The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

What Speaker Quinn Has to Say about Predatory Equity in Her State of The City

A few weeks ago in her State of the City, Speaker Quinn discussed how New York should and will tackle challenges in affordable housing in 2012. We mentioned it last week when we discussed her announcement to amend the NYC Housing Code. Now, we have some direct quotes from her speech for those of you who may have missed it click here for a link to the entire spiel.

It’s impossible to talk about rising costs without talking about housing. How many of you can remember the first time you laid eyes on your home? Not just your house or apartment, but your home in the truest sense of the word.

You could imagine the pencil marks on the door frame as you watched your kids grow. You knew exactly where you’d hang that big screen TV once you saved up the money, picked out a spot for the recliner when you retired.

For far too many New Yorkers that dream gets cut short. They moved into affordable housing hoping they’d be there for the rest of their lives. Then they discovered that affordable now doesn’t mean affordable forever.

Right now, when the City negotiates deals with developers, we provide incentives in exchange for affordability. The problem is that affordability has a built in expiration date, usually thirty years. So homes we built three decades ago are now in danger of losing their affordability. Which means families get pushed right out of their homes, and the working class gets pushed out of entire neighborhoods. Sometimes – working with community members – we are able to find ways to keep buildings affordable beyond the expiration date. Like when Council Member Helen Diane Foster helped protect more than a hundred homes at the birthplace of hip hop – 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. But other times, we’re not so lucky. We need to create housing that’s not just affordable for a few years, but for generations.

So let’s talk about an idea that’s long overdue in New York City – permanent affordability. For years it’s been thought of as a pipe dream. But the City Council has a plan to make it happen. I’m happy to announce that HPD is going to start requiring sixty year affordability in many of our biggest developments.

Sixty years isn’t permanent, but it’s a critical first step. I want to thank Council Members Erik Martin Dilan and Joel Rivera for their leadership on this issue. I want to thank Senator Adriano Espaillat and Assembly Member Vito Lopez, for agreeing to sponsor the necessary legislation.

But we won’t stop there. Our goal will be a new kind of deal with developers as long as the City keeps renewing your benefits, you have to keep your housing truly affordable. I’m very grateful to HPD for agreeing to work with us to develop a strategy for permanent affordability. This work will continue until we get there. With permanent affordability, we’ll make sure the people who built a community get to stay in that community.

Working together we can create a brand new rental assistance program to help families cover rent in private buildings. And we need to prioritize homeless New Yorkers for NYCHA apartments and Section 8 vouchers, so we can get even more families into long term stable housing. By the way, this isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the fiscally responsible thing to do. The average cost of a rental subsidy for a family of four is $800 a month. To house that same family in a shelter? $3,000.

Now it’s not enough to just make sure New Yorkers have a place to live. We need to make sure those homes aren’t falling apart. One of my first jobs in New York City was as a local housing organizer. I remember the frustration we felt watching bad landlords let a building deteriorate so they could push out tenants and sell their building for more money.

I’ve made it my mission to tackle these problems head on. This year we’ll expand on the success of our Safe Housing Act, a law we passed in 2007. It’s already made top to bottom renovations in hundreds of the city’s worst buildings.

Now we’ll pass legislation, sponsored by Council Member Gale Brewer, that allows the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to target the root cause of a housing problem. I want to thank Commissioner Mathew Wambua for working with us on this initiative.

Instead of just fixing water damage, landlords will have to repair the hole in the roof that’s causing it. Slumlords will have to spend real money and fix the real problem or we’ll haul them into housing court.

Farewell!

After two and half years, I am saying goodbye to UHAB and hello to my hometown of San Francisco, CA.

But before I leave, dear tenants, allies, advocates, and readers – I’ll tell you a little bit about the stuff I learned in hopes that the lessons will be useful.

1) Focusing a large campaign on a single target works. 

2) New York tenants are sharp, tenacious, and down to fight injustice.

