Displaced tenants get little help due to landlord violations

By Julie Shapiro

The loud banging on the door came at 10 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving.

Li Xue stayed quiet inside her small, subdivided room at 32 Market St., afraid to let a stranger in because she is an undocumented immigrant. Only when she heard the people in the hallway begin to break down her door did she open it.

The city workers who had been pounding the door told Li Xue, 35, and her son that their home was unsafe and they had to leave immediately. Twenty other tenants in their building got the same orders and gathered what they could before being rushed outside. The Red Cross gave everyone three days of emergency housing, then the displaced residents were on their own.

“It was just really sudden — we had no notice,” Li Xue said in Mandarin through a translator two weeks ago as she recounted the story of losing her home. “If the city has to vacate people, they should at least figure out housing for them. If you want me to leave, you have to at least let me have time to find a place to live.”

The city vacated several Chinatown buildings in the last six weeks of 2008 in addition to 32 Market St., including 15 Catherine St., 103 E. Broadway and 81 Bowery. The buildings had fire-safety violations, often because the floors were subdivided into single-room occupancy units that blocked exits and sprinklers.

At all the buildings except 81 Bowery, the single-room occupancy units were illegally created, which means the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development will not help the tenants find a new place to live. H.P.D. did find interim housing for 81 Bowery’s 53 tenants, but several dozen tenants from the other buildings received no help and are living wherever they can.

“The eligibility for us to shelter and relocate [tenants] is based on the legality of the vacated units,” said Catie Marshall, spokesperson for H.P.D.

The Office of Emergency Management notifies H.P.D. about displaced tenants if they are living in legal units, but if not, H.P.D. often does not even find out that tenants have been vacated. Miriam Solis, another H.P.D. spokesperson, said H.P.D.’s policy is based on an interpretation of the word “tenant” in the city’s administrative code.

“The issue is that there’s no plan and there’s no notice,” said Helena Wong, who works for the Chinatown Tenants Union, a project of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence. “People are literally yelling, ‘Get your stuff and go.’ There is no plan to make sure people are in temporary housing, and there’s no information on when [they can] move back.”

The Chinatown Tenants Union helped the 81 Bowery tenants get temporary city housing in the Bronx, and the group is hoping to find similar city assistance for the rest of the displaced tenants.

In the meantime, Li Xue and her son are living in a friend’s apartment in Chinatown while they look for a new place.

Li Xue, who did not want her family name to be published because she is undocumented, was paying $400 a month for her unit at 32 Market St. that fit only a bed and TV. H.P.D. said they typically help illegal immigrants like Li Xue, but not when their units have been illegally subdivided.

Five other families lived in equally small units on her floor, and all shared a bathroom and kitchen. When it rained, water leaked through the ceiling and Li Xue had to place buckets to catch it. Still, it was home.

“I didn’t want to move,” Li Xue’s 5-year-old son David said through a translator. “I want to move back.”

But the Buildings Department found many violations at the building, where the illegally subdivided units blocked off emergency exit routes. The fire escape was dislodged from the building and missing about 15 steps, and the chimney was in imminent danger of collapsing, according to D.O.B.’s Web site.

The owner, Chan Chung Cheong, could not be reached for comment. The tenants have not been able to reach him either to find out when the building will be fixed.

Illegally subdivided, single-room occupancy units are common in Chinatown and other parts of the city where low-income tenants are willing to live in poor conditions in exchange for inexpensive rents. Christopher Schwartz, a lawyer with MFY Legal Services who has represented the 81 Bowery tenants, calls the units “a step above homelessness.”

“The problems are very wide,” Schwartz said. “Because they have a population that is particularly low-income, landlords generally feel more able to neglect those units.”

And since landlords don’t tend to make a lot of money from the units, they may not rush to make improvements and allow the tenants to move back in, Schwartz said.

Steve Ritea, spokesperson for the Fire Department, agreed that there are inherent problems with single-room occupancy units.

“From a fire-safety standpoint, that can be very dangerous,” he said.

