Tenants being evicted amid push to repeal cost-of-living wage law in New York City

The ballot was just a formality.

East Harlem residents needed a majority vote from their neighbors to repeal a costly 2004 living-wage law, and with the passage, a requirement that nearly everyone living there earning over $25,000 annually pay the mandated $15 an hour, the project was approved. The building’s homeowners who wanted to change their contracts with Artscape Development Group to rent studios out at below market rate soon learned they would have to take more money to stay.

A majority of residents had agreed to approve a building lease amendment, allowing Artscape to terminate leases with a one-month notice if the rest of the community refused to agree to the amendment. The lease amendment passed with over 94 percent of the vote, according to the ballot.

More than a dozen studio tenants at Artscape, whose leases expired Friday, received one-month’s notice of eviction, leaving just a few months of notice for new tenants to secure space.

“It was a very stressful process,” said Avi Dobson, director of operations and one of the new tenants, who showed up to the voting site to find out he was being evicted just one day after the lease amendment had been approved. “I started crying. I never thought I would be evicted.”

Although Dobson is planning to try to win back the ground-floor space, the tenants aren’t going down without a fight.

The Tenants Union, a group of neighbors who fought for the repeal of the living-wage law, took out an ad in The New York Times and an ad on Craigslist advertising space for people to come and speak out on Thursday and Friday, allowing tenants who were evicted to speak on their behalf.

(The Times ad was a bit cheeky, given the wording of the ballot proposal.)

“Artscape broke no rules or laws,” Tenants Union organizer Mario Sasso told The New York Times. “These were political decisions that were made.”

Artscape’s representative Nick Wagner did not respond to requests for comment, but the company did share a statement about its lease amendments.

“This one-month notice was not done lightly,” said Wagner. “Artscape’s lease amendments offer a path forward for existing tenants.”

Last August, the Times reported on how Artscape Development Group’s landlord had helped the company to evict tenants to pay for an expansion project of its own.

In a statement shared with The New York Times, the landlord, David Wojnarowicz, said he had been working for a long time to be able to accommodate, “the artists at Artscape.”

“It is unfortunate that those artists were not able to be included in the agreement,” said Wojnarowicz. “I always strive to make good use of the space while maintaining the best value for our landlord and our tenants.”

This story has been updated to include comments from the Tenants Union and to clarify that Artscape Development Group’s landlord helped the company evict tenants to pay for an expansion project.

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