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Tenants vs. developer: A real life David and Goliath story

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It began with a whimper.

In the early spring of 2005 we—the tenants of 200 West 93rd Street/201 West 92nd Street—were told that our pre-war, Upper West Side, two- buildings-connected-by-a-shared-basement were up for sale.

The three families who had originally bought the buildings in 1945 were calling it quits, and the buildings were bought for $54 million by Kent Swig, a real estate heavyweight from San Francisco.

Swig, who had married into New York real estate royalty via the Macklowe family, was buying up properties all over Manhattan.

In his feeding frenzy he bought the air rights of our building along with the brick and mortar and embarked on what the New York Times called “perhaps the most swashbuckling plan in the age of the luxury Manhattan condominium”: to build a nine- story condo right on top of our rental building while we all continued to live in it. 

Once word got out about what Swig and company planned to do, and that the Department of Buildings had granted permission for them to do it, the whimper quickly became a bang. Tenants were frantic.  

What would this do to our cozy community of 132 apartments, many rent controlled or rent stabilized?  Could the building physically sustain the work? What would it be like to live in a construction zone? 

Perhaps most importantly: Was there anything we could do to stop it?

Most Tenants' Associations (TAs) in New York City rental buildings are born out of crisis--no heat, no hot water, safety issues, lagging repairs. Ours was crisis-driven, too, but we were facing a new kind of threat; there were no models for us. David and Goliath anyone?

From the beginning we established two rules. One, that we would do all we could to combat rumors by collecting valid information and communicating it to all of the tenants and two, that we would stick to a carefully worded mission: “to bring together all tenants ...to act in concert to protect our rights in response to the proposed redevelopment of the buildings......” 

At the first general meeting we proposed a slate of officers, and a set of by-laws and enlisted the help, via a sign-up sheet, of others willing to contribute their time and expertise.

All New York buildings are chock full of experts and we were able to recruit neighbors who were lawyers, accountants, architects, etc., to help. 

One of the first things we did, and one of the smartest, was to contact our elected officials. Linda Rosenthal, our State Assembly Member, grew up at 200 West 93rd Street. With her personal connection to our building and her reputation for championing the cause of affordable housing and tenant rights, we knew we would have a strong advocate and we were right. 

Our efforts to reverse Swig's plan and DOB approval took two years of hard work by the Board and officers of the TA and some incredible research into arcane building law by one of our fellow tenants, an attorney with a passion for detail.

On April 11, 2007 the DOB issued a revocation of the approvals that had been granted and shortly after that, the Attorney General's Office considered the condominium plan abandoned. On April 20, a New York Magazine headline told the story: “On the Upper West Side, a Rare Win for Tenants.”  

We agreed to stay together as a group even after Swig pulled out and new owners bought our building.

We continue to work to be certain that everything that occurs in the building is both safe and legal. We are now addressing the issue of the sub-metering of our electricity, and are still guided by the legal-and-safe rule. 

Tomorrow: An insider's guide to running a succesful Tenants Association

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