened Tuesday, and for the city to delay the demolition of 128 Hester, which the city agreed to on Friday. The city had wanted to demolish 128 Hester immediately after emptying it, but AAFE attorney John Gorman asked for more time. Now, the city won’t approve a demolition permit for about a month, Gorman said, and he hopes that will be enough time to prove the building can be fixed.

Chris Kui, executive director of AAFE, sees a pattern of landlords neglecting buildings that have rent-stabilized tenants, and he said the problem is only growing worse. Kui cited other buildings that have recently been vacated, including 11 Essex St., where about a dozen tenants lost their home in May.

“We’re not against development,” Kui said. “But it should not be at the expense of the poor, of the most vulnerable.”

City Councilmember Alan Gerson agrees and has proposed five pieces of legislation to keep a closer eye on fragile buildings and impose clearer penalties on owners who do not comply. One bill, which has not yet been written, would give owners 48 hours to come up with a response whenever the city noted a problem with a building’s structure. If the owner did not follow through on the plan, the city would do the necessary work and bill the owner.

Under current laws, the Buildings Dept. can refer a problem building to the city Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development for emergency repairs, but that rarely happens.

“It shouldn’t be the exception,” Gerson said of the referral. “It should be the rule.”

Pete Gleason, one of four people challenging Gerson in next month’s Democratic primary, criticized Gerson for not taking action sooner, since 128 Hester had a long history of problems. Gleason said in a statement that if elected, he would comb city records looking for buildings with structural issues and then he would pressure the city to fix them. He said he would work with the Buildings Dept. to force owners to make repairs before buildings are vacated, not after the fact.

“We have woeful landlord neglect and it’s got to stop,” Gleason said in a statement. “As our community loses thousands of units of affordable housing a year, it is essential that we improve oversight of the Dept. of Buildings — and stop landlords from driving out long-term residents.”

Margaret Chin, another candidate for Gerson’s seat, joined Stringer and AAFE, her former employer, in speaking out last week in support of the 128 Hester tenants. Like Kui, she said it was important to keep 128 Hester standing, both to allow the tenants to return and to send a message to other landlords who are neglecting their buildings.

“If we let these buildings go down, there’s no stopping landlords from doing this in the future,” Chin said at a press conference Tuesday.

After the press conference, Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3, said the board has been seeing so many demolition by neglect cases that they made the problem one of their top issues to tackle this year. She agrees with the politicians that the current laws are ineffective.

“We need to do more than just issue violations,” Stetzer said.

Whatever the politicians decide about the bigger policy questions, the solution may not come soon enough to help the 128 Hester tenants who lost their homes last week. Many are staying with friends and family now that their two nights in a city shelter are up, AAFE said.

AAFE was only able to find a permanent new home for one tenant, a 78-year-old woman named Hun Siu Chu. Chu lived at 128 Hester for 29 years and paid just $297 for her two-bedroom apartment, she said through an interpreter. She was scheduled to have cataract surgery the day after the vacate but postponed it because doctors told her she needed a stable home for the recovery.

Among the shell-shocked residential tenants was Wallace Lai, owner of the Hong Kong Station restaurant on the ground floor of 128 Hester. Lai opened the restaurant four-and-a-half years ago and subsequently opened two others in Chinatown. After the vacate order, he struggled to haul out everything he could salvage, from tables and chairs to mixing bowls.

“This is just so unfair,” Lai said.

While he and the tenants paid their rent over the years, the landlord never made basic repairs, allowing leaks, holes and termites to permeate the building, Lai said. Lai sounded discouraged as he added that he was already losing money from suddenly having his business taken away.

“I haven’t got any time to think about the future,” Lai said last Thursday. “There’s no tomorrow for me.”