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Tenants launch hunger strike after they say landlord tried to force them out

LOWER MANHATTAN — They're homeless and now they're on a hunger strike.

Tenants of 85 Bowery were forced to evacuate their homes when the building was deemed unsafe. Their landlord was given a Feb. 1 deadline to fix the problem, but he hasn't met it. Residents say landlord Joseph Betesh is trying to force them out of their homes.

Eight tenants of 85 Bowery launched a hunger strike outside the city’s Housing Preservation and Development offices, right under the Brooklyn Bridge, around 11 a.m. Thursday. The residents, bundled up and huddled under a blue tarp with temperatures in the low 30s, are prepared to stay there all night and every night until they're allowed back in their homes.

They want to send a strong message to the city because they feel the city - like their landlord - has failed them. They’re part of the group of 75 tenants left homeless since Jan 18 when a problem was found with a main staircase.

A city inspection determined a staircase would need to be completely replaced. The tenants won’t be able to return for at least another six weeks - missing the all important Feb. 16 Lunar New Year celebration in their own homes.

The tenants say they will end their hunger strike only when they get  in writing a clear timeline for the repairs and a guarantee that they will indeed will be able to return home.

This has been a years long dispute between both sides that has gone to court.

The tenants say Betesh has been trying to evict them for years.  Betesh says the apartment are not rent stabilized. The tenants also contend he’s dragging out repairs to push them out.

The 8385 Tenant Association says they’ve consulted their own contractors who tell them it will take a lot less than the six week’s the landlord’s engineer has planned for.

PIX11 spoke with a 70-year-old woman on strike through a translator

“We want a promise from the city and commitment from city - an answer when we can go home. Otherwise I will sit here,” Zun-Jin Zheng said.

Her husband underwent surgery just before they were kicked out. They had less than two hours to vacate their home and have not been allowed back in to get any of their belongings from an apartment that they have lived in for over 15 years.

Now they’re looking at spending Chinese New Year displaced.

At one point, NYPD officials arrived and demanded the group take down the blue tarps they had taped to the metal barricades.  The tarps provided some shelter from the cold.

Things got tense as police cited a city regulation that prohibits people from taping anything to police-issued barricades. The tenants complied.

A statement to PIX 11 from a representative for the building’s owner reads in part –

“Our team is working diligently each day to repair the severely damaged infrastructure of 85 Bowery and make the building safe for habitation. Any reports claiming that we seek to demolish the building or replace it with a hotel or condominiums are false. We all share the same goal – moving families back into their homes as quickly as possible. We understand this a very difficult time for families of 85 Bowery and we are providing quality hotel accommodations in Chinatown, for the duration of repairs, so families are able to remain in the local community while our work continues.”

At first they we’re placed in a hotel in East New York. Far from their schools, jobs and their Chinatown support system.  One woman, Shuo Jin, said she had a two hour commute  to bring her 5-year-old child to school back in Chinatown.

After several weeks, they were only just recently moved to a nearby hotel in Chinatown.

HPD and the Department of Buildings also sent out a statement saying they're working to get the tenants home as quickly as possible.

"The owner is working to make needed repairs and has now agreed to pay for hotel rooms for most of the tenants, until the building is safe for them to return to," a spokesman said. "He has much more work to do, and we will be closely monitoring his progress.”