Landlord wouldn't fix building; Tenants feel the squeezeBy Julie Shapiro
June 26 - July 2, 2009. Downtown Express [link]
At the center of an affordable housing battle in Chinatown is a crumbling five-story building that is tilting slowly but steadily into the street.
Across from Seward Park, 11 Essex St.'s top story leans out 9 inches over the ground floor. Inside, metal poles prop up caving-in ceilings. Out back, bricks have tumbled from the facade, leaving gaping holes behind.
"It's a time bomb," said Richie Acca, a construction supervisor, as he walked through the silent, dusty building on a recent afternoon. "Would you live here?"
The city agreed. On May 27, the Dept. of Buildings issued a full-vacate order, giving the rent-protected tenants just a few hours to pack up their apartments before the front door was locked behind them.
In some ways, the vacate was the end of a years-long battle between the Chinese tenants and Sion Misrahi, the building's owner. In other ways, the battle was just beginning.
Misrahi had been trying to get the building vacated for five years, after work on a neighboring construction site sent cracks through 11 Essex's facade. Misrahi claimed he needed the tenants to leave the building so he could make repairs.
The tenants, represented by the nonprofit Asian Americans For Equality, contend that Misrahi could have made the repairs years earlier, while they were still living in the building. Instead, they say, Misrahi purposely let the building deteriorate so he could get the tenants out and rebuild the units as luxury rentals.
"This guy is picking on the vulnerable, seniors, minorities who don't have the resources to fight back," said Chris Kui, executive director of AAFE. "There's been a whole pattern of years of neglect and harassment."
Misrahi, though, said he's just trying to keep the tenants safe. He placed the tenants from the six vacated apartments in other buildings he owns on the Lower East Side, and he is charging them the same below-market rents they were paying at 11 Essex.
"I always try to do the right thing," he said recently during an interview at Misrahi Realty, his Lower East Side brokerage. "I did everything I could for these people."
A disintegrating building
When Misrahi bought 11 Essex St. in 2001, the 22 apartments were mostly occupied by low-income Chinese families who had lived there for decades. Until the vacate order, some still paid less than $300 per month for the rent-protected units, in a neighborhood where market rate is now more than five times that much.
One year after Misrahi bought the building, construction by another developer on new condos at 7 Essex St. destabilized 11 Essex's foundation. Cracks formed and walls shifted. Even after workers from 7 Essex installed bracing at 11 Essex, the 100-year-old structure continued to deteriorate.
In 2004, Misrahi launched a campaign to get the city to vacate 11 Essex St. He wrote to the Dept. of Buildings, saying 11 Essex was in imminent danger of collapsing and that the city needed to remove the tenants so he could fix the building.
A city engineer told Misrahi that he could make the necessary repairs without tossing out the tenants, and ordered him to do so. Misrahi appealed first to then-Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster, and then to the Board of Standards and Appeals. A panel of architects and engineers heard the case and agreed with D.O.B. that Misrahi could -- and should -- fix the building immediately.
Not satisfied, Misrahi sued to have the B.S.A.'s decision reversed. In 2005, he lost that case as well.
Two years passed. The city issued repeated violations to Misrahi for failing to repair the building. Conditions worsened, and in May 2007 a section of the brick facade collapsed. The city ordered Misrahi to vacate the back half of his building.
Misrahi complied, moving tenants to the front part of the building, which was still safe. Over the next two years, he received more violations and wracked up more penalties, totaling more than $15,000, which he still owes the city.
Then, on May 27, 2009, Misrahi finally got what he'd been hoping for: The city vacated the entire building, citing the settling basement and new cracks running up the rear wall.
"Since 2002, the condition of the building has deteriorated," said Carly Sullivan, spokesperson for the Buildings Dept. "Some minimal repairs have been done, but more was required to fix the building, and that wasn't done."
Yuet Kuen Wan, a tenant, is frustrated that Misrahi did not heed the many warnings about the building.
"We are very cooperate, but he didn't do anything, no repairs," Wan said in halting English.
Rushed out the door
Wan, 43, shared a one-bedroom at 11 Essex St. with her 77-year-old father, who lived there for 40 years. Wan's father speaks no English, and the police officers who vacated the building on May 27 spoke no Chinese, so Wan was baffled when they handed him boxes and began to yell.
After receiving a frantic phone call from her father, Wan recalled rushing home to learn all the tenants had to leave immediately.
She ran around their apartment, tossing documents and clothing into boxes. Most important were the many medications her father relies on to treat his asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes and gout.
In the rush, one bottle of pills was left behind.
Wan made frantic phone calls for the next three days, but she said no one would let her back into the apartment to retrieve the medication. Her father's hand swelled up like a ball with gout, and by May 30 she had to bring him to the emergency room. Shek Hing Wan, the father, recovered, but Wan is still upset about what happened.
"I feel so bad, so sad," she said, her eyes filling with tears.
The city and Misrahi set up times for tenants to go back to 11 Essex to retrieve their belongings, but not in time for the Wans to avoid the hospital trip.
When they were forced to leave 11 Essex St., the Wans moved into an Orchard St. tenement also owned by Misrahi, who found new homes for all the displaced tenants. The narrow studio measures less than 200 square feet. The Wans sleep on the floor, just feet apart, with no privacy. Boxes filled with their belongings are stacked floor to ceiling along one wall, but they had to leave many things behind because there is no room, including their beds, tables, chairs, a cabinet, books, winter clothing and a TV.
As Yuet Kuen Wan entered the Orchard apartment recently, she found a letter from Misrahi Realty saying all belongings left behind at 11 Essex would be destroyed. Wan, a production coordinator in the garment industry, does not want to lose her family's possessions, but she cannot afford temporary storage.
