BY YANNIC RACK | Tenants in rent-regulated apartments in the East Village are fighting eviction by their new landlord, who is already a well-known figure in the neighborhood for allegedly harassing long-term renters into giving up their homes.
As The Villager has previously reported, Raphael Toledano, who purchased more than a dozen properties in the area this year, hasn’t made the best of impressions on his new tenants, who have reported late-night phone calls and ominous visits by his associates that leave them feeling threatened.
And now some are fighting to stay in their longtime apartments after the young real estate mogul — who goes by “Raffi” — served them with eviction notices.
“It’s kind of endemic of what’s going on in the East Village right now,” said Craig Smith, who has lived with his family in a two-bedroom apartment at 233 E. Fift St. for the last 12 years.
He said he refused to take a buyout offer from Toledano earlier this year, only to find his lease wasn’t renewed at the end of October.
“And then the next thing I got was an eviction notice,” he said.
Smith is one of a number of tenants on E. Fifth St. and elsewhere in the East Village who fear losing their homes after Toledano acquired their buildings — 16 in total — this September.
“In the last month, Raffi has been refusing to renew leases and serving court papers to selected rent-regulated tenants, a few per building,” said Nina D’Alessandro, who has lived at the neighboring 231 E. Fifth St. since 1978.
“In every case, the court papers seem to precede inquiries as to whether the tenant will take a buyout,” she said. “So one can assume that this is another pressure tactic designed to evacuate apartments.”
But Jonathan Weinstein, a spokesperson for Toledano, told The Villager that the new landlord’s intentions were good.
Regarding Smith’s case, which has now moved to housing court, Weinstein said the apartment has been deregulated ever since it was vacated by the previous owner in 2003, a claim that Smith and his lawyer dispute.
“The current lease expired on its own terms on Oct. 31 and under the law there is absolutely no obligation to renew the lease,” Weinstein said. “When the current tenant signed his lease in 2003, the apartment was a free-market apartment. To imply otherwise is just not accurate.”
In July, D’Alessandro started the “Toledano Tenants Coalition,” a self-help group for Raffi’s tenants. The coalition now meets every month and includes residents from around 20 of Toledano’s buildings in the East Village and Chelsea.
“Our work is essentially just trying to keep people from taking crappy buyout offers and knowing their rights,” said Ben Lebovitz, who successfully fought his own eviction from another Toledano-owned property, 97 Second Ave.
“Being a tenant who has to defend your lease in court is very stressful and expensive,” Lebovitz said. “Especially when you’re going up against a landlord who has a hundred-million-dollar real estate portfolio.”
In addition to their own efforts, the tenants have also received help from Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), a housing and preservation organization, and the Urban Justice Center, which is representing some of the buildings’ tenants in court.
Lebovitz said last year that five of the 10 rent-regulated tenants in his building were served with notices to cure violations or vacate their apartments after Toledano acquired them. Lebovitz’s own case was eventually settled.
His lawyer, David Frazer, currently represents three Toledano tenants, all in rent-regulated apartments in the East Village.
“Two of the cases that I currently represent involve completely made-up allegations by the landlord, one of which they’ve already caved in on and given my client a renewal lease,” Frazer told The Villager.
The attorney said that case involved a tenant who had a pseudonym listed on his mailbox from the beginning of his tenancy, which the landlord used as evidence to claim that the man was illegally subletting the apartment.
“He’s just throwing spaghetti against the wall [to see what sticks],” Frazer said of Toledano.
D’Alessandro hasn’t faced a direct threat yet herself, since her current lease runs through next September. But she said she’s just thinking ahead.
“We’re all in this together, and we’re really gonna need each other,” she said, adding that the coalition was preparing to fight more evictions in the months to come.
As for Smith, he said his next court date is scheduled for mid-January.
“Of course I’m worried. We’ve lived on this block for over 30 years,” he said.
Two of his children still go to school in the East Village and his theater company is also located in the neighborhood.
“Our plan is to stay here, because our life is here,” he said.