Bowery tenants go on hunger strike after being evacuated from homes due to safety violations

Tenants of 83-85 Bowery begin a hunger strike outside of the Department of Housing Preservation & Development in lower Manhattan on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018.
Tenants of 83-85 Bowery begin a hunger strike outside of the Department of Housing Preservation & Development in lower Manhattan on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. Photo Credit: NBC

Chinatown tenants who were forced from their apartments more than two weeks ago because of safety violations in the building remained on a hunger strike through the weekend, a representative for the group said Saturday.

Eight tenants of 85 Bowery began the strike at 11 a.m. Thursday after a rally with other residents and supporters outside the lower Manhattan headquarters of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which is assisting the displaced residents. They were forced to leave their homes because the staircase is unsafe.

The tenants camped outside the HPD building, huddled under umbrellas and a tarp and holding signs that read “HPD stop doing the slumlord dirty work” and “Get the tenants home.”

Caitlin Kelmar, who represents the group, said they received a letter in Mandarin from the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit that, when translated into English, offered “vague promises” to oversee construction at their building but did not meet the demands the tenants outlined in order to end the hunger strike.

“We were hoping that the hunger strike would end today,” Kelmar had said Friday evening.

A statement from the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit regarding the letter said the agency’s commissioner, Marco A. Carrión, affirmed that the city will continue to work toward getting the tenants back into their apartments “as soon as possible.”

“The owner is working to make needed repairs and has agreed to pay for hotel rooms for tenants, until the building is safe for them to return to,” the statement said. “He has much more work to do, and we will be closely monitoring his progress.”

All of the tenants taking part in the hunger strike were checked out by medics before the protest began, and again on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.

“The tenants are all still doing well,” Kelmar said Saturday. 

The battle over the building has been ongoing for years, as the tenants are embroiled in a lawsuit with the building’s owner, Bowery 8385 LLC, and the landlord, Joseph Betesh, over whether the apartments are rent-regulated.

Zun Jin Zheng, one of the displaced tenants, said the city should be taking more action against Betesh and Bowery 8385 LLC.

“This is our last resort . . . We did nothing wrong. We always paid our rent, but the landlord refused to fix the building. We want to go home,” Zheng said, adding that her family will soon be celebrating Chinese New Year. “This is like our Thanksgiving, we are supposed to be home, spending time with our family. We don’t want to spend it on the street.”

On Jan. 18, a court-ordered Department of Buildings inspection revealed safety violations related to the structural stability of the main staircase, DOB records show, and the tenants were evacuated.

The tenants are staying in hotel rooms, some of which are being paid for by the building owner, while repairs are being made.

“The staircase has been a problem for a long, long time. You can go upstairs but it’s not safe. It looks weird, it’s slanted,” Shuo Jin, 36, said through translator Vincent Cao, who is also the representative for the 83-85 Tenants’ Association.

The mother of two said she has lived in the building for 10 years with her husband and father.

“We have no choice. They kicked us out,” she said of the hunger strike. “We want to go back home. The hotel is not a place we can take care of our family.”

The city initially gave Bowery 8385 LLC a Feb. 1 deadline to make the repairs, but a more thorough DOB inspection later determined that the staircase would need to be completely replaced — an endeavor that would take roughly six weeks, according to an HPD memo to tenants dated Feb. 1. Another two weeks was added to the construction timeline to remove illegal partitions that also were discovered during the DOB inspection, according to the HPD memo.

The tenants contend the owner is purposely dragging out construction in an effort to get them to leave their apartments, so the units can be converted into market-rate rentals. A spokesman for Bowery 8385 LLC, however, has denied those claims.

“Our team is working diligently each day to repair the severely damaged infrastructure of 85 Bowery and make the building safe for habitation,” spokesman Sam Spokony said in an emailed statement. “We all share the same goal — moving families back into their homes as quickly as possible.”

The demands to end the hunger strike, outlined on Wednesday, include a city-imposed deadline for tenants to return, not for construction to be completed, with written consequences if the deadline is not met; written confirmation that the vacate order will be lifted by the Department of Buildings and the padlock on the building removed as soon as the staircase is repaired; and an agreement that no alterations to tenants’ units will take place until they are able to return to their homes, so they can oversee the process.

The 83-85 Tenants’ Association called on elected officials in the city to ensure the demands are met and that HPD, DOB and the building’s owner are held accountable.

In a letter to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, dated Feb. 9, a group of city, state and federal politicians urged the two officials to investigate Bowery 8385 LLC and Betesh over their actions.

“Tenants of 83-85 Bowery have felt preyed upon for years. They have taken to the streets, met with elected representatives, and gone to court. Now, they have been displaced for a period that is expected to extend for weeks, after being evacuated for their safety,” the letter reads. “Residents have expressed to us that they want justice for their suffering. We urge you to review this matter and determine whether a formal investigation is warranted.”

The letter was signed by New York Rep. Yuh-Line Niou, New York Sen. Brian Kavanagh, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, city Comptroller Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Councilwoman Margaret Chin.

With Rajvi Desai and Nicole Brown


Investigation request by Nicholas Loffredo on Scribd