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Tenant advocates in New York are outraged at a recent court decision they say will make rent-regulated apartments more vulnerable to landlords who want to convert the city’s affordable housing stock into luxury accommodations for themselves.

The state supreme court’s appellate division ruled that the owners of 47 E. Third Street, Alistair and Catherine Economakis, could take over all 15 apartments in the tenement, located between First and Second avenues, without permission from the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which oversees the city’s rent code. That decision was handed down two months ago and tenant organizers have been up in arms ever since.

The advocates rallied outside the endangered Lower East Side tenement earlier this month, calling for more protection for tenants who could lose their homes to landlords who would transform these buildings into mansions by exploiting a loophole in the city’s rent code. Hundreds of people lined up along police barricades at the rally to show their solidarity with the tenants who live there.

But Alistair Economakis insists that his right to live in the building trumps the rights of his tenants, some of whom have resided there for more than 30 years.

“The fundamental question is: who has a greater right to reside in a building: its owner or its rental tenants? I believe that an owner has a greater right to reside in his building than his tenants,” Economakis wrote on his website, which was designed to tell “the other side of the story.”

The event drew the attention of several local politicians, including City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, a Democrat who represents the district. “When no one wanted to live in this community, we stayed here,” Mendez told the rally attendees. “We made the community what it is today. Now everybody wants to live here, and you know what? They can join us, but they can't get rid of us.”

Other elected officials who spoke at the rally included State Senator Liz Krueger, the Upper East Side Democrat who sits on the Senate's housing committee; Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, a Democrat representing the East Village; Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat representing the Upper West Side; and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

Chloe Tribich, an organizer for the advocacy coalition Housing Here and Now, said the owners' plans to replace the affordable housing units in the building with their personal mansion – which would include five bedrooms, six bathrooms, a den, a playroom, a gym, a library, a home study area, a dining room, a kitchen and a living room, is “an egregious abuse of the owner-use eviction provisions in the rent code.”

“If we are to preserve affordability in a heated and tight market, landlords should have to show a compelling and immediate need for the space and not be permitted to claim more than two apartments,” Tribich said. “Allowing the Economakis family to move forward with its plan sends the message that it's okay for landlords to justify removal of stabilized units from the market with their personal desire for luxury.”

The city’s rent code allows owners to evict tenants from rent-regulated apartments when the landlord intends to use those apartments as a primary residence. According to the letter of the law, owners are permitted to take “one or more” apartments for this purpose and the court’s recent decision determined that vague language could include all 15 apartments at 47 E. Third St. – and by extension any rent-regulated apartment in the city with a private owner.

Dave Pultz, 55, has lived in the tenement for almost 30 years and currently pays less than $700 a month in rent. Having his home jeopardized has turned Pultz, a motion picture lab technician and documentary film maker, into a tenants' rights activist. Not only is he preparing to challenge the Supreme Court’s most recent decision – it's his name that's on the lawsuit – in the Court of Appeals in Albany, but he says he will continue to fight for other tenants in similar situations even after the appeals court decision. Pultz said Economakis and his wife portray themselves as private owners who only own one building, but they are part of a wealthy real estate family that owns dozens of buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn though corporations they control, such as Norfolk Development and Granite International Management.

Alistair Economakis says he has offered to meet with the tenants in the building to reach some sort of compromise, but they have refused. “[T]his undertaking was not commenced without serious consideration for the process involved and the people affected,” Economakis wrote in a letter to Mendez before the April 14 rally, pointing out “our efforts to work with the tenants to see how we could minimize the disruption that our wishing to live in a building we own may cause them.”

The tenant advocates say the court decision imperils affordable apartments all over the city.

“Our biggest concern is that this will set a precedent and we’ll lose a lot of rent-regulated buildings in this same way,” said Steve Herrick, director of the Cooper Square Committee, a sponsor of the rally. “We need Albany to step up on this and put a limit on the number of units that can be taken off the rolls for personal use.”

At least two Manhattan members of the state Assembly, Deborah Glick and Richard Gottfried, are working on legislation that would do just that.

– Adam F. Hutton

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