An out-of-town nonprofit trying to convert a Harlem single room occupancy hotel learned last week just what the price is of ignorance in this city: $81,000, plus attorney fees. That’s how much the Long Island-based Family Preservation Center (FPC) will be ponying up to pay off three tenants who were tossed out of the SRO it recently bought.
The organization claims it had no idea that anyone was living in the eight-unit SRO at 58 Edgecombe Avenue when it bought the building in November with plans of rehabbing it for affordable apartments. Instead, it blames its realtor, who by FPC’s account never bothered to mention that the building still had a handful of tenants living in it.
Not until the West Side SRO Law Project sought legal damages for the tenants did the nonprofit learn what had happened: On February 26, to clear the reluctant tenants out, the contractors broke walls and windows, unhinged doors, and turned off the electricity, water and gas. That is against the law: Landlords can’t evict tenants from stabilized units without notice, and a city law specifically protects SRO tenants from harassment.
FPC spokesman Sam Stith said it wasn’t the nonprofit’s practice to survey new acquisitions. “We had no idea,” Stith said. “We’re a hands-off operation. We trusted other people.”
FPC, currently rehabbing more than 50 buildings citywide, promptly fired the contractors, whom Stith refused to name. He also said that the group plans to see the Long Island-based sellers Fix Realty in court. (The company is unlisted, and its attorney did not return calls for comment.)
The suburban nonprofit must also answer to the city housing agency, which has a Tuesday court date with FPC and is threatening penalties for tenant removal and building destruction.
And it also has to pay off the tenants, at a startling rate of $27,000 a head–a settlement usually reserved for little old ladies in rent-controlled townhouses in the West Village, not SRO tenants in Harlem. “[For most nonprofits], it’s almost like pulling teeth,” said Leon Bell, who represents the tenants. “These guys just said ‘What do you want?’ and said they would pay it in three days.” FPC’s lawyer did manage to whittle down the SRO Law Project’s asking price, which was initially $45,000 per tenant.
Stith said the payoff was worth having the whole mess go away as soon as possible. As an additional sop, FPC says it will continue to run the building as an SRO. It’s invited the tenants to move back. According to Bell, the tenants prefer to move on.
In the meantime this urban experience has left suburban Family Preservation Center feeling a little bitter. “Everybody is making out but us,” Stith said. “Our lawyer wins, their lawyer wins, they win.”