[Marxism] New York real estate class struggles

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jun 15 08:21:01 MDT 2008

NY Times, June 15, 2008
An East Village Building at War

When George Boyd arrived the other day at the East Village apartment 
building where he has lived since 1978, he found his neighbor 
Alistair Economakis, who at 37 is half his age, politely holding the 
door open. Mr. Boyd, a retired telephone worker, nodded and walked 
through, but there was no exchange of pleasantries, no neighborly chitchat.

Yet this encounter was the most face-to-face communication the two 
men had had in months.

Mr. Boyd and Mr. Economakis live in a building at war, a century-old 
five-story tenement torn by the peculiarities of New York real 
estate. Mr. Economakis is the landlord, and since 2003 has been 
trying to convert the building's 15 rent-stabilized apartments into 
an 11,000-square-foot home for himself, his wife, their two children 
and a British bulldog named Leo. Mr. Boyd is one of nine remaining 
tenants, who pay $675 to $1,200 per month for one-bedroom apartments; 
his is on the third floor, sandwiched between spaces that the 
Economakis family currently occupies.

In a way, each faction is living a version of the New York real 
estate dream. Anyone might envy the Economakises, who work at a 
family-owned apartment-management company and lucked into buying the 
building for $1.3 million — what some one-bedroom condos in the area 
cost today. They have both the cash and the connections to create a 
sprawling showpiece. But there are also countless New Yorkers who 
would sacrifice their firstborns (or at least a beloved pet) for a 
charming if cramped perch like Mr. Boyd's in a coveted neighborhood 
where comparable spaces command twice or three times as much.

But these dreams have turned into a five-year nightmare including 
three court rulings, the most recent from the State Court of Appeals 
this month; countless letters written by lawyers; dueling Web sites; 
and dozens of skirmishes over the use of air-conditioners and the 
positioning of flowerpots. The Economakises reached financial 
settlements with six of the original occupants, turning those units 
into a three-story space for themselves and a duplex for guests. Now 
that the Court of Appeals has sent the case back to housing court, 
lawyers estimate a resolution could still be two years away.

And so the combatants cohabitate, their armaments and battle scars 
evident in the worn hallways dotted with "Save the Tenement, Fight 
the Mansion" posters. Outside each apartment door hangs a security 
camera, which the tenants say makes them feel spied on. Opposite the 
Economakis family's front door hangs a voodoo-style evil eye.

"They fought the Civil War for four years," Mr. Boyd said. "And we 
are ready to fight for as long as it takes."

At its core, the fight involves a law allowing landlords to displace 
rent-stabilized tenants if the landlords will use the space as their 
primary residence. The Economakis family has prevailed, thus far, on 
the principle that the law applies even to a building this large. But 
the tenants continue to press the notion that given the scope of the 
proposed home — which calls for seven bathrooms, a gym and a library 
— the owners are just trying to clear them out so they can sell the 
building off to become so many market-rate condos.

Mr. Economakis insists his family would never have subjected itself 
to years of argument — and tens of thousands in legal bills — if they 
did not want to live there. He acknowledged that it is a lot of 
space, but said that having the place to themselves is also a matter 
of privacy. He said that the family long ago offered, as a halfway 
measure, to let the tenants in the five rear apartments stay, along 
with a couple on the first floor, and said he would happily sign a 
promise to turn over the profits to the existing tenants if he sold 
within 20 years.

"We really believe that, as owners, we have a right to live in the 
building," he said.

Built in 1903, the red-brick building at 47-49 East Third Street, 
like many in the neighborhood, has been home to generations of 
immigrants. A kosher butcher once occupied one of the two 
street-level storefronts (later, a bookmaking operation was rumored 
to operate out of the back). Now, a woman occasionally sells Tibetan 
souvenirs there.

A major fire in the 1970s cleared the residents out. After the 
building underwent significant repairs, Mr. Boyd was among those to 
repopulate it in 1978. By 2002, the building was in precarious 
financial shape, and a company created by Mr. Economakis and his 
wife, Catherine, bought it as an investment. At the time, the couple 
were expecting their first child and looking to move from their 
walk-up on Smith Street in Brooklyn.

"Once we realized we wanted to make this building our home, nothing 
else compared," said Mrs. Economakis, 36, who, along with her 
husband, works for her father's company, Granite International 
Management, which manages about a dozen apartment buildings in 
Manhattan and Brooklyn. "I love this building, and I love this neighborhood."

Part of the charm, she said, is that the block includes the Hells 
Angels headquarters and Maryhouse, one of the city's most enduring 
Roman Catholic missions for the homeless.

But the tenants contend that the home the Economakis family envisions 
is exactly what threatens the character of the neighborhood they 
claim to love. They see the Economakises as the embodiment of 
heartless gentrification, an extension of the Chase Bank branch that 
recently replaced the nearby Second Avenue Deli, members of the latte 
class with no concern for the working-class tradition of the neighborhood.

