FACES OF EVICTION

Taekwondo master fears COVID knockout punch

Raj Rajput owes thousands to a landlord facing his own struggle keeping up with bills

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Raj Rajput is used to dealing with tough situations. But the taekwondo master faces a new challenge, and it’s not exactly of his own making.

Owner of Warriors Taekwondo at 5904 Riverdale Ave., Rajput — like many others — was forced to shut down as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the city. No students meant no income, and because of that, Rajput has fallen behind on his rent. A lot.

Now, as the world slowly reopens, Rajput is trying to catch up. But his landlord — and longtime friend — Lenny Morse has had struggles of his own thanks to the pandemic. And the owner of the neighboring vacuum sales and repair store may not even be able to provide Rajput with the one weapon he needs more than anything else: time.

“I did not close the business,” Rajput said. “I was forced to close by the state. And, you know, that’s the only way I earn a living.”

The state classifies Rajput’s business as a gym, which was forced to close for months thanks to an executive order made by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a way to control the spread of COVID-19. That left dark not only his North Riverdale location, but two others in Manhattan.

And one of them — found on the Marble Hill portion of Broadway — was forced to shutter permanently.

“When we started, we had a wonderful business with three schools,” Rajput said. “But I closed one down because of the pandemic. I couldn’t have survived if I didn’t end it.”

Now Rajput’s only other location outside of North Riverdale is near West 207th Street and 10th Avenue in Inwood.

Morse gets it. Vacuum World is more than 50 years old. And while his business was allowed to remain open through much of the pandemic, Morse — like other small retailers — felt the economic pain that followed COVID-19’s domination.

He has rented the space next to Vacuum World to Rajput for six years, and the two even trained together in martial arts. Yet, Morse feels the martial arts master isn’t proving to be a master when it comes to taking advantage of government programs designed to help businesses like his.

“Raj has been a great tenant who has always paid his rent on time before the pandemic,” Morse said. “Unfortunately, he needs help from the state now, and they need to send him that rental assistance.”

Rajput typically pays Morse $4,000 for the space each month. When the pandemic shut the dojo down in Spring 2020, Rajput paid Morse $600 for one month, and then another $1,000 the following month. After that, Rajput couldn’t spare much of anything, and now owes Morse more than $56,000.

Yet, Warriors Taekwondo remains on Riverdale Avenue.

“Thank God Lenny is a friend of mine, and he was kind of easy on me about the rent.,” Rajput said. “He’s been very kind and understands that.”

But that patience can only go so far. Morse has his own bills to worry about, like mortgages and taxes. Unlike larger property management companies that could float these kinds of deficits, Morse is just a small business owner who depends on income he makes from his commercial rental property to make ends meet.

And it’s not just rent. Rajput also owes utility bills for electricity, internet, cable and telephone, not to mention insurance. Without emergency rental assistance, he finds it impossible to ever pay back all of the money he owes.

“I have an entire box of bills, but with no money to pay for them,” Rajput said.

Rent at his Inwood location is a bit higher — $7,000 — and he owes money there, also, to the tune of $150,000.

“I also owe Con Edison about $17,000,” Rajput added.

Rajput has sought out some of the help offered by the government. He applied for a loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but was denied. He also applied for the state-run rental assistance program, but also was denied. Twice.

“I just reapplied for the rental assistance program,” Rajput said, “but I also just applied for a 30-year loan — which I’m on a waiting list for — with a loan company in New Jersey that helps small businesses. At this point, you know, I’m desperate.”

But it seems some help is coming. Rajput was approved for one of those high-interest loans this week but it’s unclear for how much. That money, however, will help him to pay back some of the debt he has in Manhattan. The other loan, intended for North Riverdale, remains pending.

And there’s a little more good news. A lot of Rajput’s business comes from his after-school program. With classes beginning Monday, and returning to in-person, Rajput expects some of that business to return, which could at least get him paying some of these bills again.

“I keep promising (Morse) that once the after-school program starts, I’ll be able to pay him more,“ Rajput said. 

Still, even with school back, there is still a lot of hesitancy by parents to overdo in-person activities — especially with the delta variant still wreaking havoc.

The one bright spot for Rajput, at least, through all of this is that Morse can’t evict him — even if that’s bad news for Morse. Gov. Kathy Hochul extended the eviction moratorium for commercial tenants behind on rent earlier this month.

Rajput hopes with the new extension — and efforts of the state to disburse more emergency rental assistance money — he can finally catch up.

“I spent a lot of money to build those places,” he said. “I just don’t want to let them go.”

And, in the long run, Rajput believes it would only benefit the community to keep his taekwondo studios running rather than letting them falter.

I’m an asset for the neighborhood,” he said. “I pick up kids from school, feed them snacks, help them with their homework, and then teach them how to work out and defend themselves through martial arts.

“A lot of parents work from 9 to 6. Not everyone has the ability to pick up their kids from school.”

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