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On Halloween night, the tenants of 351 Saint Nicholas Avenue, a battered apartment building in central Harlem riddled with rats, collapsing ceilings, exposed wiring and fire damage, honored the holiday with a “House of Horrors” protest demanding better living conditions. A few days later, they got good news. The city, responding to an inquiry from City Limits, announced plans to seize the building and transfer it to a new, responsible owner, perhaps even to the tenants themselves.

The future could be held up in court, however, as owner Bill Andrews of Pysa Realty, who purchased the building in September, vows to do whatever it takes to block the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s plans to dispose of his property in the next round of the city’s third-party transfer program. “Something underhanded is taking place here,” said Andrews, who claims he’s already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the building over the last two months. “I’ll contact my lawyers and if my rights are being violated, then we’ll deal with that issue.”

Hanging on to the building will be no easy feat, however. To do so, Andrews must first pay off the more than $1.9 million in back taxes, unpaid water and sewage costs, and emergency repair bills that have piled up since 1987. And time is somewhat short. Once this year’s building transfer process begins on November 30, Andrews will have six to nine months to pay those fees before the city takes over the property. Unlike most owners of dilapidated buildings headed for the city’s transfer program, however, Andrews is not walking away: He has scheduled an appointment with city to discuss a payment plan.

After years of enduring conditions that have resulted in more than 900 outstanding housing code violations on HPD’s books, the tenants in the 36-apartment building hope they can ultimately take over ownership of the building. Many are construction workers from Ecuador, who have invested money and labor in fixing up their homes. When Alejandro Alvarez moved into his four-bedroom apartment several years ago, he found it uninhabitable and filled with trash. “I painted, I tiled. I did what I had to do to make this a little safer for my two babies,” he said. “We’re going to fight to stay here.”

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