Dust Up: East 3rd Street Tenants Plot Lawsuit Over ‘Uninhabitable Situation’

WallLisa Hornberger

Tenants of three buildings on East Third Street plan to file a lawsuit next week alleging that their landlords have illegally endangered their health and safety while performing renovations.

In April, The Local reported that the residents of 50, 54, and 58 East Third Street were rallying to stay in their apartments after news came down that the buildings would be sold. As feared, the landlord refused to renew the leases of market-rate tenants whose contracts expired last year. An organizer of the tenants eventually gave up the fight and moved to Washington Heights.

The new landlords, Gregory and Graham Jones, are now trying to remove the remaining tenants in rent-stabilized apartments by a combination of buyouts, aggravation and evictions, said Wasim Lone, director of housing services at Good Old Lower East Side, who is working with the tenants on the lawsuit.

“They’re trying to scare the pants off of us — it’s all intimidation,” said Lisa Hornberger, a resident of 58 East Third Street. “They have gone out of their way to make this demolition process an uninhabitable situation.” When she came home from work two weeks ago, her cat’s normally white paws were black with the construction dust that had settled over her apartment.

The new landlords have started renovation, and only half of the original tenants are still living there, according to Ms. Hornberger. Across the three buildings, there are between 25 and 28 people left in the rent-stabilized apartments, who are “under a lot of anxiety given the construction and the landlord’s attitude,” according to Mr. Lone.

HoleCatLisa Hornberger The hole in Lisa Hornberger’s wall

Last week, Ms. Hornberger came home to another unwelcome surprise: there was a hole in her living-room wall large enough for her cat to crawl through. The construction had caused the sheetrock to crack. Mr. Lone cited “three or four incidents” where jackhammers had penetrated through apartment walls.

Around October, tenants received buyout proposals that were far below market price, Ms. Hornberger said. Since the construction started, noise and grit have become a constant presence for those who stayed behind, Mr. Lone said.

“I was shocked at the conditions under which they were living,” he said. “Dust and debris all over, it was hard hard to walk, hard to breathe. This is totally unacceptable.” When The Local toured the building at 50 East Third Street with Mr. Lone on Tuesday, metal piping protruded out of the exposed brick in the hallway, and a sheet of plastic covered a two-foot-wide hole in the ceiling.

“I’m pretty easygoing and I can deal with a lot of inconveniences, but the safety is what bothers me,” said a resident of 50 East Third Street who was afraid of retaliation and wished to remain anonymous. “At some point neglect turns into a conscious effort to put business ahead of safety,” the resident said.

A couple of weeks ago, a light in the hallway was out due to the construction and a 90-year-old resident fell down the stairs, according to Mr. Lone. His body was badly bruised, but he refused to be taken to the hospital or file a complaint, Mr. Lone said.

BrickRoni Jacobson

“These are old tenement buildings,” Mr. Lone said. He worries that extensive construction could compromise “the overall structure of the building.” The landlords currently have all of the appropriate work permits, but Mr. Lone and the residents are watching their actions closely. There are almost 50 complaints lodged against the building owners since September, but no open housing code violations, according to Department of Buildings records.

“Everything is done by the book,” said Greg Jones. “We have an onsite project manager to take care of our tenants’ needs. We acknowledge that it’s difficult, but there’s always two sides to every story. The safety of our tenants is the utmost concern.”

In addition to what Mr. Lone terms the “aggressive buyout tactics,” the landlords have used the threat of eviction to empty the building of long-term residents, he says. There are currently two ongoing eviction cases in housing court, against Jennifer Connor of 58 East Third Street and Robert McDonald of 54 East Third Street. Both residents rented basement rooms under commercial leases from the previous owner, Abart Holdings.

Last year, Greg and Graham Jones said in a statement that they were planning to build “the most desirable walk-ups in the East Village.”

Not everyone is thrilled about the prospect of luxury apartments in the old tenement building. “I’ve lived here 20 years, it’s my home,” Ms. Hornberger said. “They are destroying a community.”