"It is about more than just people wanting to keep their homes," 
explained David Pultz, 56, a movie-lab technician. "It is about the 
soul of a neighborhood."

The battle is all the more awkward because the parties live under the 
same roof, which the owners recently adorned with a new cornice (the 
tenants deride it as cheap, Chinese imported plastic; Mr. Economakis 
said it is actually from Canada). One window on the conflict is, 
well, the windows: Some of those opening onto Third Street are 
double-hung six-over-six panes; others sit in battered wood and vinyl frames.

Behind the fancier windows are the owners' quarters: Most of the 
building's second floor has been remodeled into an open kitchen, 
living and dining space; an internal staircase leads down to a 
playroom and nanny's room, or up to the couple's bedroom and an 
adjacent one shared by their sons, ages 2 and 4. To get to their 
other space — a duplex that doubles as an office and accommodations 
for the Greek relatives who frequently visit — the family must go 
through the common hallway, with its peeling paint, old tin-plated 
adornments and cracking tile.

Janet Dunson, a 45-year-old teacher and actress who moved into the 
building in 1990, is still piqued about an encounter while the owners 
were renovating.

"My cat, then a kitten, got out of my apartment," Ms. Dunson wrote in 
an e-mail message. "When I realized and went after him, I stepped 
into one of his units, which stood wide open, empty and under 
construction, to ask a workman if he had seen my cat. He had not, and 
I then found my cat one flight below. End of story.

"But the next week I got a letter from Economakis accusing me of 
trespassing," she said. "He also claimed that he doubted I had a cat 
and was just using that as a ruse to enter his premises. I can't tell 
you how many letters were exchanged back and forth over that 'incident.' "

Mr. Economakis has a starkly different recollection.

"First, I was in my apartment when Ms. Dunson walked in unannounced, 
and to my surprise," he wrote in his own e-mail message when asked 
about the cat incident. "Second, I never doubted she had a cat. What 
I doubted was that she was looking for a lost cat; her behavior was 
suspect for no other reason than it was not what I would expect from 
a person who had lost a cat.

"As a pet owner (and as detailed in my letter to her regarding this 
incident, which I attached), if I had lost my pet, I would have 
explained to the person I encountered, no matter who it was, that I 
was looking for my pet." He said that Ms. Dunson "didn't even take 
the time to explain that she lost a cat, just asked 'if I had seen 
one' and ran off immediately."

Other tenants describe struggles over how many sets of keys they are 
entitled to, the acceptable size of Christmas wreaths, and access to 
the roof, now guarded by an alarm. They say Mr. Economakis refused to 
repair their dilapidated mailboxes but built a large monogrammed one 
for his family. One received a written warning about leaks, 
encouraging him to drip dry inside the shower.

For their part, the Economakises say they are made to feel unwelcome 
in their own home, constantly being spied on by hostile troops, and 
are wary of lingering too long in the hallways with their young children.

As the case returns to housing court, the question will be whether a 
judge believes that the Economakises plan to use all the space as their home.

The original plans for the renovation, now among thousands of 
documents in a public court record, include a master suite filling 
the fourth floor, four other bedrooms, a double-height living room 
and an elevator. One of the two storefronts would become a garage.

"We have had lawyers, architects, all kinds of people going through 
our apartment, opening drawers and poking around," Mrs. Economakis 
said. "Why would anyone put themselves through this unless they 
really wanted to live here?"

For the tenants, the silver lining has been getting to know their 
neighbors in a way that few New Yorkers do. They pet-sit for each 
other, carry one another's groceries, and talk not just about the 
litigation, but their lives.

"We've become a wonderful, big family," said Ursula Kinzel, who is a 
software editor and president of the tenants' association. "We've 
learned that if we stick together, then you can accomplish things. We 
could not have fought this individually."

The tenants said they rejected the landlord's offer in the early days 
of the struggle to leave the five rear apartments intact because they 
did not want to split up. (They declined to say how much the legal 
battle has cost or how they have financed it.)

Barry Paddock, who pays $950 a month for 375 square feet, said that 
he and his roommate try to be civil to the couple, but have also 
tried to shame them into submission. "They are incredibly nice in 
person," Mr. Paddock said of his landlords. "And at the same time 
they are carrying out these vicious evictions. I just can't stand to 
have small talk and pretend it is a normal neighbor-to-neighbor chat."

Last year, the tenants staged a rally outside the building and some 
400 people showed up. Mostly, they lodge their silent protest daily 
on their doors. Mr. Pultz has his evil eye, while his first-floor 
neighbor, Laura Zambrano, has one poster giving the dictionary 
definition of the word hubris and another quoting Flaubert:

"Two things sustain me. Love of literature and hatred of the bourgeois."

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