BY SAM SPOKONY | Capping an increasingly tense battle that began more than three years ago when 128 Hester St. was demolished, the building’s former tenants have now filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against their former landlord William Su and his associates, who also own the recently opened Wyndham Garden Hotel at Bowery and Hester St.
The suit, filed in State Supreme Court on Oct. 25, lists 10 plaintiffs and seeks a combined total of $11 million in damages based on both “illegal and wrongful eviction” and “the defendants’ negligence and wrongful intentional actions.”
The former tenants are also seeking a refund on all rent they paid from October 2006 to August 2009, when the city’s Department of Buildings ordered the evacuation and subsequent demolition of 128 Hester St. — even though Su and his associates didn’t purchase the building until July 2007.
In addition, the suit calls for the defendants to return each plaintiff’s security deposit, along with accrued interest. The deposits for each evacuated apartment were kept by the landlords even after the building was gone, “in violation of law and contract,” according to the suit.
While John Gorman, the lawyer representing the former tenants, acknowledged at a press conference on Tuesday that actually getting the full $11 million for his clients is highly unlikely, he spoke with total confidence about the prospect of coming out on top in court — at least in terms of getting rent abatements.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that there will be a recovery [of rent],” Gorman said. “There’s been a breach of the warranty of habitability. These people lived in hazardous conditions, so they shouldn’t have to have paid rent.”
State law defines the warranty of habitability as meaning “tenants have the right to a livable, safe and sanitary apartment.”
Gorman spoke on Tuesday alongside Christopher Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, the advocacy group that has led what it calls a “justice campaign” for the former Hester St. tenants — and against Su and the Wyndham — since June. AAFE has also been involved in advocating for the tenants ever since they lost their homes.
AAFE and other community groups have repeatedly condemned Su and his associates for what they call his refusal to provide housing or compensation to the eight families — a total of 29 tenants — who were left homeless when 128 Hester St. was ordered to be demolished due to the building’s unsafe condition.
AAFE has also asserted, citing comments from D.O.B., that Su’s construction of the Wyndham, in the adjacent lot at 91-93 Bowery, played a part in the structural deterioration of 128 Hester St. In addition, the group claims that the owners neglected to repair the apartment building, with the ultimate goal of simply knocking it down to make way for the Wyndham.
According to a D.O.B. memo written just before the agency evacuated the tenants in August 2009, an inspector wrote that, “The owners informed the Department a few weeks ago that they wish to demolish 128 Hester St. and have effectively stopped maintaining the building.”
Stuart Klein, the lawyer representing Su and his associates, seemed unfazed by the multimillion-dollar suit that had just been filed against his clients.
“It’s rather scant, and doesn’t articulate much,” Klein said of the five-page document. “I was actually shocked by the brevity of the complaint, but aside from that, this is nothing terribly shocking.”
He went on to question the suit’s timing, since administrative action by the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal is still pending against the former Hester St. owners. In 2010 D.H.C.R. initially planned to order Su and his associates to pay nearly $1 million in relocation fees to the former tenants, but that order was later withdrawn, and still hangs in limbo today.
As a result, Klein explained that he may simply attempt to have the lawsuit against his clients dismissed, since the unfinished administrative action may legally prevent the tenants from making some of their claims against their former landlords. But he said in an interview on Tuesday that he would have to investigate this option further, and that he would likely know by the following week whether or not he would aim to have the suit dismissed.
If he doesn’t attempt to get a dismissal, Klein said he will deny that Su and his associates did anything to create the hazardous conditions at 128 Hester St., and that they played no part in causing its eventual evacuation and demolition.
The attorney has stated on numerous occasions that the former owners spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on repairs to the building, but this has never been fully substantiated. At a press conference in October, Klein produced documents that showed only about $15,000 worth of work.
The former tenants’ lawsuit finally brings to a head the heated war of words that has grown in intensity and sheer spitefulness ever since AAFE began their justice campaign in June. That campaign included numerous protests by AAFE and other community organizations outside the Wyndham, which at 18 stories is Chinatown’s largest hotel. In response, Klein threatened multiple times to sue AAFE for libel and slander against Su, but never followed through.
Recently, Klein also put forth an unsourced rumor that the former Hester St. tenants were forced to agree to a deal that would give AAFE a cut of any money recovered in the lawsuit.
Peter Gee, an AAFE organizer, denied that claim Tuesday, calling the rumor completely false, and saying that AAFE will recover no money that would have gone to tenants.
In addition, Susan Stetzer, district manager of Community Board 3, also attended Tuesday’s press conference, alongside Gorman and AAFE, to claim that the Wyndham — which opened last Sat., Nov. 1 — is being unfair to the community by not hiring locally.
In October, as Su and his associates were doing public-relations damage control in advance of the hotel’s opening, Klein asserted that the Wyndham would be a “major boon” to the community, and assured that it would provide jobs to about 60 area residents.
Stetzer said, due to those claims, many qualified locals applied online for jobs at the hotel.
“They were all rejected without any explanation,” Stetzer said. “The hotel didn’t even give them interviews.”