By Sheila McClear
The front door to 150-152 W. 14th St. has been hastily boarded up. Someone has parked a shopping cart full of empty cans in front of the building while paying tribute at the adjacent adult video store.
Across the street there’s a new cube-shaped structure with floor-to-ceiling windows advertising “Full Floor Lofts Immediate Occupancy.”
Welcome to the past and future of W. 14th St.
The single-room-occupancy, or S.R.O., apartments at 150 and 152 W. 14th St. near Seventh Ave. sit empty. Inside the run-down five-story building lies the detritus of dozens of lives disrupted midday after tenants were forced to evacuate on May 7 due to a crack in the facade deemed immediately dangerous. Given until 8 p.m. to collect their things, some were just returning from work when they were told to gather what they could and leave, or be removed by police.
Now, nearly seven weeks after being forced to vacate their $400-a-month rooms, the evacuees are still homeless. They’re couch-hopping, living in a residential motel or staying in one of the other buildings owned by their landlord, Stanley Wasserman of SW Management LLC. Finding another place to rent would require them to give up their rent-stabilized status.
Tenants charge that the building has been neglected for years. A September 2007 Department of Buildings violation cited a “failure to maintain exterior defects” after inspectors “observed buckling and bowing of facade and broken sills,” according to the department’s Web site. Another violation this February found a “failure to maintain bldg wall(s) or appurtenances” and exterior bulging, as well as loose mortar joints.
Residents have brought a lawsuit in Housing Court to order Wasserman to make the necessary repairs for them to move back in, but the process is slow. The real story, tenants claim, is that Wasserman is trying to empty the S.R.O. of its residents by allowing the structure to deteriorate. If a building is vacant, the landlord needs no permission to tear it down — and W. 14th St. is prime real estate that could turn a better profit with market-rate units.
The building’s rooms are modest: They don’t contain kitchens (some residents used hot plates), and there’s a shared bathroom and shower down each hall. But the apartments were safe enough, and provided residents a place, albeit small, to call their own in the middle of an expensive island closed to many working-class renters.
“Some of my friends would come over and ask how I could live in a place so small,” said Dan Turchek, a 37-year-old bookstore clerk who has lived there for 10 years. “But it’s my own space, and it’s in Manhattan.” Turchek is currently living in the Yale Hotel on the Upper West Side, where the city is paying for his shelter.
The Yale isn’t for everyone. Notorious for its ramshackle conditions, roaches and late-night fights, some of the displaced residents instead chose to sleep on friends’ couches. The Yale is particularly intimidating for women staying alone.
Claire McGibney, 61, lived in the 14th St. S.R.O. for 14 years. She works at the Bed Bath & Beyond at 18th St. and Sixth Ave., and said she invested about $5,000 in her room over the years.
“I put in a ceramic tile floor, white cabinets, a stainless-steel bar sink… . It looked like another world, my place,” she explained. “When the head of the Department of Buildings saw my room [during the evacuation], he looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’
“I said, ‘Sir, this is what affordable housing is in this city.’ ”
McGibney has been staying with friends and co-workers rather than at the Yale, and she’s slept in at least four places since the May evacuation.
“I’m not living — I’m existing,” she said. “Wasserman was derelict in all respects. Warehousing in the city should be stopped.”
Susanna Blankley, a tenant organizer for the West Side S.R.O. Law Project, who is working with Wasserman’s tenants, said this situation follows a trend with S.R.O. landlords.
“They do different things to get tenants out, like warehousing the buildings,” she said. “When the building is empty, the landlord doesn’t have to get permission to demolish it.”
Five years ago, Victor Luna, a 27-year-old freelance clothing designer, was one of the last tenants to move into the building before Wasserman stopped renting out empty rooms. He’s been staying in another Wasserman building since the evacuation, at 148 W. 14th. He described his new residence as equally run-down and full of violations.
“Two tenants have no electricity,” he said. “They run a wire from the hall into their rooms.”
Wasserman has about 70 buildings in Manhattan and the Bronx, but his only S.R.O.’s are the addresses on W. 14th St., plus another in Midtown. He did not return several calls for comment, and residents say both he and the building manager regularly hang up on them. His attorney, Martin Meltzer, said Wasserman does not discuss cases under litigation.
“[Wasserman] wants to throw up his hands and say they can’t [repair the building],” Blankely said. “I’m told that facades can be put up in three or four days. We have engineers that would do it pro bono, but we can’t even get access to the buildings.”
According to D.O.B., the building appears structurally sound, although the facade must be immediately fixed and more inspections are needed.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has taken a hard line on Wasserman, whose building is in her district. She co-wrote a letter with other elected officials to a number of government agencies, as well as going to the source.
“We’ve also reached out to Wasserman directly to tell him to do the right thing and live up to his legal obligations,” Quinn said. She hasn’t yet received a response.
“He absolutely appears to be attempting to warehouse [the buildings],” Quinn added. “We have to be vigilant in our efforts not to lose any existing affordable housing, particularly S.R.O.’s, which are among the most affordable. … The reality is there are landlords out there who are bad people.”
Fearing the plight of No. 152 could be in their future, too, the residents of 215 W. 14th St. recently met at the Hudson Guild Community Center in Chelsea. They also live in an S.R.O. owned by Wasserman, and don’t want to find themselves in the same situation in a couple years.
“We have similar structural problems as 152, just not as severe — yet,” said one resident. “The building has been neglected for 20 years… . I believe in my heart that they do want us out.” The tenants also pointed out the building’s proximity to dormitories of New York University and The New School.
So far, the residents have written a letter listing the violations that have not been dealt with.
“We’re not asking for anything huge,” another tenant said. “We’re aware of the kind of building we live in.”
For now, 150-152 W. 14th St. remains a mausoleum of lives interrupted. The building’s facade has been completely removed, with only a white tarp protecting the front rooms from the elements. For now, the future of the building, and its residents, remains in limbo.