Initiatives Student Organizers Place, Displacement, & The Politics of Housing Blog

Chinatown Hunger Strike: The Crisis of 83-85 Bowery

Logo for the Loisaida Center
Signs protesting the displacement of families in Chinatown
Photo credit: National Mobilization Against Sweatshops

On January 18th, over 80 people were evicted from their homes at 83-85 Bowery in Chinatown by landlord Joseph Betesh. Claiming that 85 Bowery’s staircase was structurally unsound, Betesh ordered the low-income tenants of both buildings out of their homes into the freezing winter cold. The vast majority of those displaced were housed in rat-infested hotel-turned-homeless shelter seven miles away in Brownsville, Brooklyn. On Thursday, February 8th, four of the tenants will begin a hunger strike to pressure the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to repair the neglected building and prosecute Betesh for his slumlord tactics.

After purchasing 83 and 85 Bowery along with several properties on the Bowery for $62 million in 2013, Betesh immediately refused to renew any of the existing tenants’ leases. In addition, he failed to address any of the serious maintenance problems in the building, causing tenants to complain of unfixed leaks, slumping and broken ceilings, and the slanted staircase. In a particularly cruel instance, 85 Bowery residents had their gas shut off for 40 days in the Spring of 2015. Betesh was apparently unresponsive to complaints.

A damaged ceiling with holes and exposed wood
A ceiling in an 85 Bowery apartment. Photo credit: Gothamist

Later that year, Betesh was brought to housing court by the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development after one of their inspectors found nearly 200 safety violations in the building. As a result of the court case, Betesh was told to make several sweeping, urgent repairs by April 2016. After missing the deadline to rehabilitate the building he let fall into disrepair, he tried to justify the eviction of a single tenant and his refusal to renew by claiming the building wasn’t rent stabilized.

According to the NYC Rent Guidelines Board, buildings with more than 5 apartments built before 1974 are rent stabilized. 83 Bowery, which features 12 units, and 85 Bowery, which features 16, were both built in 1910, satisfying the city’s rent stabilization criteria. In an attempt to skirt around this loophole-heavy code, Betesh falsely claimed that his tenants had “month-to-month” agreements before sending eviction notices to 27 of the buildings’ 28 apartments. So determined he was to remove the vulnerable tenants from their homes, he actually filed a complaint to the New York State Supreme Court, asking for justification for their eviction.

Crowd protests displacement
An anti-displacement rally outside of 83-85 Bowery Photo credit: Shanon Barbour

Betesh claimed that, in order to make structural repairs, each of the tenants had to be evacuated due to safety concerns. Shortly after, a licensed structural engineer determined that the building could be rehabilitated with the tenants inside. As the situation intensified and Betesh’s unethical tactics became more transparent, local groups like Youth Against Displacement and the NYC Democratic Socialists of America began to throw tenant solidarity rallies, many of which occurred outside of Betesh-owned Dr. Jay’s retail outlets throughout the city.

At a recent solidarity rally outside of 83-85 Bowery, a displaced tenant claimed that a construction worker whom Betesh hired to work on the buildings says he has no intention of rehabilitating the apartments for the existing tenants. Instead, he said, Betesh plans to knock down the pillar which holds up the second floor, presumably to convert the apartments to market rate condos. Seth Miller, a lawyer who has represented the tenants since fall 2016, told the Village Voice that “[Joseph Betesh’s] plan is to spend $2.5 million to make the building gentrified. The last thing [he] wants is to have these tenants stay.”

People protesting displacement
Photo credit: Caitlin Kelmar

These concerns come in the wake of a recent rash of luxury development on the Bowery, as well as a proposed Chinatown and Lower East Side rezoning which has sparked fears about displacement of longtime, Chinese and Puerto Rican tenants in the area. Far from being unsubstantiated, these concerns are validated by the recent cases of evictions at 229-231 Henry Street, 113-115 Madison Street, and 247-249 Broome Street, all in the immediate area. Just up the block in one of the other Bowery buildings that Betesh’s company purchased in 2013, a 3,500-square-foot loft is renting for $13,500 a month — a fortune compared to $1,000 to $1,200 that the tenants of 83-85 Bowery were paying prior to their displacement.

On the day of the eviction, the NYC Department of Buildings abruptly gave vacate orders to the tenants of 83-85 Bowery, all of whom were forced to leave with whatever they could carry. After a push from the 83-85 Bowery Tenants’ Association, HPD gave Joseph Betesh until February 7th to renovate the building. Clearly, he has not made any attempt to do so, and the tenants remain homeless. This comes as an especially striking blow to the tenants, as they will now not be able to return home for Chinese New Year on February 16th —  an immensely important Chinese holiday that traditionally involves a family meal at home.

Graphic promoting hunger strike against displacement
Photo credit: Youth Against Displacement

On Thursday, February 8th, six of the displaced tenants will begin a hunger strike outside of the offices of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Claiming that they are homeless and have nothing to lose at this point, these elder, low-income immigrants will stand overnight in the punishing February weather, depriving their bodies of sustenance, to demand that HPD secure and protect their rights to housing. A rally will be held in support of their strike on the same day at 11 am.