CHINATOWN — Tenants embroiled in a legal battle with their landlord for more than a year over whether they have a right to rent-stabilized leases now await a determination from the state, according to court documents.
Joseph Betesh, of Milestone Equities, has been attempting to remove the residents of 83-85 Bowery since March 2016, purportedly so he can carry out much-needed structural repairs on the crumbling buildings.
In the past, he has promised to bring tenants back once the repairs are done, but has consistently declined to recognize them as meriting rent-stabilization — so the tenants refuse to budge, fearing once they leave their homes they will never be able to return.
Residents last summer shot down an agreement procured by Public Advocate Letitia James that would have yanked them from the apartments for an unknown amount of time while the repairs are carried out. Betesh's attorney swore the relocations would be temporary, and that tenants would be rewarded with long-term leases when they returned — the rents would be raised, he said, but would remain below-market-rate.
With the rent increase an unknown, the tenants feared the removal would turn out to be permanent, said the leader of the tenant association.
"They refused to tell us how much they would increase," said Jin Ming Cao. "And then we worry about — once we move out, we will not be able to move [back] in."
At the core of the dispute is the question of rent-stabilization. The buildings were constructed before 1974 and contain more than six units, which would generally make them subject to rent-stabilization, according to both the tenants' attorney and the New York City Rent Guidelines Board.
But Betesh's attorney insists the buildings were used for "transient" and "commercial" purposes by the 1974 cutoff, arguing that makes it an exception to the rule, according to court documents.
After the agreement fell through, a judge in September 2016 ruled that the tenants can stay in their homes while the matter is resolved, and has asked the state Department of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR) to determine whether the apartments are in fact rent-stabilized. The state has yet to give an answer.
In addition to challenging the buildings' rent-stabilized status, Betesh has also argued the apartments are dangerously overcrowded and that the tenants have put up illegal partitions to create additional rooms, records show — another clear indicator that the landlord never had any intention of welcoming every tenant back to the premises after repairs, the residents' attorney said.
"It's quite plain the only keys they would ever give back to that family are keys for two people," said Seth Miller.
Furthermore, it was the previous landlord and not the tenants who had put up walls to make extra bedrooms, he said.
The Department of Buildings has found the apartments with the partitions to be in violation of the city code on light and ventilation, records show. A partial vacate order has been issued for one such unit at 83 Bowery.
A host of additional unresolved DOB violations hang over the properties — a partial vacate order exists for the first floor of 85 Bowery, which is a commercial space unoccupied by the tenants, and the second floor has been deemed unstable, records show.
Betesh insists the repairs — including fixing a hazardous, slanted staircase at 85 Bowery — cannot be completed while residents remain in their apartments. The tenants have hired an engineer who says otherwise, and their attorney says the city should come in to carry out the repairs so the landlord can't use them as an excuse for eviction.
"We can do this the hard way, in court, or the city can do what the [Housing Preservation and Developments'] Emergency Repair Program was designed to do and have city contractors fix these buildings so the landlord cannot use the excuse of having to move people out of a building before work is done as a way of harassing people instead of repairing buildings," said Miller.
Betesh's attorney did not return requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for the state department of Homes and Community Renewal said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The city department of Housing Preservation and Development did not immediately return requests for comment.