HomeAsian AmericansCould Asbestos Spell Eviction for Chinatown Tenants?

Could Asbestos Spell Eviction for Chinatown Tenants?

Bowery Tenant Protest
Photo by Karlin Chan

By Hye-Jin Kim

It all started with a crumbling stairwell.

New York City’s Department of Buildings ordered the landlord of rent-controlled apartments at 85 Bowery in Chinatown to make this necessary repair early this year. Over two months have passed since the tenants were ordered evacuated for repairs, and the buildings’ 75 tenants are now eager to return home.

Only that completion deadline keeps getting delayed. At first, it was February 1. Then, March 28. Now the date looms indefinite.

As the landlord’s contractors repaired the staircase and aging beams, they discovered cancer-causing asbestos inside the aging building. City officials told tenants they’ll have to wait another two weeks or more.

This latest delay erupted in protest outside city offices, with participants chanting, “DOB [Department of Buildings], shame on you!” The protesters suggested collusion between the department and their landlord Joseph Betesh, who has been accused of stalling repairs to force out rent-controlled tenants.

A statement from protest organizers on Tuesday asked the department to “immediately give the tenants a written guarantee specifying a date by which they can return home and enforce it” and to “stop siding with negligent landlords and developers and start prosecuting them.”

The department claims they’re doing the best they can, and that asbestos remediation will take roughly 30 days. “DOB and our fellow agencies are pushing an aggressive plan for repairs at 85 Bowery,” a DOB spokesperson emailed to AsAmNews. “DOB remains committed to holding the landlord accountable for his legal and moral responsibility to provide a safe place to live for his tenants.”

Bowery Tenant Protest
Photo by Karlin Chan

A petition addressed directly to Mayor Bill De Blasio on behalf of 85 Bowery tenants has collected 1,000 signatures, as of March 31. In February, there was also a hunger strike organized that lasted four days. 

Another concern is that asbestos, when disturbed, might contaminate tenants’ personal belongings during remediation, according to community activist Karlin Chan who attended the protest. Whether the tenants will be allowed to return briefly to pick up their personal belongings is still unclear.

The residents at 85 Bowery were evicted for staircase repairs on January 18. Some have been living at the Wyndham Garden Chinatown hotel ever since; their rooms paid for by landlord Betesh.

Tenants claim this is a calculated move to force them out by using capital improvements to justify a rent hike, or to evict them and flip the rent-controlled apartments into luxury units.

Their fears are based on some precedent: Betesh, who purchased the property in 2013, reportedly offered $15,000 to his tenants to move out. When that failed, he took all his tenants to court in 2016 to evict and lift rent control protections from all units. Though the judge didn’t rule in his favor, the court proceedings identified the main staircase needed work, eventually sparking this week’s protest.

Betesh’s real estate company, Bowery 8385 LLC, could not be reached for comment after multiple phone calls. But in a prior statement to The Lo-Down, they insisted they have good intentions.

“Any reports claiming that we seek to demolish the building or replace it with a hotel or condominiums are false. We all share the same goal – moving families back into their homes as quickly as possible. We understand this a very difficult time for families of 85 Bowery and we are providing quality hotel accommodations in Chinatown, for the duration of repairs, so families are able to remain in the local community while our work continues.”


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