Six residents of 85 Bowery are ending their hunger strike after four days. They’re holding a press conference at 3:30 this afternoon outside the offices of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to make a formal announcement.
“With Chinese New Year approaching this week,” read a press release sent out a short time ago, “the tenants have decided to pause their fast in order to celebrate (Chinese New Year) with their families. They have experienced so much suffering since their eviction, and want to be with their loved ones for the celebration.”
On Jan. 18, at least 75 tenants were displaced after inspectors from the Department of Buildings concluded that a stairwell in the decaying tenement was unsafe. The residents have been engaged in a long battle with Joseph Betesh, their landlord. Repairs at the building are expected to take at least eight weeks. When the hunger strike began, the tenants demanded a commitment from the city to take over repairs if Betesh failed to get the job done at an agreed upon time. Today the tenants say some of their demands have been met.
Over the weekend, local elected officials announced they have asked the state attorney general and New York City district attorney to explore a possible investigation of the property owner. State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and State Sen. Brian Kavanagh wrote the letter, which was co-signed by U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Councilmember Margaret Chin.
The letter read, in part:
Tenants of 83-85 Bowery have felt preyed upon for years. They have taken to the streets, met with elected representatives, and gone to court. Now, they have been displaced for a period that is expected to extend for weeks, after being evacuated for their safety. Residents have expressed to us that they want justice for their suffering. We urge you to review this matter and determine whether a formal investigation is warranted.
In a press release, Niou stated:
The events at 85 Bowery over the past several weeks have made it abundantly clear that Betesh is an unscrupulous landlord who needs to be held accountable for his actions. In 2016, the courts ordered Betesh to repair the stairs at 85 Bowery. Since the beginning, Betesh has argued that the deteriorating structure of the building is an inherited problem. He neglected to make the repairs ordered by the courts and let what was clearly a dangerous situation fester for years until weeks ago, the building was deemed uninhabitable unless the stairs were fixed.
In a separate letter to constituents, Councilmember Chin said she pressed HPD about taking over the urgent renovation project at 85 Bowery through the agency’s Emergency Repair Program (ERP). HPD resisted this option, saying it would only delay the repairs, which are reportedly underway. “If I find that there is any credible evidence that the landlord is stalling the repairs,” said Chin “or intentionally delaying the residents’ ability to return home, I will call on ERP to take over and charge the landlord for the repairs.”
A spokesperson for 8385 Bowery, LLC (Betesh’s real estate firm) said this morning that the landlord is committed to making repairs as quickly as possible. “We will remain focused on providing a safe building for those families,” said the property owner, “regardless of any false perceptions that others may have about us or our company.”
The tenants are convinced that Betesh orchestrated last month’s vacate order to deprive them of rent stabilized apartments. They say repairs could have been made long ago without the need to evacuate the entire building. The landlord continues to push back against this argument:
Ever since we took over ownership of 85 Bowery, we have been telling the City that temporary relocation was required in order to address the structural instability of the building and ensure the safety of the families living there. We are now able to safely address these issues and are diligently performing the work needed to make the building safe for habitation. As the City is aware, it would be extremely unsafe for families to reside in the building while that extensive work takes place. To that end, we are providing quality hotel accommodations in Chinatown for the duration of our work because we understand this is an extremely difficult time for families of 85 Bowery.
After the tenants spent several days at a hotel in Brooklyn, Betesh agreed to pay for 18 hotel rooms in Chinatown. According to Councilmember Chin, “four additional rooms at the same hotel (the Wyndham Garden) were made available (Friday), allowing the remaining families housed in Brooklyn to return to Chinatown for the duration of repair work.”
According to today’s statement from the tenant association, “The tenants and their thousands of supporters will continue to pressure the City and both agencies to stand up for the residents of 85 Bowery against a criminal landlord with a clear track record of eviction attempts and harassment. The tenants will announce their next steps in demanding the City give a firm deadline by which the necessary construction is finished so that they can return home.”