3) Foreclosure is a terrible process for renters, particularly because receivers generally do not receive funding from the bank to deal with distressed conditions created by the prior owner. This generates even more dangerous conditions in a building and a confusing situation for tenants who are not sure which party is responsible for their significant maintenance needs.

4) Predatory Equity is still happening, with many new over-leveraged loans being made on multi-family buildings. This second round of further speculation will continue to have punishing effects on neighborhoods if legislators do not take significant action.

4) Responsible banking ordinances, public participation in CRA reviews, and meetings with bank regulators seem to present lasting strategies to encourage better bank behavior.

6) A Landlord License Law is one of the most interesting and powerful new policy initiatives that could preserve and protect NY’s affordable housing stock.

5) Amazing work is happening in NY around fighting predatory equity. This work would not be nearly as successful without all of UHAB’s amazing allies – Legal Aid Society, Urban Justice Center, Legal Services New York, New York Communities for Change, Community Action for Safe Apartments, Pratt Area Community Council, Tenants and Neighbors, Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, the many great landlords and developers in NY, journalists and reporters, and of course the amazing and courageous tenants of all five boroughs.

THANK YOU everyone who has made my last few years memorable, exciting, positive, and inspirational. I will miss you.

Crain’s: “Old deals trip young landlord”

Michael Shah smiles as he sits in one of the mismatched wooden chairs that contribute to the decor of his Lower East Side restaurant Sons of Essex, a local hot spot that regularly pops up in the gossip pages as the backdrop in photos of partying glitterati. It’s one of at least seven upmarket properties Mr. Shah has acquired in the past four years as he has moved beyond his original focus on affordable housing in the outer boroughs. Mr. Shah’s new growth spurt has been fueled by snapping up properties with problems such as loan defaults and then working them out.

“I find it really exciting,” said Mr. Shah, owner of DelShah Capital, a real estate investment firm.

His latest clash, though, may be a bit too exciting. He is battling the city over fraud charges it leveled last month stemming from unpaid taxes on four of his early purchases. A nonprofit called the African-American Parent Council bought the buildings between 2006 and 2008 and transferred the deeds to companies controlled by Mr. Shah within six months, according to city records. Nonprofits are exempt from paying transfer taxes. Mr. Shah is not. The city says he should have paid the taxes when he took possession, and that it noted a pattern of transactions designed to avoid his tax obligation, according to a spokesman for the city’s Finance Department. With interest and penalties, the city says, Mr. Shah now owes $3.1 million.

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Gotham Gazette: “Stopping Apartments From Making Tenants Sick”

On a cold January day, the wind funnels down Creston Avenue in the Morris Heights neighborhood of South Bronx like a river through a canyon. Buildings seem slightly closer to the street here, and the tall towers loom over the narrow street and sidewalk. A couple of teenage girls walk down the street, laughing and shoving each other.

Some new construction gleams incongruently on one side of the street, but most of the other buildings on this block are much older, with a foregone elegance still barely visible in the stonework and tiles.

Yet inside these buildings residents complain of deteriorating living conditions. On a survey tenant after tenant writes of mice and cockroach infestations, peeling paint, broken toilets, inconsistent heat and hot water, and a front door with no lock. “The hallways smell like urine” writes one.

Tenant Johannie Burdier says the building was poorly maintained, dirty, and sometimes simply scary. She tells of a former building manager who, she says, took money from people in exchange for access to sell drugs from inside the building. A resident for seven years, Burdier lives in the building with her aunt and her eleven year old daughter. She says for much of her time there they were lucky if there was heat or hot water in the apartment.

Another resident, who works the night shift, writes that they were frequently robbed in the unlocked building entrance. “Always, always, always, they assault us and take our money and our things in the doorway. Why?” asks the tenant, writing in Spanish, “Why is there no lock on the door or security camera?”

These complaints are more than an inconvenience. Constant anxiety, prolonged exposure to molds, unchecked vermin and inadequate heat and hot water – all these things make people sick. The vast majority of people living in failed buildings are low-income and uninsured. When they get sick, they go to the hospital. And the city is left holding the bill.

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SH*T NY SLUMLORDS SAY

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