Volume 79, Number 45 | April 14 - 20, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Last August, the Department of Buildings ordered tenants to vacate 128 Hester St., which was demolished two months later.

Fighting evictions by demolition, and saving homes

By Christopher Kui

In the coming year, Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) hopes to push for much-needed policy changes to the demolition clause of the Rent Stabilization Code. Currently, the law has a loophole that allows landlords who demolish rent-regulated buildings to build market-rate housing on the site without allowing the rent-regulated tenants to return. However, in the event of demolition due to intentional neglect, the landlord must replace the rent-regulated housing.

Moreover, we will work with the administration to empower the New York City Department of Buildings through new legislation to enforce violations against landlords. Ideally, any citations issued for structural damages should immediately alert the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which will then require the landlord to devise a corrective action within a reasonable timeframe. Additionally, we must push for criminal charges and financial penalties for those landlords who choose to ignore these violations that put their tenants and the community at risk.

Every neighborhood in our city has an empty lot or a new building that serves as a reminder of a dangerous trend of demolition by landlord neglect. Landlords acquire rent-regulated buildings, ignore tenants’ pleas for critical repairs, then, despite repeated D.O.B. citations requiring them to make repairs, the landlords allow the buildings to get to the brink of collapse. As the final blow, typically, an anonymous phone call is placed to D.O.B. about safety issues in the building. By the time D.O.B. arrives, the agency often has little choice but to vacate the tenants and issue a demolition order for the building, clearing the way for the landlord to develop new projects on the newly cleared land, and permanently destroying an already-diminishing part of our city’s affordable-housing stock. Essentially, landlords are being rewarded for intentionally neglecting their buildings and endangering their tenants’ safety.

One such case began last August when tenants of 128 Hester St. came to Asian Americans for Equality desperately seeking to save their apartments from a developer constructing a hotel on the adjacent Bowery lot. For many months, the developer racked up building violation after violation for unsafe construction practices on the hotel site. The result was that the construction caused 128 Hester St. to become structurally unsafe, forcing the city to evacuate nearly 60 tenants from their homes. 

As AAFE began working with the dislocated residents, our investigation uncovered a pattern of purposeful neglect that led to this tragedy. AAFE discovered that the same developer behind the hotel project also purchased 128 Hester St. a few years earlier, and allowed D.O.B. violations to accumulate while accelerating the pace of the hotel construction. The work continued despite citations for lack of adequate shoring protection for adjacent properties, absence of an on-site safety inspector and other serious hazards. 

On Oct. 20 of last year, a wrecking ball destroyed the homes of these longtime Chinatown residents. However, while the physical structure of 128 Hester St. was torn down, the battle for Chinatown residents’ rights is not over!

Sadly, this is happening all over the city, especially in low-income neighborhoods, as greed trumps public safety and housing rights. Each time we hear of these situations, we breathe a sigh of relief that no one was hurt, but we cannot wait for a tragedy to shake our city out of its stupor to become outraged. In this time of economic downturn, when many are looking to turn a profit by any means necessary, AAFE will fight even harder to protect the rights of tenants to live in safe and affordable homes.

Kui is executive director, Asian Americans for Equality





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