For example, the F.D.N.Y. vacated 103 E. Broadway on Dec. 17 because of 12 illegally subdivided units and a broken fire escape.

“We don’t want people to be in any building that’s not going to allow them to get out as quickly as possible,” Ritea said.

Unlike 103 E. Broadway, the single-room occupancy units at 81 Bowery were legal — but 81 Bowery had illegally low ceilings that blocked the sprinkler system, which is why the city vacated the building, said Schwartz, the lawyer. The building also lacked safe emergency exits.

After unsuccessfully asking Donald Lee, owner of 81 Bowery, to set a timeline for fixing the violations, MFY took legal action, hoping to put pressure on Lee. A woman who answered the phone at Lee’s home declined to comment, but his attorney did.

“The building owner is working diligently to get the building up to code and in compliance,” said Peter Sverd, lawyer for 81 Bowery L.L.C. “The landlord’s moving as quickly as possible.”

Sverd said tenants who were illegally subletting the units were responsible for some of the violations, like the low ceilings. He would not give a timeline for when tenants will be able to move back in.

This is not the first time MFY has taken the landlord to court. Several years ago, the landlord received a violation from the city for having a different number of units than the building’s certificate of occupancy specified, and he tried to use the violation to evict the tenants, Schwartz said. Last summer, a judge ruled in favor of the tenants and said the violation was not a sufficient reason to evict tenants from their rent-stabilized units.

But two weeks before Thanksgiving, the city inspectors were back, citing the new fire-safety violations, and this time the tenants were out.

Ju Lin, 43, lived in one of the units with his 79-year-old father. The rent for the small room was $191 a month and had not gone up since Lin moved in 18 years ago. Lin thinks the landlord called the city in to see the violations as a way of kicking out low-paying tenants so he can renovate the building and get higher rents.

“It is opposed to human right,” Lin said in halting English. “No right — New York government, why do this? Suddenly, so fast.”

Lin was particularly upset when he returned to his apartment shortly after the eviction to collect his belongings and found the doorknob chopped out of the door, a sign that inspectors had forced their way in..

Lin and his father moved into a small room in a Bronx hotel with assistance from the city, but Lin said he had to give up his job as a truck driver because the commute to Chinatown was close to two hours each way.

“I lost sleeping, energy — I cannot drive,” Lin said.

Among the tenants who have not received assistance from the city are Rong Ji Xiao, 75, and his wife Hong B Su, 74. They lived at 15 Catherine St. for nearly 19 years before the city removed them several weeks ago. On Dec. 15, as snow fell, inspectors pounded on the door and disrupted Su, who was taking a shower.

“They didn’t even [give us] time to pack,” Su said in Cantonese through a translator, beginning to cry. “They just said, ‘You’ve got to leave right now.’”

Xiao and Su said they were not even allowed to take clothes that first night, only documents and medicine for Su, who has heart and colon problems. As police herded the couple out of the apartment, Su began to feel dizzy. The police let her sit down for a moment to take her asthma medicine, but as soon as she felt better, they made the couple leave.

Xiao and Su went briefly to Red Cross housing, then found a friend to stay with in Chinatown. They needed to stay in the neighborhood so Su could go to familiar doctors, but it is inconvenient to share a small space with little privacy, they said.

“I can’t sleep,” Xiao said through a translator. “Every time I think about it, my heart is in pain. I’m always being scared.”

Xiao and Su came to the United States in 1990 and are citizens. They paid $800 a month for their two rooms in 15 Catherine St., which were so small they couldn’t fit the box spring for their mattress. The building was illegally converted to single-room occupancy units and did not have safe exits, according to the Buildings Department’s Web site. Three other families lived in the building as well.

Jarns Holdings, Inc., the owner of 15 Catherine St., initially did not allow tenants back into the building to collect their belongings but agreed to do so after the Chinatown Tenants Union intervened. Jarns Holding did not return calls for comment.

Xiao and Su both sounded baffled by the idea that their apartment of so many years is unsafe.

“We didn’t know there was a problem,” Xiao said, shaking his head. “No one told us.”