A Sale and a Suicide on East 12th Street

After private equity bought Charlie Finch’s building, he jumped. Neighbors say he was right to be paranoid.

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Google Earth
Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Google Earth
Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Google Earth

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for free, anonymous support and resources.

Artie Athas answered a call from a detective at the 9th precinct at around 11:45 on the night of August 24, 2022. There had been an incident involving Athas’s next-door neighbor, Charlie Finch, and he needed to come downstairs. Athas assumed that Finch, who was 69 and in poor health, had fallen, or maybe he’d had trouble breathing and called 911. He would be sitting up in an ambulance outside their red brick building at 310 East 12th Street, cursing at the EMTs.

Instead, when Athas got outside, he saw Finch’s body lying on the sidewalk, five floors below Finch’s bedroom window. He recognized his neighbor’s bedraggled mop of gray hair first, then his white socks. Athas identified Finch, and the police removed his body from the pavement. News of his suicide filtered through 310 and its companion building across the courtyard, 305 East 11th Street. The next day, another neighbor strung a piece of paper covered in plastic around a tree near where Finch had landed. It read, “Legendary Art Critic and East Villager.”

The New York Post reported that, according to the NYPD, Finch had been terminally ill. But Finch’s cancer was treatable, his neighbors said. To them, Finch had been in the throes of a different crisis: Just five days before Finch jumped out of his window, he’d learned the building had been sold to a private-equity firm for $58 million. Finch, a rent-stabilized tenant of the same apartment for 45 years, was despondent and feared that he would soon be out of a home. “He was convinced that he would get tossed out,” Don Perlis, a fellow artist and longtime friend, tells me. “I told him every day that they’re not gonna throw him out, and he wouldn’t believe me.”

Nine months later, some of Finch’s biggest fears have come to pass. Dozens of market-rate tenants received notices from the new landlord, a New York–and–London–based firm called Meadow Partners, stating that they must leave their apartments, including Athas and his family, who have lived in the building for 22 years. Others have been offered lease renewals with rent increases in the thousands. The rest are waiting to learn their fate. For the tenants trying to stay, Finch’s death was an omen, the end of an era of a certain type of New York life, one that the city will no longer sustain. “Charlie saw it coming,” one neighbor said.

Charlie Finch in the courtyard. Photo: Artie Athas

The Art Deco apartment buildings at 310 and 305 were built in 1940; before that, they were crowded tenements, and long before that, they were the site of the graveyard for nearby St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. Residents say they are used to hearing ghosts in the hallways.

Finch, a blue-blooded Upper East Sider a few years out of Yale, moved into 310 in 1977, part of a wave of artists, writers, academics, and musicians who joined the ranks of the Lower East Side’s social workers, city employees, business owners, and working class. He was “one of the trust-funders” slumming it downtown, says a tenant on the first floor who was there when he arrived. Apartments were cheap; rent stabilization and rent control had been codified widely across the city just a few years prior, and each of the building’s 89 units qualified for one or the other. Finch would have paid only a few hundred dollars a month for his fifth floor one-bedroom, which he lived in with his wife, Mary, the daughter of the sculptor Ann Truitt, and son, Charlie Jr., for a few years before divorcing.

As Ukrainian restaurants gave way to sushi counters and galleries, the northern crop of the neighborhood earned a new real-estate designation. “As soon as they said ‘East Village,’ they tripled the rent,” Frances Goldin, the housing organizer and literary agent who lived in 305 for 40 years told the New York Times in 1984. The rent would triple again many times over, with real-estate prospectors turning old squats into high-end rentals. The buildings on East 11th and East 12th were not immune: Of the 89 units that were stabilized in 1974, there were just 39 left by 2007. By 2021, there were 26. The rest became market rate through the various means of deregulation of which landlords could avail themselves.

