Residents of 85 Bowery are accusing their landlord, Joseph Betesh, of reneging on an alleged promise of a guaranteed return date. Meanwhile, City Council member Margaret Chin is calling on the city to provide a clear deadline for the completion of repairs.
The tenants were displaced from their Chinatown tenement in January due to an unstable staircase. The landlord and city later determined that asbestos abatement would need to take place before residents could return to their homes. There were also other structural issues that emerged. A hunger strike was called off earlier this month after tenants said Betesh agreed to an Aug. 31 deadline.
But they were back outside the building yesterday morning, asserting that Betesh had broken his promises. The tenants are demanding a criminal investigation by the state attorney general or city district attorney. During the rally, a tenant representative said of Betesh, “He’s breaking his promise. He’s a slumlord. We can’t trust him anymore. We will fight to the end. We ask the government for help.” In a press release, the residents added, “Betesh now insists on loopholes that will allow for perpetual delays or the building’s destruction. This leaves the tenants fearful that Betesh will follow the long-standing tradition of greedy landlords using self-started destruction to demolish the homes of working class New Yorkers.”
A spokesperson for the landlord, Sam Spokony, responded to the allegations, saying, “Weeks ago, we stated publicly that our goal is to complete the necessary repair work at 85 Bowery by end of summer, barring unforeseen circumstances. That has not changed. At that time, we also noted that no agreement had been signed by either party in this case. That has not changed.”
He added, “Apparently these facts have not stopped certain groups from continuing to make false statements about the situation regarding 85 Bowery, which helps no one. Regardless of any false claims made against us, we remain focused on moving the residents of 85 Bowery back safely into their homes as quickly as possible.”
Following the rally, we spoke with Caitlin Kelmar, a spokesperson for the tenants. She acknowledged there was no written agreement, but said that, during the hunger strike, the parties had made a deal. “The tenants’ lawyer and (Betesh’s) lawyer,” she said, “had been in basically constant communication that week and the week prior. It was a verbal agreement, but it was enough for the tenants — The only way they get home is if he keeps his word.” Kelmar said Betesh balked after the tenants held a protest to keep the pressure on the city to hold the landlord accountable. “He kind of used that as an excuse to back away from (the agreement),” said Kelmar. “He said, ‘Oh, you called me a slumlord, so the agreement’s off,’ but they’re been calling him a slumlord for years.”
Also yesterday, City Council member Margaret Chin sent a letter to Deputy Mayor Laura Anglin, who oversees the Department of Buildings. Chin wrote, “I am writing today regarding my concerns about the lack of a clear timeline for the return of displaced tenants of 85 Bowery.”
“After five months of displacement,” Chin added, “the lack of a clear deadline for all necessary repairs to 85 Bowery is unacceptable. In order to provide the clarity that the families of 85 Bowery deserve, I request that a firm deadline for the completion of all work at the building be set.” In a separate statement, the District 1 Council member said, “This morning (Monday), tenants rallied outside of 85 Bowery claiming that their landlord, Joseph Betesh, is backtracking on his promise to return families home by August 31. In response, the landlord’s representatives claim that no such agreement was made – highlighting the need for the city to step in and provide a clear deadline in order to hold Betesh responsible.”
Earlier this year, local elected officials asked the city’s district attorney and state attorney general to look into the 85 Bowery matter.
The residents have been living at a hotel around the corner from their building, the Wyndham Garden Chinatown, during the ordeal. Betesh is paying for their accommodations. The two sides have been battling one another in court for several years. A key sticking point in the current negotiations is compensation to be paid to tenants, whose possessions were thrown in a dumpster by the landlord.
A spokesperson from the Department of Buildings tells The Lo-Down, “DOB and our fellow agencies are pushing the owner to complete major repairs at 85 Bowery as quickly as possible – and substantial work has been completed. We remain committed to holding the landlord responsible for providing tenants with a safe place to live.”
The Buildings Department has been making regular site visits to 85 Bowery. Officials with the agency say the asbestos abatement was completed on May 11, and that second floor joist work has been finished. Joist replacement on other floors is continuing and is expected to be completed by Friday. Kitchen and bathroom replacement will begin this week and should be finished by August 16.
When vacate orders are issued, DOB is legally required to set deadlines for the completion of repairs. Agency officials say this occurred at 85 Bowery, but that the timeline was extended when other safety issues were discovered. They contend there’s no evidence the landlord is failing to cooperate or is delaying required repair work.