Three months after tenants at 47 East Third St. won a court victory barring their landlords from evicting them en masse, they say the owners are still trying to force them out of their Lower East Side home.
State Supreme Court Justice Faviola A. Soto ruled in March that the landlords, Alistair and Catherine Economakis, could not throw out all the tenants and claim the entire 15-unit building for “personal use” to house their family. But since then, the tenants say, the Economakises have turned to more conventional methods of harassment, including construction work on the six vacant apartments that filled the building with toxic dust, putting surveillance cameras in the hallway, and claiming that tenants were violating their leases if they had air-conditioners.
“You don’t know what they’re scheming,” says tenant Laura Zambrano. “They’re like two spoiled kids who’ve been told they can’t have any more candy. The candy jar’s been placed just out of their reach, but they’re still focused on it.”
Claiming that they still intend to move into the building, the Economakises have been converting one cluster of four apartments to a triplex and two more to a duplex. On May 23, the Department of Buildings threatened to revoke the permit for the triplex, because city law requires a new certificate of occupancy for conversion to a triplex, and the Economakises had tried to have the work done without having DOB inspectors come in.
That work filled the building with “thick dust,” says tenant Ursula Kinzel. The tenants had the dust tested and found that it contained lead and crystalline silica, which can cause silicosis, an incurable lung disease.
In April, the Economakises notified the tenants that they would be repointing the bricks on the front of building. Tenant Barry Paddock, rushing out of the house because he was late for work, noticed water coming in through his open back window. The repointing crew was blasting the back of the building with high-pressure hoses. When he complained, he says, Alistair Economakis told him, “I can’t believe you’d have a window open in wintertime.”
Later that month, the Economakises informed tenants that they would be violating their leases if they had air-conditioners—although their leases had already been terminated, and some had been using air-conditioning for more than 20 years. “And if we go to our lawyer to say ‘What’s the deal with this air-conditioning thing?’ it costs us money,” says Paddock. “I think that’s why they’re so quick to say ‘legal, legal, legal.'” In one case where another tenant faxed in a complaint, Alistair Economakis responded with a three-page letter accusing him of violating federal telecommunications law because the fax allegedly didn’t indicate the sender’s name and number.
The tenants, who have already spent more than $150,000 on legal fees, plan to be in for a long struggle. The Economakises are appealing Justice Soto’s decision, and are expected to file papers with the state Appellate Division this fall. The tenants say their lawyers have told them the case will likely go to the Court of Appeals because it’s such a potentially major precedent.