Tenants Hit Roof Over Boot
City sez get out, for now

By CHRISENA COLEMAN
Daily News Staff Writer, May 27, 1997

Carmela Torres' Chinatown apartment building holds 23 years of memories: hallway coffee klatsches, sidewalk barbecues, a building-wide holiday party.

The 62-year-old grandmother reared three daughters at 244-246 Elizabeth St., and through the years has built up an extended family there.

Now the city wants Torres and the rest of the tenants to pack up their furniture, clothing and heirlooms and move into temporary housing while the building is renovated and then sold.

"I can't believe the city would do this to us," said Torres. "We've been here for a long time and don't have anywhere else to go."

"The city is disrupting our lives," said tenant Phyllis Mastropietro. "We've been told that we can move back into our apartments after the renovation, but we don't believe that."

The residents are caught in the city's push to get out of the landlord business.

Since Mayor Giuliani took office in 1994, the city has taken more than 100 buildings off its rolls, turning them over to tenants and community groups through a variety of programs.

The city is still landlord to about 30,000 poor families average income $7,000 in 2,266 buildings throughout the city.

Torres' building is being renovated under the Neighborhood Redevelopment Program, which has already turned 87 city buildings over to nonprofit organizations that take over as landlord.

It's one of five buildings in SoHo and Little Italy to be turned over at the same time as part of the city's attempt to concentrate redevelopment targeting clusters of nearby abandoned buildings for private takeover.

"New York City is not the best landlord," said Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Richard Roberts. "We want the buildings to be viable in years to come, so we are working to return them to the community."

Renters have the option to buy their own building. Under the city's Tenant Interim Lease program, if 60% of the tenants in a building agree, the tenant association can apply to reorganize as a low-income cooperative.

But many residents are on fixed incomes and pay as little as $150 a month in rent; buying is not an option.

"If we had enough money to buy the building, we would move to the country," Torres said. "We don't want our building renovated, we just want to be left alone."

Asian Americans For Equality, a nonprofit community organization, has passed the city's competitive process to buy the building.

But earlier this year, AAFE came under fire when a group of demonstrators converged on the group's Chinatown headquarters. The group was trying to halt the takeover of their performance space by AAFE.

Tensions also have risen in the past year as AAFE began expanding beyond Chinatown, its base, into nearby neighborhoods. Residents have complained that the AAFE is trying to muscle old-timers out to make way for new Asian immigrants.

"We are not trying to kick anyone out," said Chris Coy, a spokesman. "We are here to help."

But the Elizabeth St. tenants are skeptical. At a recent meeting, city officials and AAFE representatives tried to calm residents' fears.

"We were told we can put our stuff in storage and move into temporary housing until our apartments are ready," said Renee Hernandez, 38, president of the tenants association and mother of four. "Our apartments are already nice, they don't need to be renovated. . . . "

"The city should fix up some of those broken-down buildings in the Bronx instead of wasting taxpayers' money here," said another resident.

The city said the renovation is a year away, but for Torres and other residents it looms ominously ahead.

"One of my daughters lives on the first floor and another lives on the second floor," Torres said. "I have arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes and poor circulation. I am an old lady with no place to go. I would be in a lot of trouble if I did not have my family."

With Greg Gittrich