He Represents Them Well in the Chelsea Hotel
Samuel Himmelstein’s tenants rights practice includes the NYC landmark
Published in 2023 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
By Trevor Kupfer on September 25, 2023
It’s where Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Andy Warhol shot Chelsea Girls, and where Dylan Thomas became sick and Nancy Spungen died. It’s been celebrated in songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and its former guests include some of the great artists of the 20th century: Diego Rivera and Stanley Kubrick; Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard; Edith Piaf, Jimi Hendrix and Patti Smith.
But the Hotel Chelsea isn’t just an iconic landmark. It’s also a place where people live. And in 2011, its tenants association contacted Samuel Himmelstein to represent them.
“When they first interviewed me, I had a meeting with the entire group—20 or 25 people in the room,” he recalls. “My opening line—which wasn’t a line, it was the truth—was, ‘I have never wanted to represent a tenant group more than this one.’ I think that sold them.”
His firm, Himmelstein McConnell Gribben & Joseph, is one of the few tenant-only firms in the city, and works exclusively with clients in the five boroughs. “We are the largest firm of its kind and, I believe, the oldest,” he says. The nine-lawyer firm formed in 1979; Himmelstein joined in ’83.
The core of their work is repping individual tenants, often in housing court defending eviction or nonpayment of rent cases. “We also sue landlords to get repairs done in housing court, and a lot of cases in state Supreme Court in various contexts,” he says, “very often suing landlords who we believe illegally deregulated an apartment, illegally removed it from rent stabilization, and therefore the tenant is being overcharged rent and is being treated as if they were a free market tenant.”
Himmelstein says tenants’ associations, which he estimates to be 10 to 20% of the firm’s clientele, are a good way to level the playing field. “Landlords have superior financial resources, so they will often embark on a strategy of just wearing [individual tenants] down by outspending them to the point where they can’t afford to continue litigating,” he says. “But when you have a tenant group chipping in for the fees, it costs less per individual to hire us and makes them more politically powerful. The landlord can’t do the divide-and-conquer thing.”
Himmelstein’s association clients include Crown Heights on Rogers Avenue, London Terrace in Chelsea, the corner of Livingston and Flatbush, Embassy House, and several on Riverside Drive. “For a while, I represented the tenants at 165 West 91st. The leader of that tenant group is the lead guitarist of Twisted Sister, Jay Jay French,” Himmelstein says. “Another I represented had Judy Collins in it. You occasionally run into clients who are famous or semi-famous.”
Which leads back to the Chelsea.
As for why he wanted to rep its tenants association? “Because of the history!” he exclaims. “I’m 71. I’m a child of the ’60s. So many of the people that I listened to had a connection to the Chelsea.”
The Chelsea is now a high-end hotel that also houses 30 to 35 apartments—“most of them very small because they’re essentially hotel rooms,” he says, “but the people love living there. They love the history and culture.” But when the association hired Himmelstein in 2011, it was a different story.
“Stanley Bard ran it for decades, and he ran it like a fiefdom,” Himmelstein says. “He didn’t follow any of the rules. He didn’t treat any of the tenants as if they were stabilized, even though they should have been. If he liked you, he never raised your rent. If you had a bad month and you went to him and said, ‘Can I give you a painting instead of the rent?’ he would accept that. I think the clients liked it. It was a quirky kind of offbeat place in many ways.”
And then the Bard family sold the building to Joseph Chetrit, “who wanted to evict all the tenants, renovate it, and turn it into a luxury hotel,” Himmelstein recalls. “He starts serving eviction notices on everybody. … And that’s when they felt they needed a lawyer.”
As the association was taking Chetrit to court, Himmelstein had an epiphany. “He hated publicity, absolutely abhorred it. He wouldn’t speak to the press ever,” he says. “So I said, ‘Let’s have a press conference in front of the building the day before we have to appear in court.’ It was covered by every major media outlet, and we had several elected officials speaking at the press conference, including Chris Quinn, who was running for mayor.”
The case settled the next day.
But things are never uncomplicated at the Chelsea. The building actually has two tenant associations, and they don’t always agree, especially when it comes to the landlord. “My group, at this point, has made peace and feel that he is treating them decently,” Himmelstein says. “He gave them all renovated apartments. He recognized their status as rent-stabilized tenants. During the renovations, he lowered everybody’s rent voluntarily because of the bad conditions that were created by the construction. He actually turned out to be a fairly decent guy.”
Himmelstein says his tenant association work varies—his largest place is a thousand apartments, the smallest just a handful—but one basic rule applies. “It’s having an individual basically in charge—a president or a chairperson who keeps things under control. If you don’t have that, it’s never going to work. I often joke to them that it’s the hardest uncompensated job in the world,” he says.
Himmelstein communicates exclusively through that one person. “Otherwise the purpose of being a group is defeated and my costs go through the roof,” he says. “And the other thing is to represent them on an issue or issues that everybody has in common, such as deregulation or building conditions. It can’t just be some kind of an amorphous thing.”
Himmelstein has seen a lot of changes during his career. “You adapt your practice to whatever the new thing is,” he says. “After they passed the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, deregulation cases became very common. During COVID, a lot of people couldn’t pay their rent and broke leases early. When the pandemic ended and the courts opened up, all of a sudden we were flooded with cases of landlords suing tenants. You have to have the flexibility to go with the changes.”
He’s With the Band
Himmelstein has not only repped musicians, he’s been one himself. From 2001 to 2015, he was keyboardist and sometime-vocalist for The Love Handles.
“It was always my dream to be in a rock band, and a guy I went to Brooklyn College with is a drummer,” he says of fellow tenant attorney Marty Silberman. “So one day we decided, ‘Let’s do it! I mean, we’re both 50 years old!’” The six-member band, which also once featured HMGJ partner David Hershey-Webb, played rock covers from the ’60s to today. “We even had some celebrities sit in with us while we were playing, including Jay Jay French, Micky Dolenz from the Monkees, and Blues Project lead guitarist Danny Kalb,” he says. “It was a good way to blow off steam and have some fun.”
Other featured articles
An oral history of civil rights and the African-American bar 60 years after Montgomery
Julia Yoo represents the female prisoners and others society has written off
The Houston attorney’s talents include a strong work ethic, natural connection with juries, technological savvy, deep faith, photographic memory—and even acting chops
Find top lawyers with confidence
The Super Lawyers patented selection process is peer influenced and research driven, selecting the top 5% of attorneys to the Super Lawyers lists each year. We know lawyers and make it easy to connect with them.Find a lawyer near you