A tenants’ rights attorney revisits the building, and people, he devoted much of his career to.
By Sagar Castleman
In the early 1970s, Irene Skarlatovska lived in 600 West 113th Street, a privately owned single room occupancy building (SRO) for low-income and welfare tenants. A concentration camp survivor, Skarlatovska rented a small room on the ground floor with her adult daughter, who suffered from schizophrenia. During the day, Skarlatovska cleaned other apartments in the building while her daughter stayed in the room. Their room was cluttered, and Skarlatovska’s daughter had covered the floor with multiple layers of aluminum foil.
In 1979, Columbia bought the building and hired a team of relocation specialists to oust the tenants by any means necessary. One day, a specialist entered Skarlatovska’s room, declared it a fire hazard, and, shortly afterwards, Columbia evicted them. The tenants’ lawyer took the case to court, where the head of the American Red Cross for the Northeast Region testified that if the Skarlatovskas were allowed to stay, he would personally ensure that the apartment was made safe. But the judge, known for his Columbia sympathies, ruled in favor of the university. The Skarlatovskas were thrown out. Today, their room is the Administrative Office of 600 West 113th, now known as Nuss by the hundreds of Columbia students who live there.
For me, it started with the mailboxes. One evening last April, wanting a peek at the building I’d be living in next year, I walked to Nuss for the first time. Upon entering, I immediately noticed a grid of gleaming golden mailboxes behind the security guard. Thinking of the Mail Center, I asked the security guard if the mailboxes were for students. In reply, he told me a story.
The guard said that before Columbia bought Nuss, it was an apartment building. When Columbia took over, they said that all tenants had to leave, and the tenants sued. “Some of them won, some of them lost,” the guard told me. “The ones who won stayed. And some of them are still here.”
Walking back up Broadway, the story of the old tenants stuck with me. I imagined what it would be like to be an ordinary adult living in a college dormitory, surrounded by undergrads moving in and out every year. I wondered if the tenants hated Columbia, who had tried its hardest to force them out and who was now their landlord. I wondered if they had any relationships with the students who surrounded them and yet were always changing, if they felt a little bit like an old teacher who has had so many students over the years that they all blur together. I wondered if the remaining tenants had gravitated towards each other once they realized that they and the physical building were their only constants in a sea of change.
These questions resurfaced when I returned to the city in September and moved into Nuss. In the elevator one morning, I found myself standing next to a short elderly man in a gray hoodie. I considered saying hello, but he was frowning deeply and wearing a tangled pair of wired earbuds. I chickened out.
But my curiosity persisted, so I asked the security guard on shift if I could talk to any of the old tenants. She said that most of the tenants had died, and the ones who were still here were very old, but she suggested I try to talk to a man named Mr. Ben. She gave me his room number.
Later that day, I put on a collared shirt, walked down a few flights of stairs, and entered an ordinary-looking Nuss suite with a shared bathroom and kitchen. I knocked on the only door without a name tag. It opened, and inside was a dorm-sized room covered with clothes, medicine bottles, and papers. It smelled of age. A TV was on, and, against one wall, was a narrow green couch. In front of me stood a small older man who smiled and introduced himself as Benjamin Oyogho.
Oyogho moved into Nuss in 1974, back when it was an SRO. At the beginning, when Columbia had tried to force him and the other tenants out, Oyogho had been upset. But after winning his case, his vexation with the University waned. “As long as you pay your rent, they’re maintaining the building,” he told me. According to Oyogho, the building is better maintained now than when it was individually owned because of Columbia's responsibility to their young students’ parents. “We benefit from the attention Columbia, not necessarily gives to us as the old tenants, but to the students,” he explained.
Although 600 West 113th has grown steadily nicer with each of Columbia’s many renovations, Oyogho has remained here for nearly fifty years not because of the building itself, but because of its location. He appreciates the ease of the transportation, the convenience of the shops, and the steady security and police presence in the area. Despite Columbia’s pressures on him to leave, Oyogho continues living in what he deems the best neighborhood in New York.
Oyogho no longer knows most of his neighbors—most of them have either died or moved out. The only tenant he still knows well is currently sick and bedridden, and Oyogho didn’t think it would be ethical to give me his room number. He also wasn’t close with the students who moved in and out of his suite every year. “Say, ‘hello,’ ‘hello,’ if you want, otherwise you get in the elevator and go about your business.”
Chatting with Oyogho answered some of my questions, but I still had more. So, I started digging through archives of local newspapers from the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Columbia’s landlordship was constantly in the news. A New York Times article from 1979 about two deaths due to masonry falling off of Columbia-owned buildings reported that the tenants of 600 West 113th “[said] they were being abused and harassed… The[y] now insist that they will resist Columbia’s planned effort to relocate them. Columbia denies any responsibility for the tenants’ alleged harassment.”
I first found mention of tenant attorney Kenneth Schaeffer, CC ’76, in a Columbia Spectator article from 1987, and then again in a Spec article in 1980, where he was referred to as the coordinator of the Morningside Tenants Federation. In 1985, a columnist for The Daily News called him “the people’s lawyer on Morningside Heights.”
I emailed Schaeffer, and we met a few days later at the Hungarian Pastry Shop. With a New York accent and tufts of white hair sticking up, Schaeffer was warm and grandfatherly. As he sat down, he recounted how he had been a dishwasher at Hungarian when he went to Columbia in the early ’70s. A democratic Marxist who remembered watching Eleanor Roosevelt speak when he was 9, Schaeffer emphasized the political nature of his life’s work as a tenant lawyer.
