By Sonja Sharp
CHELSEA — In the 22 years that he’s lived on West 16th Street in Chelsea, Jose Rivera can’t remember ever missing a rent payment or having a complaint made against him.
So when he received an eviction notice last week telling him he had just six days to vacate, the retired police officer was confused.
“I was shocked,” said Rivera, 47, standing outside the building where he and other rent-stabilized tenants have been fighting to stay for the past six years.
“Six days to pack up 20 years of memories.”
Rivera is one of five tenants battling an imminent eviction from 221 West 16th Street, where elected officials and tenants’ rights advocates say Furnished Quarters President Gary Brown is exploiting a legal loophole to ditch long-term, low-rent residents. They have been told they must vacate by Tuesday.
With those tenants gone, the fourth and fifth floor would be converted into a duplex, and the building — which houses many elderly residents — would be modified to include an elevator to serve just those two floors.
“No one is forcing him to do this,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told a crowd of protesters outside the building on Sunday afternoon. “He’s made a decision to put his own greed ahead of the needs of five families.”
Quinn said in a press release that the move was an abuse of a law that allows landlords to evict tenants in order to live in their own buildings. That practice is illegal outside of New York City, and pending legislation in Albany could end it in the five boroughs as well.
Residents said Sunday they doubted Brown had any real plans to move into the building.
Requests for comment were not immediately reurned by Brown and Furnished Quarters.
"To throw out five families into the street is just plain wrong," said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who sponsored a bill to eliminate owner occupancy in New York. “Gary Brown, we don’t want people like you in our neighborhood.”
But for the tenants and their neighbors, the fight is over more than just their homes. Many speakers at Sunday’s rally characterized the eviction battle as a struggle for the soul of Chelsea itself.
“I might have to leave the city. I love this city. I’ve watched young kids in this neighborhood become young adults,” Rivera said. “I feel part of the fabric of this community.”