A landlord’s plan to renovate a historic townhouse in the West Village is being complicated by a lone tenant who refuses to vacate his $1,500 a month rent-stabilized apartment.
Russel Patrick Brown is a harpist and software engineer who’s lived in a 175-square-foot studio apartment on Gay Street for 13 years. The median asking rent in the West Village in December 2022 for all apartments was $4,974, according to StreetEasy.
The building’s owner, Lionel Nazarian, has already been ordered to demolish a neighboring landmarked townhouse after construction workers botched renovations, according to a spokesperson for the buildings department.
Brown fears Nazarian plans to tear down his building, too. He’s been the lone holdout tenant since his last neighbors were bought out last spring. Greenwich Village preservationists have joined the fight.
“In this situation, I’ve learned that everyone has their angle,” Brown said. “I feel like I’m in the ‘Game of Thrones.’”
In 2017, tenants in an East Village building alleged Nazarian forced them out by turning their home into a chaotic construction zone, Gothamist previously reported. Nazarian denied those allegations.
Demolition is underway in the neighboring landmarked row house as Brown’s building falls into a state of disrepair.
Brown said he has complained about crumbling walls, shaky staircases and even a sunken bathtub for months to no avail. Last week, after Brown enlisted local city agencies and tenant advocates, a judge ordered Nazarian to make some much-needed fixes to the apartment.
In an email to Gothamist, Nazarian said he’d promptly responded to the tenant’s requests for repairs and said the problems with the building pre-dated his purchase. He alleged Brown is trying to negotiate a $1 million buyout to leave the building.
Renovations are one of the few tools available to landlords to raise rents on stabilized buildings. State lawmakers severely limited how landlords can pass expenses onto stabilized tenants in 2019.
“Nazarian has always made it clear that I should simply relocate from the apartment at my own expense in order for him to renovate,” Brown, 39, said.
When Brown first moved in, he said the building was filled with artists, “nightclub violinists” and cabaret performers.
The second-to-last resident in the set of historic buildings moved out after spotting rats in her bathtub. That left only Brown – who said he’s not going anywhere. He plans to stay in the apartment where he has to pull his bed and desk out of wall compartments. His three harps, which he’s named Dr. Hugh, Excalibur and Róisín – Irish for ‘little rose’ – are his primary company.
“This idea that I should just kind of get out … if that’s what New York City wants, then they should just get rid of the rent stabilization program,” Brown said.
The buildings on Gay Street are part of the Greenwich Village Historic District regulated by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Local preservationists like Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, are urging the city to intervene and protect the properties, which they say are a rare example of the type built for New York’s mercantile class in the early 1800s.
“Every single person I know who lived there, lived there because they just loved the beauty, the history and the unique qualities that these buildings had,” Berman said.