BY PHYLLIS ECKHAUS | Susan Ingraham wept as she described the incalculable loss of being forced to leave her rent-stabilized East Village apartment, where she has lived 32 years.
“I love my house,” she said. “I love my neighbors. I love my neighborhood. I am traumatized since the vacate order. Please help us,” she pleaded at a Dec. 14 rally for community support, in front of her now empty building at 642 E. 14th St., just west of Avenue C.
As The Village Sun previously reported, Madison Realty Capital’s construction of an extra-tall, 24-story luxury tower at 644 E. 14th St. compromised structural stability next door at No. 642, and the Department of Buildings issued a full vacate order on Nov. 28.
Ingraham told The Village Sun that as she couch surfs “way out in Brooklyn” with a single suitcase of belongings, her cat is in foster care.
Her cherished block had been like a family, she said, where people routinely celebrate the holidays together, posting get-togethers on a special Facebook page. Ingraham pointed out the super from the two buildings next door as “kind of like the mayor” in his kindly oversight of the neighborhood.
She said she fears permanent banishment from her nabe as someone who cannot afford a market-rate apartment.
The tenants’ statement released at the rally described the plight of some of the 17 families displaced, including senior citizens sleeping on bare floors and children in city shelters missing days at school.
Ingraham was among the multiple tenants and politicians demanding immediate action.
Tenant Mohamed Dawod described the isolation and helplessness he, his wife and four young children have suffered while housed in a city shelter far Uptown.
“We miss our neighborhood,” he said. “We miss our school. We miss our friends.”
They also, he noted, miss their stuff.
“Everything we have is inside” their apartment, he said.
Rent-stabilized tenant Michael Hawley, a building resident for more than 30 years, recounted his passionate ties to his “beloved Lower East Side,” from his involvement in the Dias y Flores Community Garden on E. 13th Street, to his many decades drawing support from flourishing local artists’ and writers’ communities. Approaching retirement, he noted he has “no immediate prospects for permanent housing” and fears for his future.
Tenant Sky Yeatts declared, “Our landlord and management company’s silence has been astonishing.”
She told The Village Sun that after many tenant complaints to building management about cracked walls and ceilings, D.O.B. had visited her apartment in August, assuring her and her partner, “We have eyes on the building. You’ll be O.K.”
Illapa Sairitupac, a housing organizer with the Cooper Square Committee, told the crowd that, at the last minute, “after getting wind of this rally,” Madison Realty Capital had reached out to City Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who represents the neighborhood, saying MRC wants to help. Help reportedly might include housing displaced tenants in vacant MRC apartments.
“We are going to call them on their bluff,” the organizer declared. “We are going to make sure that whatever conversations happen yield results, positive results and stable housing in this neighborhood — of equivalent rent.”
Councilmember Rivera emphasized, “There are many people to be held accountable,” including, but not limited to MRC. “The list is long,” she said, citing the building’s landlord and property manager, as well as D.O.B. and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
“These aren’t just units,” Rivera observed. “These are 17 families. This is rent stabilization at stake. Every unit we lose is a crisis.”
State Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, describing himself as “a tenants’ lawyer [who has] represented thousands and thousands of tenants in this city,” was blunt about the possible complicity of both the landlord and management company.
“This a tragedy that could have been prevented,” Epstein declared. “The issues were going on for years. They knew the situation that was going on — it was not unclear.
“We need first and foremost to get the families back in,” he said. “But once the families are back in, really do a comprehensive assessment of the building to make sure it comes up to code and the tenants rights are protected, because that’s what the state law requires.”
Epstein spelled out the risk that landlord Jeremy Lebenwohl, who also owns the famed 2nd Ave Deli, could be using this debacle as a way to rid himself of rent-stabilized tenants.
“Let’s be clear,” Epstein elaborated, observing that similar situations happen “sometimes on purpose because it’s easier to get tenants out through a vacate order than through any other means… . So we have to make sure we’re going to stop it here and [tell landlords] that if you think this is a way to get rid of rent-stabilized tenants, we’re not going to let that happen.”
Epstein and state Senator Brian Kavanagh, who also spoke at the rally, credited recent state legislation with increasing protections for rent-stabilized tenants. Noting that more needs to be done, Kavanagh contrasted the billions of dollars renters received in COVID relief with the lack of protection renters have when “the physical structure of their building…is threatened by the developer next door.”
In its coverage of the rally, the New York Post obtained statements from landlord Lebenwohl and developer MRC suggesting they may each try to shirk responsibility to the tenants by blaming each other.
MRC has claimed the damage to 642 E. 14th St. predates its own construction work next door. Indeed, Lebenwohl has an ongoing damages lawsuit against the previous developer at the 644 E. 14th St. site.
“We were on top of this,” Lebenwohl has asserted, noting he hired an engineer to inspect MRC’s construction and raised the alarm with D.O.B.
The Post cited Lebenwohl’s attorney as saying that three independent engineers have determined No. 642 must now be demolished — a conclusion, however, not reflected in D.O.B. records.
Cooper Square’s Sairitupac noted that the tenants “are currently investigating their options, including legal representation to help them navigate this crisis.”