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Italian American Museum Looks to Evict 85-Year-Old Italian Grandma

By Lisha Arino | March 25, 2015 7:40am
 Adele Sarno, a lifelong Little Italy resident who has lived in her Grand Street apartment for more than 50 years, faces eviction from the Italian American Museum, her landlord.
85-year-old Little Italy Resident Faces Eviction from the Italian American Museum
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LITTLE ITALY — Lifelong Little Italy resident Adele Sarno has lived in the same second-floor Grand Street apartment for more than 50 years — but she may not be able to stay there much longer.

The 85-year-old grandmother, who moved into her 185 Grand St. home in 1962, faces eviction from her landlord, the Italian American Museum, which wants to expand into her building.

Sarno said she received an eviction notice last week and on Monday.

“When you get these eviction notices, they kill you. You get scared,” she said.

Sarno said her rent issues began five years ago when the museum sent her a letter telling her to pay $3,500 a month or move out. The asking rent was too high, not only because she lived on a fixed income but because she believed she lived in a rent-controlled apartment, she said.

Sarno moved into the two-bedroom apartment with her parents 53 years ago after a divorce and has lived there since, she said.

Her parents died and she now shares the apartment with her cat, Tosha. She currently pays the landlord — which bought the building in 2008, records show — $820 a month, she said.

State law allows family members to take over and renew a rent-controlled or rent-stabilized lease after the original tenant’s death or permanent departure as long as the relatives have made the apartment their primary residence for the two years before the tenant left or died.

Yet after four years of litigation, a civil court judge determined in November 2014 that Sarno’s apartment was not rent controlled, according to court records.

The Office of Rent Administration at the New York State Homes and Community Renewal also concluded in September 2013 that the tenant was not entitled to succession rights, according to an HCR spokeswoman.

Sarno and her attorney did not appeal the agency's order, although they had 35 days to do so, the spokeswoman added.

Sarno said the eviction notices told her she needed to be out of her apartment by April 6, but she was able to get another hearing next week and delay the eviction. She is due back in court on April 2, court records show.

According to a spokesman, the museum — currently located in the same building on the corner of Grand and Mulberry streets — plans to expand.

“After examining this case, a New York City Civil Court judge has determined, based on the evidence presented, that rent-regulation is not applicable to the dwelling in question," the Italian American Museum said in a statement.

"Governed by this order, the Museum will pursue its plans for expansion and continue to serve as an anchor institution for the Italian American legacy in Little Italy,” the statement continued.

The spokesman did not elaborate on the museum’s plans for expansion, but the Italian American Museum’s founder and president, Joseph V. Scelsa, told the New York Times in 2013 it planned to sell the building to a developer and relocate into a new structure.

Sarno said she is not sure where she would move if she gets evicted.

“Where am I going to go? You can’t get an apartment in this neighborhood,” she said, explaining that her $750 monthly income would not cover a market-rate apartment.

Supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) benefits help cover her food costs, she said, and her daughter and granddaughter, who live outside the city, help her pay her bills.

After spending her life in Little Italy, Sarno is also reluctant to move in with her daughter in Wisconsin, which she called a “beautiful place, but not for me.”

“I’m a New Yorker,” Sarno said.

Members of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council — which helped Sarno find lawyers to represent her in court — the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) and the Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) also plan to protest in front of the Italian American Museum in support of Sarno Wednesday morning.

“For an institution that purports to promote and preserve Italian-American culture, the museum fails profoundly in recognizing that among its most valuable assets are the long-term residents of the neighborhood,” said Two Bridges’ president and director Victor Papa.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that the protest would take place Wednesday evening. The protest was scheduled for Wednesday morning.