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CSC in the News: Toshi checked in and turned our lives upside down

By Nancy Koan (a CSC client)

Cosmetic surgery doesn’t necessarily change the way a person feels about themselves inside. The same can be said for cosmetic renovation of buildings: If it’s not going well under the skin of the edifice, nothing will really change, or in fact, can get worse.

My East Village apartment building has been basically a laissez-faire situation since I moved in some 16 years ago. The landlords, of which there were many, rarely bothered us with such amenities as proper and consistent heat and extermination, and we rarely bothered them. Most of my long-term neighbors have been residents for more than 30 years and have seen the neighborhood change greatly. It has never been overly comfortable, but we managed. I had a menagerie of mice and squirrels living with me at one time, but eventually they all were evicted. This — namely, eviction — is something we are trying not to have happen to ourselves.

When a new owner bought the building in the summer, the air grew increasingly tense. Suddenly, there were “suits” in and out and a sense of danger. We, the core tenants, were basically looked upon as if we were antiquated machinery that should be replaced by new, shinier mechanisms, especially ones that could and would pay a higher rent. A few people heard whispers of buyout, but basically none of us knew what was going on.

Then, out of the blue, an army of technicians and fixers moved in. Apartments that had been kept empty for months were now being renovated and filled up with IKEA basic-black furniture and huge flat TV screens. The workers wouldn’t speak to us — they just went about their transformation work as we stared, aghast. Beautiful Japanese women came to oversee the interior work and it was at about that point that we heard the word “hotel.” Toshi, a real estate firm in Brooklyn, was taking over these apartments as a hotel rental situation for visiting Europeans. Their Web site boasted pearls like, “Live next to real New Yorkers.”

Now, day and night, tourists were dragging their suitcases up the stairs for a stay in real New York for half the price of a proper hotel. The people were very nice, but they were so pissed off at what they found, that they complained to us, the regular tenants, endlessly. The hallways were still in their original deconstructed tenement look, much different from what the visitors expected. In fact, the workers were laying down a kind of cement on the floors, which created a horrid dust. Unfortunately for me, the cement was laid so high, I couldn’t open my front door, and New York’s Bravest firemen had to come and break up the cement so I could exit my apartment.

During that time, my doorbell rang constantly with people asking questions about which floor to go to, and how to work the keys. One day, I came home to find an Australian girl crying on the stoop. She had been waiting for two hours for a Toshi representative to show up and straighten out her key situation. After a 20-hour flight from India, she was a right mess. Pitying her, I took one of the set of keys up to the apartment and it opened. Unfortunately, there were still people from Yorkshire in residence. The second set of keys opened a different apartment, but it had dirty sheets and towels all over the floor. The young woman was expecting three friends to join her and had already paid more than two grand for a week’s stay. Eventually, after being unable to get proper help from Toshi, I took her by cab to her distant cousin on the Upper East Side. Not a great way to meet New York for the first time.

The building was also much less safe when Toshi was sending in hotel guests. Doors were left open, and a whole array of cleaning people we had never before seen came every day to clean the rooms. One night at 11, an undercover policeman came to my door. Apparently, one of the visiting guests from Hawaii, who had come with thousands of dollars for dental work, had it stolen from her hotel room. Of course, my neighbor and I knew nothing about it, but it added to the insecurity we were feeling.

In time and with the help of 311 and complaints to the Cooper Square Committee tenants’ association and Councilmember Rosie Mendez’s Office, we seemed to push Toshi out of the building. But not without cost to us. Perhaps in retaliation for our activism, we, the old, worn-out tenants, found ourselves without heat or hot water during the coldest days in November and December. The new management company says it was because a new boiler had not yet been properly fitted; either way, we were without working heat or an available superintendent.

Now our little group is in court, trying to get an abatement for the hardships we’ve endured and hoping to get violations in the building and our apartments rectified. Buyouts are still being whispered about, but for the time being, we are holding on. And, yes, the building does look prettier.