Offices and studios at 67 West Street were quiet, dark and empty on a Friday afternoon in early August. Motion-sensor lights in the long hallways flickered as feet clacked against the rough-and-ready, wooden floors. ‘For rent’ signs hawked cavernous spaces as people strolled along Greenpoint’s still bustling waterfront. Inside, dust accumulated in what was once a bustling space for creatives.
Darkened office spaces have become the norm in a city stricken by a pandemic. Companies realize that paying rent for unused cubicles is untenable when employees can work just as easily at home. And with the economic impact of the pandemic cutting businesses’ bottom lines, many are looking to cut costs.
67 West is no different, except many of its tenants want to stay. They need a physical location to paint pictures, construct sculptures and fabricate bespoke designs. What’s pushed the artists out this summer isn’t a desire to cut costs through remote work, but the landlord’s unwillingness to offer substantial relief during an economic collapse, they say.
As more and more of 67 West’s tenants flee rigid rents, they wonder why the landlord is effectively emptying the building, turning a space once pulsing with creative energy into a ghost of its former self.
A Questionable History
Prior to the pandemic, of the seven tenants at 67 West interviewed for this article, most didn’t view their landlords, Joshua Guttman and his son, Jack Guttman, as the most compassionate real estate magnates.
The Guttmans are power players in the city’s real estate market. Not only do they own 67 West, which used to be a former warehouse in a complex of industrial buildings on the East River known as the Greenpoint Terminal Market, but they also own a smattering of properties in DUMBO, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Long Island City.
With so much valuable property (the city’s Department of Finance values the warehouse that encompasses 67 West at close to $30 million), the Guttmans have not avoided scrutiny.
(Greenpointers reached out to Jack Guttman to respond to allegations against him and his company, Pearl Realty Management, but he did not respond.)
In 2006, the other buildings that comprised the Greenpoint Terminal Market burned down in a case of arson that could be seen across the river in Chelsea. At that point, there had been four cases of documented arson dating back to 1991 at buildings owned by the Guttmans.
Luckily, for tenants at 67 West, their warehouse didn’t burn down in the 10-alarm fire. However, that hasn’t stopped, they allege, the Guttmans from sticking them with dubious fees and performing lackluster maintenance on the former warehouse since then.
Multiple tenants note the sudden appearance of a $45 garbage fee on their monthly bills three years ago, which they found laughable, considering that the Guttmans own the company hauling away their trash, Guma Construction Corp.
Longtime occupants of the building also reported that they’ve received charges on their rental bills for “back property tax bills.”
“They were getting $10,000 bills one day. It just showed up,” said one current tenant who declined to share their name out of fear of retaliation.
And another current tenant, who also asked not to be named, claimed that the building has flooded multiple times due to a faulty drain pipe on the roof, affecting studios on all seven floors.
“When they want to collect money, you’ll hear from them a lot, but when there’s something wrong, they’re nowhere to be found,” he said in an interview.
Inflexibility During a Pandemic
When the pandemic hit the city and the economic fallout decimated tenants’ incomes, complaints about the Guttmans’ allegedly gruff and inflexible style of property management reached a fever pitch.
A furniture manufacturer, for example, said her business was down 80%, according to an article in City Limits documenting the early exodus of tenants from 67 West.
The Guttmans, though, did not provide substantial relief, prompting approximately 80 tenants to band together and ask for reduced rent.
“Most of us have been loyal tenants for years despite enduring countless issues in the building and in our spaces, often resulting in damages,” they wrote in an early May email to Jack Guttman. “We ask that you value our business the same way that we respected and valued yours throughout the years.”
In response, Jack Guttman refused to negotiate with tenants as a group, explaining that he had let tenants move out without repercussions, offered them opportunities to downsize and proposed deferring rent as part of a payment plan. (He then rescinded the payment plan option in late May.)
“The governor has not ‘ordered ‘ office employees from going to work- he ‘directed’ employees to work from home,” he wrote less than a hour later. “The reason we can not waive rent is because of our ongoing costs which are not limited to real estate taxes, mortgage, insurances, payroll, housekeeping, janitorial supplies, 24/7 security.”
Mark Kleback, a creative technologist and one of the organizers of the impromptu tenant group, didn’t understand Jack Guttman’s lack of flexibility when his other landlord, who owns a building in Brooklyn in which Kleback runs a bar, offered him a 50% reduction in rent.
“We’re a bunch of people who are not rich,” he said in an interview. “You are literally millionaires.”
With few options for rent relief and reduced incomes, tenants, some of whom had been at 67 West for years, decided to venture out of their homes during a pandemic, pack up their spaces and flee the building.
Kleback eventually moved out of 67 West at the end of May, concluding that he wasn’t able to afford the rent during the current economic unease.
Geoffrey Miller, an artist who held the lease for a shared suite at 67 West and lost his main job because of the pandemic, also moved out at the end of May.
When he took a stroll around on his last day in the building, he saw the full economic impact of the coronavirus and the Guttmans’ inflexibility.
“It was a considerable exodus,” he said.
In fact, of the roughly 80 spaces connected with those who had signed the petition asking for rent relief, 15 were or had recently been on the market as of July, according to a cross reference of the petition and a public spreadsheet listing vacancies in 67 West.
“It’s been massively emptied,” said a current tenant who’s an artist and consultant but declined to be named because he’d like to stay in the building. “It’s pretty strange.”
Guttmans Continue to Lean on Tenants
In this past month, the Guttmans have started hounding tenants for money withheld in April and May, when some went on an informal rent strike.
Multiple tenants say they’ve received documents posted to their studios’ doors specifying that their leases will terminate at the end of the month. (Many are on month-to-month leases.)
Attached to these notices are the tenants’ outstanding bills, which include late fees and a $2,000 legal charge.
One tenant, who leases a space in the building, says he found the door to his unit locked shut. He’s been trying to negotiate a payment plan with one of the Guttmans’ lawyers, but they’re currently at an impasse, he says, because the Guttmans insist he needs to pay back his full balance by the end of the year.
In fact, City Council Member Stephen Levin sent Jack Guttman a letter on August 20 decrying his “harassment” of tenants at 67 West, even if Guttman’s tactics are technically legal. (Governor Cuomo’s executive orders on evictions during the pandemic prohibit landlords from charging residential tenants late fees, not commercial tenants.)
“I have heard reports about signs being posted on a number of tenants’ doors terminating their tenancy along with thousands of dollars charged in added late payments fines,” wrote Levin. “Closing businesses will result in more vacant properties in Greenpoint and across Brooklyn, impacting all of us. At a time when small businesses are struggling, it is important we provide the assistance we can.”
What Can Tenants Do?
For tenants still trying to stick it out, they are running out of an options, like many small businesses across the city.
In Greenpoint alone, close to 100 businesses have closed due to a pandemic-related cause, according to a crowdsourced list compiled by Greenpoint resident Cristal Calderon.
Governor Cuomo has extended the eviction moratorium for commercial tenants to September 20, giving temporary relief to those at 67 West trying to negotiate a payment plan with the Guttmans.
But some of them can’t wrap their heads around why the Guttmans are unable to provide relief and are indirectly pushing longtime tenants out, losing out on what was once a stable stream of income.
“I really want to understand the logic behind the owner’s actions,” said Geoffrey Miller in an email to Greenpointers.
Perhaps their attention has been focused elsewhere. The Guttmans own the lot on which Skyline Drive-In and the newly organized Greenpoint Terminal Market operates. That same lot was the site on which MTV filmed a portion of this year’s VMAs.
“Funny that they wont [sic] work out rent relief when they’re getting that MTV money,” said one tenant in a text to Greenpointers.