Bowery tenants begin hunger strike in effort to return home

Tenants of 85 Bowery and housing advocates demonstrate in front of the Department of Buildings office at 280 Broadway on April 26.
Tenants of 85 Bowery and housing advocates demonstrate in front of the Department of Buildings office at 280 Broadway on April 26. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

Several tenants of 85 Bowery, displaced since January and desperate to return home, began a hunger strike outside City Hall Wednesday morning, prompting one lawmaker to demand expedited building repairs.

Seven tenants intend to forego food in an attempt to force the city to set a hard deadline for them to return to their apartments, according to group representative Caitlin Kelmar.

This is the second time the tenants are staging a hunger strike since they were evacuated from their apartments on Jan. 18 due to safety violations discovered during a court-ordered Department of Buildings inspection.

Since then, the deadline for landlord Joseph Betesh to complete the repairs has been pushed several times.

In March, just days before the tenants were expected to return after an unstable staircase had been replaced, Betesh reported the discovery of asbestos to the buildings department. DOB officials had said it could take another 30 days for asbestos abatement to be finished but, as of Wednesday, the tenants were still staying in hotels or with family members.

The tenants are embroiled in a lawsuit with Betesh and the building’s owner, Bowery 8385 LLC, over whether the apartments are rent stabilized, and many have expressed fears that the repairs are being drawn out in an effort to get them to leave permanently, allowing for the units to be turned into market-rate rentals.

Sam Spokony, a spokesman for Bowery 8385 LLC, has repeatedly denied those claims. Spokony said while the unstable staircase was the cause of the evacuation, more issues with the building were discovered as repairs were made, including deteriorating floor joints that were supporting nearly every floor.

“We are continuing to advance this work each day and continue to provide ongoing updates on the status of our progress to city officials and the Court which ordered the initial inspection,” Spokony said in a statement Wednesday. “Throughout this time, we have provided quality hotel accommodations in Chinatown at our expense for families of 85 Bowery to ensure they are able to remain in the local community while the work continues.”

Joining the tenants outside City Hall on Wednesday, New York Assemb. Yuh-Line Niou called the delays “unacceptable” and demanded that the city hold Betesh accountable.

“It has been almost half a year since these tenants were evacuated, and still, they have no clear idea of when they will be able to return home,” Niou said in an emailed statement. “It has been one delay after another, and while it is paramount that the tenants return to a safe and habitable home, I believe that repairs should be expedited in order to bring the tenants home in a timely manner.”

There’s a chance the tenants may not be able to return until late summer, according to Niou.

A spokesman for the Department of Buildings said the agency is staying on top of the repairs being made to 85 Bowery, adding that “substantial work” has already been completed.

“We remain committed to holding the landlord responsible for providing tenants with a safe place to live,” the spokesman said.

In February, eight tenants went on a hunger strike with the hope of pressuring the city into holding Betesh and Bowery 8385 LLC accountable, but the group ended the protest after four days, citing the need to prepare for Lunar New Year celebrations.