Still, the building’s community continued to flourish in part because the Chissick family, which had owned the buildings since the 1960s, didn’t raise the rent too much, tenants say. Yuppies in market-rate apartments paying $3,000 for a one-bedroom joined stabilized longtimers paying less than $800, like Gisela Dollinger, a Holocaust survivor who lived to be 111; Goldin, who died in 2020; and Finch, who lived like a messy monk in his unrenovated apartment, with few pieces of furniture, its walls and shelves stuffed with books and artwork. Over the years, he became something like the building’s self-appointed mayor, keeping tabs on residents’ careers and accomplishments and holding court in the laundry room or in the courtyard. At six-foot-four, with a booming voice that echoed around the building, he was hard to miss. Emma Summerton, a photographer who lived below him, would sometimes sit in her bathroom with the window open, listening to Finch’s voice coming through the air shaft, going on a rant about some person or thing. He had a reputation as a caustic art critic and was always in some kind of interpersonal fracas. “It never bothered me,” Summerton says. “That’s why you live in New York.”

Last year, in July, Athas was in the hallway at 310 when Finch opened his door and called him inside. “There’s something going on,” Finch said. One of their neighbors on the fifth floor, a market-rate tenant, had been told that her lease wasn’t being renewed and she would have to leave. Rumors had begun to spread that Eytan Chissick was going to sell the buildings. Who the buyer was and what it would do became the subject of hallway gossip: Some people heard a new company wanted to build an additional sixth-floor penthouse or to combine floors for duplexes.

Tenants had good reason to be nervous. Rent-stabilized tenants can’t be asked to leave, but they had heard horror stories about private-equity landlords who had used ruthless tactics to push out longtime tenants or jack up the rent. A few streets over on First Avenue, an investor named Raphael Toledano had notoriously harassed rent-stabilized residents in buildings he’d bought, pressuring them to take buyouts or making their lives hell with construction, according to 2019 settlement between Toledano and the New York State attorney general. Post-pandemic, amid an epic slump in commercial real-estate values, Wall Street investors had increasingly set their sights on New York’s multifamily rental properties, once the provenance of “mom and pop” landlords like the Chissicks (the family owned just 310, 305, and another rental building in Chelsea). The phenomenon was not entirely new — Blackstone bought the East Village rental complex StuyTown in 2015 — but the potential profits soared as Manhattan rents broke records in 2021 and nearly every month since. The market for multifamily investing increased 77 percent. The median rent hit $4,100 in July 2022. Investors had more incentive than ever before to buy up older properties with apartments renting below market rate — exactly like the Chissicks’ buildings — spruce them up, and flip the rents, especially in the most desirable Zip Codes in the city. Even with rising interest rates and inflation, multifamily investing in New York is still outpacing the rest of the country.

By August, Finch had confirmed with one of the building supers that Chissick was indeed selling. “Do you think the new owners are going to vacate the entire building to build the penthouse?” he texted Athas, whose family had grown especially close to Finch during the pandemic. Athas and his wife, Kristi, bought him groceries, took him to doctor appointments, and spent Christmases together in their market rate apartment next door. Even if Finch could stay, if his neighbors were kicked out, how would he get by without them? On August 4, Finch came home to find surveyors taking pictures inside his unlocked apartment. The last time Summerton, Finch’s downstairs neighbor, saw him in the elevator, he appeared thin and tired. “How are you?” she asked. “I’m fucked,” he replied.

Athas tried to assure Finch that they were not leaving yet: “I am here,” Athas texted Finch. “Please tell me if there is anything you need.” “You’re a good friend, Artie,” Finch replied. But he was becoming more distraught. On August 14, Athas’s 17-year-old son, Hudson, was home alone when he found Finch on the ground in the garden, bleeding from the head. Finch told Hudson he had climbed out onto his fire escape and wanted to jump, but had changed his mind, tried to climb down, and fell. Finch was taken to Bellevue, where he stayed for several days.

When he returned on August 20, the Chissicks had announced to residents that Meadow Partners, the private-equity firm, had bought the buildings. They were notified via email and on a posting in the elevator that their leases had been assigned to an LLC in Delaware called EVMF Owner. Three days later, on August 23, the news went wide on real-estate website The RealDeal and elsewhere. Meadow Partners representatives emphasized the building’s “growth potential.”

