Volume 73, Number 45 | March 10 -16, 2004

Eviction battle of Minetta Lane may finally end

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Robert Dabrowski in his apartment at 24 Minetta Lane.

Call it the “Upstairs, Downstairs” of Greenwich Village. The 16-year legal dispute between Robert A. Dabrowski and the landlord who lives above him at 24 Minetta Lane is a saga of money and mutual mistrust. But the story could soon end, due to a decision last month by a state appeals court that cleared the way for Dabrowski’s eviction.

Pari Dulac, the owner of the five-story brick building at 24 Minetta Lane, first tried to evict Dabrowski from the apartment in 1988, saying she wanted the 980-square-foot space for her personal use. At the time, Dabrowski, who has lived in his second-floor apartment since 1966, argued successfully in state housing court that his $400 rent-stabilized apartment was actually rent controlled and that his rent should cost only $30.70 a month.

In 1998, after 10 years of landlord-tenant fights over alleged violations and rent, the court said it erred in calculating the rent and awarded Dulac $42,000 in back rent. The actual amount owed was closer to $62,000, but a six-year statute of limitations prevented Dulac from seeking a bigger award, said Meryl L. Wenig, her attorney. Dabrowski filed for bankruptcy and began paying $575 a month in rent.

Last month’s ruling by the Appellate Division, first reported by the New York Law Journal, stated that personal bankruptcy does not shield New York tenants from eviction proceedings. It means that Dabrowski must either pay an undetermined amount in back rent — the exact amount will be decided at a civil court trial later this month or next — or face eviction, Wenig said.

“I’m going to fight it all the way,” said Dabrowski, now 71.

But Dabrowski has little legal recourse, especially since the state appeals court decision was unanimous, said his attorney, Bob Grimble of Grimble and LoGuidice. Grimble said that Dabrowski was only following government orders when he paid just $30.70 in rent, and that he should not have been hit with a huge back payment.

“It’s a grossly unfair decision,” Grimble said.

Dabrowski, a single Korean War veteran, lives on $821 a month in Social Security and pension payments. He says the legal wrangling has been less about money than about a landlord harassing a veteran and senior citizen. He has meticulously catalogued 16-years’ worth of paperwork in five file cabinet drawers and three thick, bound volumes labeled “Harassment & Fraud,” filled with correspondence, copies of building violations, and even Dulac’s marriage certificate, which Dabrowski said he found in the trash.

For her part, Dulac said her legal troubles have been less about money than about peace of mind. Dulac said she would not rent out Dabrowski’s apartment, which would likely fetch more than $3,000 a month in market-rate rent, but instead would live there herself and give her own apartment to her son after he graduates from college.

A single mother, Dulac raised her two sons while working 18-hour days at La Boheme, the restaurant she owned on the first floor of the building. Health considerations forced her to give up the restaurant in 2001, she said.

“Whatever happens in this, I’m a loser,” Dulac said. “I lost 16 years of my life, I lost a lot of money, and I lost my health through this.”

Dulac was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 and is now in remission. To fully recover, she said, she needs less stress in her life.

Dabrowski also battled cancer along with his legal woes: he suffered prostate cancer and had his prostate removed seven years ago. He remains under the care of the Veterans Affairs Hospital.

Dabrowski said he didn’t know where he would go if forced to leave his modestly furnished apartment, which with its rust-colored rug and orange-and-brown velour couch looks untouched since the 1970s. He volunteers at the Caring Community, a senior service organization on Washington Sq., and social workers there are helping him, he said. His main social worker referred all inquiries to Lester Bates, executive director of the Caring Community, who did not return a call for comment.

The eviction proceeding has not been resolved yet, but it seems unlikely Dabrowski will prevail. Dulac said she wishes him the best in the future, a future in which she hopes they will finally part ways.

“I want my life back — that’s all,” Dulac said.


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