Chinatown has emerged as a battleground in the continuing war over gentrification in New York City. In the latest chapter of the fight, community groups rallied in front of 83-85 Bowery last week, where tenants say they are the victims of harassment and unlawful eviction efforts on the part of their landlord, Joseph Betesh.
Betesh, a millionaire whose family owns the clothing chain Dr. Jay’s, has been working to evict the tenants — many of whom are elderly and whose families have lived there for decades — since acquiring the pair of buildings in 2013. He is currently suing the residents, arguing they must move out for an undisclosed length of time on the basis that repairs the buildings need are so severe it would be unsafe to complete them otherwise.
In response to Betesh’s eviction efforts, 83-85 Bowery residents hired an architect to prove that the repairs did not justify evictions. The tenants’ association won a housing court judgment stating Betesh was required to fix up the buildings without removing the occupants. The matter is currently before the State Supreme Court. The same housing court judge has asked the Department of Homes and Community Renewal to determine whether the buildings’ 28 Residential units qualify for rent stabilization. Betesh is attempting to charge them market rate.
Buildings like 83-85 Broadway qualify for rent stabilization if they were built before 1974 and contain six or more units. About one million apartments in New York City are rent-stabilized. Their rent increases are decided by a yearly vote by the Rent Guidelines Board. Betesh contends that even though the buildings were built before the cutoff year, they were used for commercial purposes before 1974, which his legal team says means he can charge tenants market rate.
“We demand the landlord Joseph Betesh acknowledge that these two buildings are rent stabilized buildings,” resident Kaiwen Yang told the crowd of about 100 people gathered in front of the properties, Wednesday. “We also demand the landlord immediately follow the housing court decision to fix the buildings and repair them.”
Shuqing Wang of 83 Bowery said her lease expired in 2015 but Betesh has refused to renew it. Wang said that her building’s stairs are sloping, water leaks from her bathroom ceiling and she occasionally loses water pressure.
“We spent a lot of money to pay for a lawyer,” said Wang. “[Betesh] is using different excuses like the building is overcrowded, it’s dangerous — using all these different excuses. The building has a lot of violations that the landlord doesn’t fix.”
Wang and her fellow tenants contend that Betesh’s eviction attempts and efforts to squeeze them out with skyrocketing rents are nothing more than a way to demolish the properties and make way for a luxury tower development at the site, something Chinatown has started to see more of.
A coalition of community advocacy organizations, the Chinatown Working Group, has submitted a rezoning plan to the City Council which would protect the neighborhood from gentrification by ensuring that all new buildings include onsite, truly-affordable housing as well as limiting luxury high rise development. Council District 1 representative Margaret Chin has instead voiced support for a rezoning plan that would protect the historic core of Chinatown while leaving the rest open for development. Critics charge Cheng’s plan would appease tourists, while maintaining the status quo of creeping gentrification for the rest of the ethnic enclave.
Joseph Betesh did not respond to requests for comment.
Photo credit: Wally Gobetz.