Chun Ho Chiu, who lived at 11 Essex for 21 years, was also scared and confused when she received the vacate order. Like Wan's father, she speaks no English, and she called her son and daughter to come from Queens to help her pack.
"I'm so old -- how can I move?" Chiu, 76, said later in Cantonese through an interpreter. "I don't know what to do."
Chiu's children helped her move to the same Orchard St. building as the Wans, but she is unhappy that her new home is on the fourth floor. She has problems with her pelvis, which makes it difficult for her to climb stairs. Chiu is also sleeping on the floor, because the apartment is too small to fit her bed, she said.
Misrahi initially offered six good-sized apartments to the tenants, but he rented three of them just before the vacate and replaced them with smaller ones. He said AAFE, the Chinatown nonprofit organization, made the decisions about which people to pair with which apartments, while AAFE said Misrahi made the decisions.
Catie Marshall, spokesperson for the city Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development, said the agency did not get involved with the tenants' placements since it was Misrahi who found new homes for them. If the tenants have problems with the new units, they should call 311, she said.
Misrahi said the tenants could face eviction from their new homes soon, because five of the six have not paid any rent. Wan said she would not pay rent until Misrahi provided a better apartment.
Buyouts, harassment claims
Before the vacate order in May, Misrahi had already cleared out most of the building's tenants: As of this spring, only six of the 22 units were occupied.
Misrahi said he offered buyouts to some of the original tenants so he could fix up the building. He would not say how much he paid, except that it was less than $30,000 per apartment.
Longtime tenants said Misrahi persistently combined buyout offers with harassment in an effort to get them out of the building.
For Yuet Kuen Wan, the trouble started in 2004, when the apartment she shared with her elderly father had no heat, hot water or gas for the entire winter. Wan said she used a portable gas stove to cook and boil water to take baths. Misrahi said there were no service outages.
Wan said hot water issues continued intermittently after that and worsened in the spring of 2007, when she often had no electricity or hot water over the weekends. She said Misrahi also sent people who spoke Chinese to threaten tenants, and many moved out. Misrahi denied harassing anyone.
Chun Ho Chiu, the 76-year-old tenant, faced another problem after Misrahi moved her to a different apartment in 2007, when the city vacated the back half of the building. A year after Misrahi moved Chiu out of her original apartment, he brought her to court, saying he did not have to renew her stabilized lease because she was not living in the original apartment.
Chiu was flabbergasted, because Misrahi was the one who asked her to move in the first place.
Asked about the case, which is still pending, Misrahi said he thought some tenants were living elsewhere and subletting their 11 Essex apartments to bring in a profit. When told that Chiu is a 76-year-old woman who has been living in 11 Essex for 21 years, Misrahi replied, "A mistake could be made."
AAFE, the nonprofit organization, began advocating for the 11 Essex St. tenants in 2006, and they have represented Chiu and other tenants in court.
Prior to the May 27 vacate order, Misrahi and AAFE attorney John Gorman discussed the future of the building and its tenants.
Misrahi wanted to get the tenants out of the rapidly deteriorating building, while Gorman wanted to find a safe way for them to stay in place. The Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development served as an arbiter.
More than six months before the vacate order, Misrahi put an offer on the table: He would move the tenants at his own expense and place them in other apartments he owned; once Misrahi repaired 11 Essex, the tenants would have the right to return, still under their current rent protections.
Misrahi and Gorman were very close to finalizing this agreement in November 2008, according to e-mails between them and H.P.D. The agreement would have saved the tenants from the chaos of the vacate order and would have given them more security than they currently have.
But the negotiations broke down. Misrahi said AAFE stopped returning his calls. Kui, the AAFE executive director, said Misrahi never put the deal in writing.
Gorman added that AAFE wasn't convinced that the deal would be good for the tenants.
"It all seemed so uncertain to me that the building would be restored to a safe condition so the tenants could return," Gorman said. "The tenants were really quite reluctant to trust [Misrahi] and relocate, for fear the building would disappear, or when it was reconstructed, it could not accommodate them."
An H.P.D. spokesperson declined to comment on the negotiations.
Since the vacate order, Misrahi has withdrawn his offer to allow the tenants to return.
"Right now, nothing is on the table," Misrahi said. "AAFE compromised it by not [signing] a deal earlier."
Misrahi also previously offered to buy out the tenants for $30,000 per apartment, but Kui said the figure was too low.
The tenants' rights at this point are unclear, because very little of the original building will be left once Misrahi guts and repairs it. If a building sustains minimal damage, rent-protected tenants always have the right to return to their units once they are repaired, Gorman said. But if a building undergoes drastic changes, for example if it collapses, tenants may lose that right of return, he said.
Misrahi plans to spend $3 million to $4 million on extensive changes to 11 Essex St.
The building's front and rear walls have to come down entirely, he said. The side walls will stay, but they won't bear any weight. Misrahi will tear out the staircase, the interior divisions and all the fixtures. He plans to build a new steel structure for support, and then carve out apartments in new shapes, adding an elevator, a laundry room in the basement and other amenities.
The work will take at least 18 months once the Buildings Dept. approves the plans, Misrahi said.
Misrahi intends to keep the 22 apartments as rentals, but the brand-new units will likely command rents that are far out of reach for the former tenants.
While Misrahi has not given the tenants all they want, he did find new places for them to live at low rents, though the tenants say the spaces are inadequate. Also, many rent-protected tenants left 11 Essex before the vacate order, and while some received buyouts, others did not get anything, AAFE said.
Yuet Kuen Wan, one of the 11 Essex tenants, said through an interpreter that Misrahi can still turn the situation around by promising the tenants that they will eventually return to their former home, with rent protections.
"All the tenants would like is to go back to 11 Essex," she said.
Copyright 2009 Community Media LLC.
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