An 85-year-old woman who has lived in her Little Italy apartment for 53 years and is now facing eviction by her landlord, The Italian American Museum, doubts she’s really being moved to make way for exhibits about her heritage.
“They’re going to get $4,500 for this apartment,” said Adele Sarno, who pays $820 a month for the two-bedroom flat she occupies alone, since her parents — who installed a hot water heater, bathrooms, baseboard heat and other improvements in the tenement — died in the 1970s. “That’s what the guy pays upstairs,” she added, alluding to the other tenant at 185 Grand Street.
Sarno is aware of the irony of losing her home to a museum devoted to memorializing her own culture. “I was born in the next building and I was a princess of the Feast until I became the queen! I am Little Italy — not him!” Sarno said of Joseph Scelsa, the founder and president of the Museum, which bought the building in 2008. “He wants to help the Italian people? Let me stay in my home!” she exclaimed.
But both the Division of Housing and Community Renewel and New York civil court have found that Sarno does not have standing as a rent — controlled tenant for a variety of reasons, one of which includes evidence indicating that Sarno had lived at 173 Mulberry St. at some point in the last 53 years. That is an error that resulted from her living at that address before 1962, but her name remaining attached to the address after her brother (now dead) remained, Sarno said.
“One New York City court and one state agency have determined she has no standing as a rent controlled tenant and that the apartment was never subject to any kind of rent regulation in its decades-long history,” said a spokesman for the Museum. Other residential tenants in the trio of buildings owned by the Museum at 185, 187 and 189 Grand St. — including a 76-year-old man under rent control — are not being evicted, the spokesman noted. While the Museum sympathizes with Sarno, “it is not in the business of providing subsidies to people who don’t qualify,” he said.
“I know in my heart this is definitely a rent-controlled unit, but I can’t prove it because the previous landlords never registered the building,” said Sarno, who lamented she was unable to obtain documents from Con Edison and the phone company proving her occupancy from decades back. She is appealing her eviction and hoping for a better lawyer and a more understanding judge when she goes to court on April 2.
Sarno, who lives on food stamps, Social Security, and contributions from her daughter in Wisconsin and a granddaughter, said she believes Scelsa wants to obtain maximum rent on the units until he can find a developer who will give the museum free rent in exchange for development rights and possibly cash.
Asked specifically about the plans for Sarno’s apartment, the spokesman said, “The Museum is expanding pending the outcome of negotiations with developers.” The buildings, he noted, “are not landmarked, which means you can almost double the height.”