February, 1997

'Arts Center Fights Eviction'
by Steven Wishnia

In the latest battle between the Giuliani administration and the Lower East Side's low-income artists, ABC No Rio--the arts and community center at 156 Rivington St.--is facing eviction for a housing scheme similar to the one slated for the East 13th Street squats.

The city Department of Housing Preservation and Development has agreed to turn the building over to Asian-American for Equality (AAFE), a Chinatown-based nonprofit organization that plans to renovate it for three apartments. Like the apartments slated for 1eth Street, they will rent to people making between about $15,000 and $25,000 a year and will be financed by a complicated tax-credit scheme that allows them to go to market rate in 15 to 30 years.

City terminates lease after 14 years
The group has been active in renovating and managing affordable housing in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, but recently has drawn fire for its role in attempts to evict people living in buildings it's working with.

"AAFE is no longer a legitimate housing organization," said cartoonist Seth Tobocman, one of five people arrested Jan. 16 after they chained themselves to the doorway at AAFE's headquarters at 111 Division St. to protest the plans to evict ABC No Rio.

AAFE calls ABC members selfish for wanting to keep the space open. "They've been giving us a hard time for over a year," says Willing Chin, its director of community services. "We were always willing to negotiate. They want it for themselves, instead of for the community."

ABC was founded in 1980 following an anti-gentrification art exhibit called the "Real Estate Show." Since then, it has been an internationally known center for art and activism. It's hosted readings by Allen Ginsberg and children's drawing classes; political activities have included Food Not Bombs, National Lawyers Guild legal workshops, and meetings to plan anti-gay-bashing patrols and demonstrations to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. It also puts on nonprofit, all-ages punk-rock shows and numerous benefits. In an East Village rock scene often obsessed with the pursuit of stardom, ABC is one of the few places that feels like a community.

HPD terminated ABC's lease in 1994, shortly before it agreed to turn the building over to AAFE. Negotiations between ABC and AAFE stalled in 1995, when AAFE demanded $1,400 a month for the space; ABC had been paying HPD $370. AAFE also wanted ABC to relocated for wanted ABC to relocate for 18 months while the building was being renovated, pay for the renovations, water bills, and taxes on its space, and for the ABC-related squatters living in the building's three apartments to leave, says ABC collective member Steve Englander.

Nearby tenants told to leave
Chin contends that they negotiated in good faith and that $1,400 was a fair rent, as ABC was paying below market rate for the 1,400-square-foot space and it was almost big enough for three apartments. "They're protesting at the wrong place," she says. "HPD is who's evicting them."

Englander doesn't buy that line. "They just can't be trusted," he says. "They went to Community Board 3 and the City Council and pushed to have their project approved, which is going to result in our eviction. They should have asked for another site. I don't understand why they don't just back off."

The nonprofit group founded in 1973, has expanded operations considerably in the last few years. It has renovated 11 buildings since 1985 and manages over 200 apartments. Last fall, it took over management of buildings previously run by Pueblo Nuevo, a Lower East Side nonprofit that went out of business after a corruption scandal. It also works with landlords to help them remove violations--which, tenants at 16 Clinton St. say, involved helping the landlord try to throw them all out overnight.

"Anyone who knows them and is on the side of tenants despises them," says tenant Salley May.

On Dec. 2, 1996, landlord Laura Lin sent tenants a letter telling them that the building's back wall was about to collapse. "We hereby request that you vacate the building immediately, for your own safety," it read. AAFE had hired the engineer who wrote the report.

On Dec. 3, building residents say, AAFE representatives told them that the city Buildings Department was about to order tenants to leave within 24 hours. The next day, an AAFE staffer said they might have to be out by sundown. "Nobody slept for two days," says May. The tenants in the eight railroad flats include a 92-year-old man on dialysis, a 62-year-old widow, two Bangladeshi families with small children, and an Indonesian sailor who had to return from a job in Alaska to help his pregnant wife deal with the crisis. Most, if not all, make under $15,000 a year, they say.

Tenants reject "help"
When city inspectors arrived on Dec. 5, Channel 4 news cameras were there, and the inspectors "freaked out and left," when they saw them, says May. They returned later and said the building didn't have to be vacated. AAFE official Frank Lang then offered tenants advocacy services, which they rejected. Tenants are now in court with the landlord.

Tenant association head Joan Moossy says the building had been inspected several times since 1989, when the federal government seized it in a drug-forfeiture proceeding, without any signs of imminent collapse being found. It was auctioned to Lin in 1994.

Chin says she isn't familiar with 16 Clinton St. However, AAFE told the New York Times in December that tenants were being manipulated by "agitators" from ABC.

Lightbulb delays eviction plans
That's not true, says Moossy. Tenants had no idea who AAFE was until she appeared on a neighborhood pirate radio call-in show and learned "these are the people throwing out ABC No Rio." She then called ABC and "suggested that we create a coalition of victims."

"We learned a lot about what solidarity can do," she says. "We became activists overnight."

Meanwhile, ABC has been able to stave off eviction in Housing Court on technicalities involving HPD turning off a lightbulb in the building's doorway, but the city will be able to move for an immediate eviction once it's back on, says Steve Englander. ABC is also challenging the City Council's designation of the building as "blighted" and "a menace" in court, arguing that the city is trying to evict them to retaliate for their support of the East 13th Street squatters. They cannot use that suit to win a stay of eviction, says Englander, until Judge Charles Ramos decides whether or not he'll hear it.

"We're serious," he said after the Jan. 16 demonstration. "They didn't seem to get it when we said we'd resist them."

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ABC No Rio: The Culture of Opposition Since 1980