NEW YORK -- The host of "Masterpiece Theater," the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the former editor of the New Yorker have something in common with some slum-dwellers -- they're on a rent strike.
The well-to-do tenants are protesting conditions at their tony Fifth Avenue apartment building overlooking Central Park on the Upper East Side.
The 15-story building, where a doorman stands guard in a black-and-white marble tiled lobby with brass fixtures, floral bouquets and tasteful lithographs, does not resemble the apartment houses in sections of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx where rent strikes are common.
Their plight is not likely to elicit pity from the average New Yorker. In a city where a studio apartment can easily cost $1,000 a month, most tenants at 1150 Fifth Ave. pay less than $2,000 a month for their eight- and nine-room apartments, because their rents are limited under the city's rent-control regulations.
They may not live in squalid tenements overrun with drug dealers, but some residents say they've been forced to live with leaky roofs, bad plumbing and broken elevators for months.
"Everything is ruined," said Lucille Turecki, a divorced mother of two daughters, gesturing to the water-soaked hallway carpets and peeling ceilings in her six-room apartment. "I stay out of here as much as possible."
Since March, residents in 45 of the 58 apartments have withheld rent to force the landlord to improve conditions. City housing officials say the building has 66 pending code violations.
Striking tenants include PBS television host Alistair Cooke, former New Yorker editor William Shawn and museum director Philippe de Montebello.
The 96th Street building is being converted into a cooperative and apartments much like those for which some tenants are now paying $1,500 a month in rent are on sale for more than $1.6 million, with monthly maintenance fees of $3,200.
The building's owner, Arnold Goldstein, said the rent strike is a typical ploy tenants use during co-op conversions to force owners to sell them their apartments at lower prices.
"They're paying scandalously low rents," said Goldstein. "The system is wrong if a poor working-class man with a family in the Bronx pays more per square feet than Alistair Cooke. He and his wife are two elderly people rambling around nine rooms and a young working man has to live with his family in three rooms."
Cooke, 81, host of "Masterpiece Theater," said part of his apartment ceiling was damaged because of a leak the owners didn't repair for months. He said the elevator was broken for eight months before it was fixed.
The residents said few of them are very wealthy and could never afford to buy their apartments.
"We're not being greedy," Paula Blasband said recently, sitting in her spacious, white-walled living room with windows overlooking the park. "It's been a horrible experience. The people here are very fine people, they don't like going on a rent strike and having their names in the paper."
Turecki's top-floor apartment is in the worst condition. She has been in and out of court with the landlords for four years and says she has spent $38,000 in legal fees. She has lived there since 1972.
She transformed her dining room into a storage area for clothes and other items damaged by roof leaks, and moved her dining room table into the hallway. But the remaining furniture in her living room always has a sprinkling of plaster dust from the scarred ceiling overhead.
Building manager Joe Masino acknowledged Turecki's apartment was a "disaster," but said most building repairs have been completed.
He said the Turecki apartment was so badly damaged because it took a long time and cost a lot to waterproof it.