February 17, By Hannah Wulkan
Tenants of a dormitory-style building in Astoria who were served with eviction notices in November are taking legal action to stay in the building.
The Legal Aid Society announced this morning that it will file a lawsuit today against the New York School of Urban Ministry, a religious group that owns the dormitory at 31-65 46th Street.
The lawsuit alleges that the tenants should be protected by the Rent Stabilization Law, which would give each tenant the right to a renewable lease for their apartment, and comes after 39 tenants of the building were told they would have to move out of their $400 to $500 rooms by December 31, though the deadline was extended to January 31.
NYSUM has stated that it served the eviction notices so that the building can be used for a homeless shelter, which would be more profitable to the organization.
However, many of the tenants would not be able to afford market-rate housing, and could become homeless themselves if evicted.
The eviction notices also caught the attention of several local elected officials, who have gotten involved in the fight.
“A religious organization is cruelly pushing people out of their homes and potentially forcing them in to homeless shelters, that is disgraceful,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer.
Sateesh Nori, the attorney in charge of the Queens branch of the Legal Aid Society, said that the group plans to file an injunction to allow the residents to remain in the building while the case is ongoing.
The State Attorney General’s office also sent a letter to NYSUM yesterday, stating “We believe that NYSUM attempt to terminate leases with existing tenants is premature, and may create irreparable harm.”
The letter requested that NYSUM rescind the eviction notices until the lawsuit is settled.
The months-long battle over the building began when the non-profit group NYSUM announced the evictions, claiming that the building was not profitable and would instead be turned over to a third-party that would establish a homeless shelter.
“Clearly you have an organization that on the one hand claims to be a not-for-profit religious organization, but on the other hand is acting like a for profit landlord. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, quacks like a duck, acts like a duck, it’s a duck,” said Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas.
“You cant on the one hand claim to be a religious institution that claims it is entitled not to pay taxes but on the other hand try to evict residents because the building is not profitable, it doesn’t make any sense,” she added.
Since the original eviction notices were served, about half of the tenants have moved out, but the rest have decided to stay and fight back. Legal Aid filed the suit on behalf of 13 tenants, but if it is successful, it would benefit all tenants of the building.
“This is no way for a non-profit that is supposed to be promoting Christian values to be behaving,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris, adding that NYSUM has treated the tenants very unfairly.
Residents of the building said that the way the eviction notices were served and the ensuing months have been very stressful.
“It’s been hanging over our heads that we need to get out, that we’re not welcome here, there has been harassment, and just the terror of not knowing where you are going to be living, especially during the winter season and the holidays, it’s just been very traumatic,” said resident Linda Smith.