The city can do more to help these Chinatown tenants

Tenants of  85 Bowery in Chinatown protest their landlord and what they see as lax enforcement by the city.
Tenants of 85 Bowery in Chinatown protest their landlord and what they see as lax enforcement by the city. Photo Credit: AP / Mary Altaffer

Displaced Chinatown residents went on a hunger strike to protest 85 Bowery landlord Joseph Betesh and, in part, city agencies the residents say have been complicit in their ordeal.

City officials evacuated families from their apartments on Jan. 18 because of safety concerns over the building’s staircase, which Betesh has not fixed despite a court order and deadlines from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Some residents and activists accuse HPD of conspiring with Betesh to force the evacuation. Betesh and tenants have been embroiled in a court battle over whether the building is rent-regulated. The owner denies making an effor to drag out construction so the units can be converted into market-rate rentals.

For two weeks, 85 Bowery tenants had stayed in a Brownsville hotel that the city uses as a temporary shelter, miles from home. Now, temporary arrangements have been made in a Lower East Side hotel. The city has said it aims to get families back home “as soon as possible,” but residents say they’re not happy with the city’s efforts thus far.

Still, at least six residents went on a hunger strike in front of HPD, temporarily suspending the strike to mark the Chinese new year. They are vowing to return.

Sarah Ahn, an organizer with the advocacy group Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, says NYC does more to help landlords evict tenants than it does to help tenants stay in their homes. She points out that “the court order on the landlord went unenforced for two years.”

The saga of 85 Bowery, a 16-unit residential building, is an indictment of the city’s housing policy. While City Hall has charged ahead with a development-heavy “affordable housing” push, community opposition to that approach which criticized HPD’s ineffectiveness hit the nail on the head. “HPD fails on its mission” by not enforcing the housing code, said a plan by tenant group Movement for Justice in El Barrio. The plan called for overhauling HPD, such as creating community oversight to force landlords to make repairs within 24 hours of emergency violations.

If the city’s big, so-called progressive vision for housing means residents can’t even compel landlords to fix a staircase, can anyone take seriously the city’s claim that it cares about protecting low-income tenants from landlords and gentrification?

Josmar Trujillo is a trainer, writer and activist with the Coalition to End Broken Windows.

More from around NYC