The low-income tenants who were told to leave their dormitory-style homes last Thanksgiving aren’t going without a fight.
The Legal Aid Society announced on Friday that they’re filing a lawsuit in Queens Supreme Court to prevent the New York School of Urban Ministry (NYSUM) from evicting the Astoria tenants. The lawsuit will argue that the building is subject to rent-stabilization laws.
“The tenants who’ve received letters asking them to vacate this building are actually protected by a law that says they’re entitled to renewal leases,” said attorney Sateesh Nori. “They have a right to remain.”
The saga started in November, when according to tenants they were verbally told by NYSUM to leave within a month. NYSUM wanted to convert the building into a homeless shelter, they said.
Tenants first received a letter asking them to vacate the premise by December 31. They received a second letter that, if signed, would extend their stay to January 31, but only if they paid all the rent they owed, agreed to leave, and promised in writing not to challenge the evictions in housing court.
Nori, elected officials and residents all called that harassment by the landlord.
“It’s been hanging over our heads that we need to get out, we’re not welcome here,” said resident Linda Smith. “Just the terror of not knowing where you’re going to be living, especially during the winter season and the holidays, it’s been very traumatic.”
Lawyers representing 13 tenants from the building will first seek an injunction to stop NYSUM from taking any action to evict the current tenants. According to Nori, most of the 39 tenants still remain, but some have already left due to the “stress and intimidation.”
“While that injunction is in place, which hopefully will be granted, we’ll ask the court to consider the big question, which is whether this building is subject to rent stabilization,” he said. “We believe that it is.”
Nori argued that the building is subject to rent protection laws because it was built in the 1950s and has the “requisite number of units” to qualify.
Though the tenants didn’t have leases, they had occupancy agreements, some of which had expired.
“The real question is, should they be entitled to leases going forward as rent-stabilized tenants?” he said.
He added that NYSUM could argue for an exemption based on the fact that it’s a charity. However, the exemption wouldn’t apply because the building isn’t used for a charitable purpose. The tenants still pay rent, he said.
“They’re not affiliated with the institution that owns the building,” he said. “They don’t further the institution’s purposes as a religious organization or charity.”
Elected officials slammed NYSUM’s continued insistence to evict the tenants.
“Their eviction and the attempt to harass and intimidate them out of their apartments is morally wrong, but also illegal,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer. “The irony is not lost on anybody here that we would be potentially making dozens of people homeless in order to bring in a homeless shelter.”
Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas said although NYSUM is a nonprofit religious organization, it was acting more like a for-profit landlord.
“The more we peel back this onion, the smellier it gets,” she said.
State Senator Michael Gianaris added that the organization “used the whole list of dirty tricks” bad landlords usually employ to kick people from their homes, including telling them to leave within one month and signing a document that would waive their rights.
“The letters were served in a very aggressive manner late at night,” he said. “They just came and started knocking on people’s doors, waking them up in some cases as if they were serving them some kind of law enforcement activity.”
The state elected officials also reached out to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office has now asked NYSUM to cease the eviction process until a court ruling.
In the letter to NYSUM, special counsel Nicholas Suplina said their attempt to terminate leases with tenants was “premature” and may cause “irreparable harm.”
“We request that NYSUM rescind the notices to vacate for existing tenants until such a time that a court or state agency has had the opportunity to review and make a final determination on the rent stabilization status of the property,” he wrote.
Echoing previous statements, Gianaris added NYSUM made it clear it was about “dollars and cents” for them.
“They think they can make more money on this building if they turned it into an alternate use, even though they own the building clear of any mortgage,” he said. “With the rent that’s being paid, they have enough to cover expenses in this building. They’re trying to make more money.”
Nori said the temporary stay can be issued by the judge immediately, but the court decision on the bigger question of rent stabilization will take longer.
In the meantime, current tenants who have stayed expressed uncertainty and fear about their future if they were to be kicked out of their homes.
“The ministry has been a blessing, but something went south right after Thanksgiving,” said Ty Brodie, who has lived in the building for 12 years. “We were given this one-month notice and they really threw all of us for a tailspin.”
Mariluz Roman said the situation has been “devastating” for her.
“It’s not been the easiest situation,” she said. “It’s very hard for all of us.”