Long-time West Side laundromat forced out of neighborhood
Rui Rong He says he can afford to keep the prices low at his wash and fold service on 88th Street and Columbus Avenue because his rent is low, only $880 a month. The space is small; you walk in and that's it. A folding table sits behind a small counter, and along one wall are shelves with paper bundles of neatly packaged clothes waiting to be picked up. In the back are washing machines and dry-cleaning equipment. Other laundry services in the area charge upwards of $13 to clean a suit-jacket, he said. He only charges $9.50.
"I've got low rent, so I've got low prices," said He.
He's good at his job, as evidenced by his 32 years in business at this location. Before moving here, He worked at his uncle's wash and fold, which opened in 1945 further up on Columbus Avenue.
In October of last year, his landlord approached him with a five-year lease for about $1,200-a-month, with a five percent annual increase. He didn't sign the lease for some months due to some confusion over terms. When he finally did, in March of this year, he was told it was too late. The landlord came back with a $2,500-a-year lease and a three percent annual increase, which He said he can't afford, given his $9.50 suit jobs.
Some weeks ago, He, who is 60 and five years away from retirement, received a notice informing him that he'd have to vacate at the end of May. There was little he could do, as he had always had a year-to-year lease. He contacted local elected officials like Council-member Helen Rosenthal and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, informing them of his plight, and started a petition to save his livelihood.
"That's terrible, very, very sad," said customer Nora Tezanos, who's been coming to He for over a year and stopped by to pick up some laundry. She signed the petition, along with over 150 others in the neighborhood, urging the landlord, Finger Management, to work out a way for He's wash and fold to stay. Even customers in the co-op apartments living above him don't want to see him go, he said.
As for the future, he doesn't really have a plan.
"I can't retire," said He, who lives in Brooklyn. "At 60 years old, looking for a job is not easy." He's going to take his petition to the powers that be and hope for the best. "I really worry," he said.
Finger Management did not respond to a request for comment. When reached by phone, a lawyer representing the company declined to comment.
While He joins a growing list of small businesses in Manhattan forced out by high rents, his story has an additional wrinkle. The building that He's laundry service is located in is part of the Housing Development Finance Corp. program, whereby a building that was previously owned by the city is turned over to residents, who then form a co-op. It was the co-op board that decided not to renew He's lease, opting instead for a higher-paying tenant.
Council-member Helen Rosenthal lamented He's plight, and said the city must do more to help him and other small businesses that face similar economic pressures. "With the loss of this laundromat, we lose another piece of the unique character of the Upper West Side," said Rosenthal.