Evicted Tenants Suspect Landlord Converting Space to Hotel Rooms

Loophole in state housing law allows building owner to reclaim apartments

By Pei-Sze Cheng
|  Tuesday, Nov 8, 2011  |  Updated 9:45 AM EDT
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A group of tenants in a Chelsea apartment building were tossed out Monday night, by a landlord who says he wants the apartments for his own use.  The eviction was by the books, but elected officials are crying foul.  Pei-Sze Cheng reports.

NBC New York

A group of tenants in a Chelsea apartment building were tossed out Monday night, by a landlord who says he wants the apartments for his own use. The eviction was by the books, but elected officials are crying foul. Pei-Sze Cheng reports.

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More than two decades after first moving into the building at 221 West 16th St., Jose Rivera now finds himself dismantling his home and hauling the pieces into a moving truck.

He's one of five tenants being evicted after their landlords used an existing housing law to clear two entire floors.

"He claims he wants the whole fourth and fifth floor," said Rivera. "He claims he wants to build a giant duplex all for himself."

An existing loophole in state housing law allows a building owner to reclaim one or more apartments, even from rent-controlled tenants, for their own use.

But elected officials like State Sen. Tom Duane don't believe the landlord, Gary Brown, will live there himself. Instead, Duane suspects the rent-stabilized apartments will be renovated for hotel rooms.

"They've already turned empty units into hotel rooms," said Duane. "His company is called Furnished Quarters, he's made a ton of money already. He's taking affordable housing away from hardworking New Yorkers."

Landlord Gary Brown did not return NBC New York's calls requesting comment.

Some who are staying in the building believe it is a hotel.

"It is a service apartment, a short-term lease," said Josephine Jenno, who is visiting New York City from Hong Kong. "This is a hotel. I found out about it from a website called FurnishedQuarters.com, and it costs roughly $200 a night to stay here."

Most rent-stabilized tenants only pay a few hundred dollars a month for a similar apartment.

The building's elderly tenants were not evicted but were scared about what was happening.

"It's not fair, really," said tenant Jeannette Brown. "I know all these people. And I'm scared for myself. I don't wanna get kicked out. I've been here over 40 years."

Tenants like Brown were concerned about building access because workers had changed the locks to the front of the building.

Most tenants NBC New York spoke with did receive keys or pass codes to the newly installed keypads.

Assemblyman Dick Gottfried has proposed legislation that will close the loophole for good and to protect tenants' rights.

"The whole concept of the law is wrong," said Gottfried. "It should be on the side of the tenants."

Even if such a law does pass, it is probably too late for tenants like Rivera.

"I spent nearly half my life here and now I'm being told to get out," he said. "It hurts."

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