“We’re assuming there’s enough upside in the free-market portion that we can get the returns we want if the rent growth is just flat on the stabilized units,” a Meadow Partners executive said. “The market is so strong,” he added, that gut renovations weren’t even necessary to raise the rent.

The next night, tenants gathered in the courtyard for an emergency meeting. Finch didn’t attend. Debby Cohen, who could see Finch’s bedroom window on the fifth floor from her own, noticed his light was off and assumed he wasn’t home.

Finch died before midnight. The next day, the New York Post published a photo of his body lying on the sidewalk under a sheet, his dirty socks the only part of him visible. Finch was always walking around the buildings in socks, Erin Whitis, a former neighbor, told me recently, “to the laundry room, through the hallways, in the courtyard, always in socks.” “The socks were grimy,” she said. “They had holes in them. It gives a good sense of just how connected he was to the place, a little bit of the ownership he felt.”

On May 2, the members of the tenant association gathered in Elise Hurley’s fourth-floor apartment. They had named the group GoldinFinch, for Frances Goldin and for Finch. They recounted their current circumstances: One couple Zooming in had been forced to leave after 18 years. Athas and his wife had also been told to leave after 22 years. One market-rate tenant in a one-bedroom had been paying $3,300 when the old landlord offered him a lease renewal at $3,800. When he asked to negotiate, the new owner told him the offer had been rescinded. The new rent was $5,000. One tenant had been given a 90-day notice to vacate two months after his daughter was born. A single father in the building, whose ex and kids lived in another unit, said he was waiting to receive his 90-day notice the next day. “There’s nothing I can do but wait.” Many of the rumors Finch was fixated on had become true: Early this year, the landlord submitted new plans for a sixth-floor “vertical enlargement” to the building. Construction hadn’t started yet, but the owner had filed three Tenant Protection Plans, required by the city, in which a landlord must lay out how a building will be kept safe during major renovation. The super, whose father was the super before him, was indeed leaving to make way for a brand-new gym. Tenants were keeping a list of vacant apartments, then at 30, some left open for months after tenants were forced out. “What are they doing, warehousing them?” one wondered. Two on the fifth floor, Finch’s floor, had been rented out for at least $1,000 more than their previous rates.

A housing organizer present at the meeting was there to update residents on the Good Cause eviction bill under consideration by Governor Hochul, which would have prohibited nearly every circumstance that was currently ripping the building apart. “It’s not looking good,” the organizer said grimly. As they were meeting, angry housing activists were at the same time storming a preliminary hearing of the Rent Guidelines Board, the body currently mulling over rent increases as high as 7 percent for New York’s stabilized tenants. (A member of the Rent Guidelines Board on the side of landlords, appointed by Mayor Adams, is Christina Smyth. Her law firm represents 60 Guilders and 620 MGMT, the management companies working with Meadow Partners at the buildings.) The buildings were unique, but what was happening to them wasn’t.

Cohen, an artist who runs a nonprofit, and the only remaining stabilized resident with her family on the fifth floor, says being stabilized has always come with a certain degree of precarity. “You don’t wanna ask the landlord to do too much,” she told me at the tenant’s meeting. “Stabilization is a true blessing for many of us; it’s incredible, but it’s also a game. How do you survive?” There is a coalition of New York landlords that wants to do away with stabilization entirely, hoping the Supreme Court will agree with their argument that it violates the Fifth Amendment.

Nine months after Finch’s death, I walked through his old apartment, which remains vacant. A lone photo of his granddaughter is still tacked to the wall. Squares of the ceiling have been cut out in places, seemingly so that the new landlord can check out the infrastructure that might support an addition above. Below is the spot where Athas found Finch. “I think about it every time I go outside,” he told me. The weirdest part, he said, is thinking about new tenants who won’t even know who lived there, what happened on the sidewalk. Real-estate brokers are bringing new people in every day. A listing for one of the nearby apartments, a two-bedroom recently rented for $6,000, touted its stainless-steel appliances and “condo-like finishes.” The sister buildings in the East Village, it said, offered “a rare serene escape from the busy city life.”

A Sale and a Suicide on East 12th Street