Before Columbia bought 600 West 113th, its apartments were rent controlled, and under New York state law, rent-controlled tenants couldn’t be evicted without reason. Since Columbia couldn’t legally force the tenants out, it resorted to nastier tactics like cutting the heat, turning off hot water, and, most egregiously, repeatedly draining the rooftop water tower, causing rooms to flood and ceilings to collapse. Schaeffer described this as “harassment with the intent of forcing them out,” and, under Columbia’s pressure, many of the tenants left. By the time Schaeffer was assigned to represent the tenants at the beginning of 1980, about half of the building was empty, and the University was trying to consolidate the remaining tenants into the seventh and eighth floors so they, as Schaeffer put it, “wouldn’t mix with the pure blue-blooded Columbia students.” Many of the tenants who stayed went on rent strike. Columbia sued those tenants, arguing that they should be evicted for not paying their rent.
Schaeffer’s defense rested on the Warranty of Habitability, which the New York City Bar describes as a tenant’s “right to a livable, safe, and clean apartment.” If this right is violated, the landlord is, in Schaeffer’s words, “only entitled to some of the rent. And if it’s bad enough, they’re not entitled to anything.” With this defense, Schaeffer won most of the tenants’ cases.
Sometimes, as in the case of the Skarlatovskas (one of Schaeffer’s few failures) Columbia tried alternative legal attacks. At one point, the University argued that the mostly-minority tenants of 600 West 113th were criminals. But this tactic failed when the local precinct announced that the only criminal complaint related to the building concerned a relocation specialist assaulting a tenant. In another case, a tenant named Russell Gooddine moved to an empty room in the building when his room was flooded by the water tower drainage. Columbia evicted him for not living in the right room. After rulings by two judges and a jury trial, Gooddine was allowed to move back in, and he stayed for the rest of his life; the security guard told me that he was a beloved figure in Nuss who died this past August.
Schaeffer’s most dramatic story was about Sarah Ruskin. In 1979, Ruskin was in her eighties. She lived on a high floor of 600 West 113th, and her ceiling collapsed when the water tower was being drained. An oil painting that she had up was ripped by the debris, and Schaeffer, who knew an art restorer, offered to have it fixed. In the meantime, Ruskin lugged her things down the hall to an empty room that still had an intact ceiling. When Schaeffer returned with the mended painting a month later, Ruskin had died. “It’s a normal thing, when old people are forced out of their homes, they often die,” he explained. Ruskin was one of three people who died in the building when Columbia drained the water tower.
After we had talked for an hour, Schaeffer walked his bike back to Nuss with me, reminiscing about the time he showed up shirtless to a Columbia English lecture. The security guard who had directed me to Mr. Ben was on shift. Schaeffer introduced himself as “the lawyer who represented the tenants back in 1980.”
“Wow!” she said. “Can you get me an apartment here too?” They laughed. Then she went into the Administrative Office and brought out the security guard whom I had asked about the mailboxes six months ago. “This gentleman was the lawyer for the tenants before the school bought this place!”
The second guard looked impressed. “Welcome back.”
As we waited for the elevator, Schaeffer told me that he hadn’t been past security in this building since 1994. “There’s so much I want to see!” he exclaimed.
Schaffer had told me about a small prayer room on the twelfth floor of Nuss that many Muslims in the building used. Last December Schaeffer received a call from a lawyer who represents Muslim people throughout the city. This lawyer said that Columbia wanted the room turned into a dorm by the end of 2023. Schaeffer advised the lawyer to focus on the bad publicity the University would get for evicting a mosque, and the last he heard, the order had been temporarily dropped.
We rode up to the twelfth floor and opened the door to a room with two pairs of slippers outside. The walls were covered with Islamic art, and the floor was covered by a thick, decorated carpet. An elderly woman in a hijab was inside. We talked to her for a few minutes, and she told us that she had lived here for a very long time, and proudly repeated several times that this was “my prayer room.” Schaeffer tried to explain to her who he was, but it didn’t seem like he was understood.
Schaeffer also wanted to visit some of the tenants whom he had known well. “Cynthia Carpenter?” he yelled, as he knocked on a door. He told me that Carpenter was a photographer who had taken incredible shots of the water damage from Columbia’s flooding back in ‘79. “What?” asked a young-sounding voice. “Is this Cynthia Carpenter’s room?” he asked. “No!” the voice yelled in response. “Sorry for the inconvenience!” Schaeffer shouted. We walked away. We went to two more rooms where Schaeffer had known the old tenants, but neither of them seemed to live here anymore.
Before leaving, Schaeffer came to my room to have a glass of water. He sat down and looked at the posters on my wall, more subdued than when we had first entered Nuss. “This reminds me of my grandchildren’s dorms,” he mused. He told me about how he had lived between 95th and 120th streets almost all his life, and about how much 600 West 113th has meant to him: His father had lived here for a few years in the ’50s, and a reporter had even called him in 2008 to ask about the building that Barack Obama had once lived in.
After Schaeffer left, I looked out the window of my room. Most of my view was of another Columbia-owned apartment building across the street, but on the right was a sliver of Broadway, and if I really craned my neck I could see a few spots of orange sky flaming out between Lerner and Carman and Hogan and Broadway Hall. Schaeffer had told me that he had always believed that “it was better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” I thought about the ever increasing ratio of students to tenants in Nuss and the ever-increasing number of Columbia-owned buildings in the city. Yet I was struck by a sudden fierce feeling that, in his own way, Schaeffer had lit his candle, even if there was hardly anyone left to see the light.