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NY Sun, February 14, 2006

SUNY Moves To Evict Residents To Make Way for Levin Institute

David Lombino

Landlords call it a double standard: While private building owners across the city are prevented from evicting tenants who are protected under the state's rent stabilization laws, the state itself is permitted to do so.


In the latest example, the State University of New York - represented by the state attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, who is running for governor as a Democrat - will move to evict four longtime city residents from rent-regulated apartments in Midtown if they don't clear out in the next two weeks.


SUNY has been seeking to clear out the two buildings at 119 and 121 East 54th Street to make way for the Neil D. Levin Graduate Institute of International Relations. Governor Pataki created the Levin Institute in memory of the former executive director of the Port Authority, who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.


The four rent-regulated tenants who remain in the buildings received their eviction notices late last month and must clear out by February 28 or go to court. One tenant, Gerald Rice, a 69-year old man who is suffering from AIDS, has lived in the building more than 35 years. He receives disability and now pays $237 a month for his apartment, which consists of a floor of a townhouse.


"I have no way of renting an apartment if they put us on the street," Mr. Rice said. "I had a safe place to live until I died. And that now has been pulled out from under my feet."

"I will chain myself to a radiator. I'm not going anywhere," Mr. Rice said.


Through their local City Council member, Daniel Garodnick, State Senator Liz Krueger, and Assemblyman Jonathan Bing, and their lawyers, the tenants are seeking compensation or relocation assistance from the state.


A lawyer representing SUNY, Wendy Kowalczyk, said yesterday that "there have been no discussions of financial compensation whatsoever."


Ms. Kowalczyk said that if the tenants fail to vacate their apartments, "They will have an opportunity in court to present their defense."


A spokeswoman for the Levin Institute, Mira Kumar, said the state first contacted the tenants last October and told them they had six months to vacate or be subject to eviction hearings. Ms. Kumar said the tenants received another letter this January.


"We are totally within our rights to do this," Ms. Kumar said. "The tenants were informed of this purchase and given some time." Ms. Kumar said the Institute would be "more than open to discussion" with the tenants, but the institute has not "heard from them, so it's difficult to know what they want."


Mr. Gardonick told the New York Sun yesterday that he hopes SUNY will compensate the tenants.


"SUNY should act compassionately towards the tenants who are vulnerable - long time residents who have not yet found new homes," Mr. Garodnick said.


Another tenant who now faces eviction, Amnon Zerahia, an electronics engineer who is now unemployed, said that if he has to give up his apartment, which he rents now for about $156 a month, he will be forced to move back to Israel, where he immigrated to America from.


"We pay very, very little. But every new building that is built is for $2 million and above. It will bring a lot of revenue to the city. But you can't tell people who have been here for 35 years to get out," Mr. Zerahia said.


A spokesman for the Rent Stabilization Association, a building owners' advocacy group, Frank Ricci, said the decontrol highlights a double standard in the existing laws.


"It's unfair that a government entity can utilize property in a way they see fit, but private owners can't. It's that simple, it's that glaring," Mr. Ricci said.


According to Mr. Rice, the tenant, about eight apartments in the two buildings have remained vacant for a number of years as various building owners waited for the tenants to vacate. An empty building in Midtown would bring a lot more money. The last building owner, TIAA-CREF, Mr. Rice said, found a buyer, in the state, who had the means to clear the building. The teachers' pension fund sold the building to the state for $21.5 million.


Last week, the city released its 2005 Housing and Vacancy Survey that showed the number of rent-controlled and stabilized units in city is just more than 1 million, roughly the same number as 2002.



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