Chinatown Tenants Return Home After Seven Months

On the hot afternoon of August 30, workers and tenants greeted one another as they lugged suitcases and baby chairs up the narrow staircase at 85 Bowery. An elderly woman emerged holding a container of rice, and workers tossed a plastic-wrapped broken table into a dumpster by the curb. Plastic-wrapped mattresses and furniture jammed the living room of a second-floor apartment, a few feet away from a kitchen with an immaculately white new stove. 

More than two years after the building’s landlord tried to evict its 85-odd tenants, saying he needed to make repairs, and more than seven months after the city department of buildings ordered residents to vacate the building because the staircase was a “significant life-safety hazard,” the tenants were coming home. 

“All the family members get new homes,” said Li Hao, a Fujianese immigrant who has lived in the building for 17 years, speaking in Mandarin through an interpreter. “We’re very excited.” 

“As far as I know, there are a few glitches, but people have the keys and legal possession of their apartments,” said Seth Miller, the tenants’ lawyer. There was still a lot of garbage and damaged furniture in the building, added Jinming Cao, the English-speaking cousin of a building resident, but almost all the tenants are back in. 

The building’s landlord, Joseph Betesh, along with replacing the staircase and doing other structural work, put in new floors, ceilings, wiring, and kitchen and bathroom appliances. In an agreement reached in July, Betesh promised that the tenants’ apartments would remain rent-stabilized, that he would not raise their rent to pay for the renovations, and that he would pay them a total of $770,000 to cover legal and architects’ fees, compensation for loss of property, $25,000 per household to residents of 85 Bowery, and $5,000 per household at 83 Bowery next door. It allowed the landlord, however, to demolish partitions some tenants had built to create more privacy in their apartments. 

The agreement also set August 31 as the deadline for the tenants to return — with fines for the landlord starting at $150 a day per apartment if that didn’t happen for reasons other than a major disaster. 

The Department of Buildings lifted the vacate order for the second through fifth floors, where the apartments are, on August 29, but left it in place for the commercial space on the first floor and in the basement. 

“We’re pleased that the city helped preserve affordable housing for dozens of vulnerable New Yorkers and save a fine old building from, quite literally, falling apart,” the department said in a statement. “A huge amount of work was done to make 85 Bowery safe — major structural retrofits for nearly the entire building, a new main staircase, asbestos abatement, new fire-safety protections, new kitchens and bathrooms in all units, and more.” 

“The rehabilitation of 85 Bowery has been completed ahead of schedule,” a spokesperson for Betesh said. “Our team has replaced the staircase that initially caused the vacate order, replaced dozens of rotted floor joists on each floor of the building, and rectified all issues regarding the unlawful partitions installed under previous ownership. Additionally, new appliances approved by the residents have been installed in each apartment.” 

“It’s a major accomplishment,” said Zishun Ning of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, who helped organize the tenants. 

Mass eviction foiled 

That accomplishment didn’t come without a struggle. Betesh, the owner of the Dr. Jay’s clothing-store chain, acquired the two five-story buildings at 83 and 85 Bowery in 2013, as part of a $62 million package containing nine other Bowery properties. He gradually began trying to oust tenants. In 2016, he filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court to evict all the residents of both buildings, on the grounds that they were not rent-stabilized, he had already terminated their leases, and the buildings needed to be vacated to make emergency structural repairs. 

Legal arguments over rent stabilization, a tenant countersuit demanding repairs, and wrangling over structural issues — including whether the listing staircase at 85 Bowery could be fixed while the tenants stayed in their apartments — continued for most of the next two years. Last December 20, the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal recommended to State Supreme Court Judge Kathryn Freed that she reject the landlord’s arguments and declare both buildings rent-stabilized. That would have given the tenants, virtually all of them Chinese immigrants who pay $550 to $1,250 a month in rent, the legal right to stay unless they could be evicted for cause. 

But on January 18, the Department of Buildings issued a full vacate order for 85 Bowery, after an inspector deemed the staircase structurally unsafe. The department gave the owner two weeks to replace it. Almost all the residents were taken to a hotel in Brooklyn used by the city to shelter the homeless. 

The two-week deadline wasn’t met. The Buildings Department decided that it wasn’t realistic because the staircase had to be completely replaced, estimating that job would take another six to eight weeks. That prompted a four-day hunger strike by tenants demanding that the city department of housing preservation and development take over the repairs. Meanwhile, Betesh had agreed to rent rooms for most of the displaced tenants in a hotel around the corner. 

In April, workers performing asbestos abatement threw some of the tenants’ belongings in a dumpster in the street. That prompted a second hunger strike, to demand that the city stop colluding with the landlord. The Department of Buildings, says Ning, “allowed them to continue to delay.” 

The repairs took longer than expected, the department responded, because workers found that joists were rotten throughout the building, asbestos had to be removed, and the landlord decided to replace all the kitchens and bathrooms. 

“Like many renovation projects,” department spokesperson Joseph Soldevere said, “once work starts, you uncover more work that needs to be done, and that was the case here.” 

Miller questions why the tenants had to leave in the first place. “The Department of Buildings has not gotten it through their thick heads,” he said, “that it is better from a public-policy point of view to take six months to do a job with the tenants in place rather than one week at the price of them being out on the street.” 

In any case, Miller believes the landlord and his attorneys had “some kind of epiphany” and decided to stop fighting the tenants. “They had to convince city officials during a hunger strike that they were moving as fast as they could,” he said. “In order to be seen as doing the right thing, they had to do the right thing.” 

Ning says tenants were also helped by support from organizations fighting displacement in their own neighborhoods, such as the South Bronx Community Congress, Northern Manhattan Is Not for Sale from Inwood–Washington Heights, and the Filipino- American human-rights group Bayan-USA in Queens, as well as the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, Youth Against Displacement, and the Democratic Socialists of America. 

Most important, “the tenants were very united. They stuck together and were pretty persistent,” Ning said. “We hope that people feel more encouraged.” 

Outside the building, Li Hao and fellow tenant Qiu Rong Wang said they’re grateful to the landlord for the renovations, the only problem being that the partitions were demolished. 

Staying in the hotel was hard, says Li Hao, because the displaced tenants were not allowed to cook in their rooms and had to spend money to eat out. Now, she says, “we can feel the warmth of home.” 

A version of this story was the last article ever published in the Village Voice.