The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

The Day After, By Guest Blogger Donna Mossman

This post is written by Donna Mossman, an organizer and member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union.  Donna has been with CHTU since the very beginning and has been a constant presence at the Rent Guidelines Board hearings and votes this year — she wrote this the day after the final vote, one week ago today. For more information about CHTU, visit http://www.crownheightstenantunion.org.

1% increase for a 1 year lease and a 2.75% increase for a 2 year lease.  A 0% Rent Freeze is not far behind!

This was thanks to the excellent work of the Crown Heights Tenants Union, other tenant groups, and tenants from all over NYC who took a united stand, refused to be bullied and banded together.

Donna Mossman testifying at the Brooklyn RGB Hearing on June 18th.

Donna Mossman testifying at the Brooklyn RGB Hearing on June 18th.

A 0% Rent Freeze Victory is not far away. Kudos to all who fought a good fight! For those politicians who stood by the tenants, you must work harder to garner the support of your colleagues.

This is the lowest rent increase in the history of the Rent Guidelines Board (RGB). Hearing how rents were raised in past years unfairly and the financial burden it placed on tenants was heartbreaking. But we found out that this new RGB Chair is not afraid of a 0% Rent Freeze. We found out that she has three allies on the board who want to stand for tenants. They heard our Stories of Suffering and had compassion for tenants and understood the hardship that high rents are costing tenants. One of CHTU’s demands is for a 5 year rent freeze.  This demand may seem unthinkable and unreachable to some — but think about where your rent is going to be in 5 years if we don’t fight for it.

We all have to work harder this year. Each and every person who attended the RGB hearings in 2014 must vow to bring one new person to the next round of hearings. We will travel to Albany and we will fight to strengthen the rent laws, and in 2015 we will be back, and our numbers will be doubled.

We are already scraping the bottom of the barrel to pay our rents and without a rent freeze next year, there will be no bottom left to the barrel.

This is a victory for all tenants because this year, even as we still have to dig in our pockets to pay our rents, even as we still have to scrimp and save, even as we still have to worry about a place to live, we remember we were not pounded and crushed with a 7.75% hike like last year.

We know if a 0% percent increase is not put in place next year, the homeless rate in NYC will be greater than any other time in NYC’s history. We know what we have to fight for, and we know what we can achieve together.

We are thankful but still fearful.  We are fearful but hopeful. We are hopeful that next year the RGB will make a bold statement and render a righteous vote, and deliver a 0% rent increase.

Three Borough Pool: Victory for Tenants, But the Fight Continues

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for tenants of the Three Borough Pool — a group of 42 rent-regulated and Project Based Section 8 buildings containing nearly 1600 units in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. The Three Borough Pool is emblematic of the crisis of predatory equity as it was purchased in the height of the housing boom and saddled with an unsupportable mortgage. Like many affordable portfolios affected by predatory equity, this risky financing lead to deteriorating conditions, harassment and foreclosure. Just last week, Three Borough Pool tenant leader Benjamin Warren was featured on Democracy Now to discuss this very issue! (See above.) Ben was joined in his interview by Laura Gottesdiener, who spoke about the impact that predatory equity has on New York City housing:

What’s important to see, both in this case right now that Benjamin is living through and that 1,600 other families are living through and in a slew of other past very high-profile deals, is that this has been something of a disaster not just for tenants, but also from a financial perspective. These are deals that they were betting big—these private equity firms were betting big that they could turn these buildings around by pushing out hundreds of thousands of families. They weren’t able to push out families, because families organized. And as a result of that organizing, these deals failed, and it made a situation where the broader housing market in New York City got hit and these tenants had to live in completely inhumane conditions.

UHAB joined a coalition of housing groups across New York City (New Settlement Apartments’ Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA), Banana Kelly, Mothers on the Move, New York Communities for Change, Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, Tenants and Neighbors, and the Pratt Area Community Council) to fight alongside tenants for affordable housing in each of the 42 buildings in the portfolio. With the goal of forcing the buildings into the hands of a better, more responsible landlord,  tenants began organizing. Leaders collected a petition with over 300 signatures demanding the mortgage holder consider a preservation outcome for the buildings, and worked with Councilmember Ritchie Torres and others to hold a rally on the steps of City Hall. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman opened an investigation into the portfolio, and began collecting interviews from tenants about their experience with harassment and bad living conditions.

So, when predatory equity owners Normandy and Westbrook began to circulating information that they secured a refinance and that the portfolio would come out of foreclosure, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman moved quickly. Using stories collected from the on-going investigation, the Attorney General forced the owners into an agreement that makes sure the negative effects of predatory equity will fall squarely on those responsible for it: the lenders and landlords who make absurd financial deals.

But the fight is far from over. As the housing market heats back up, the cycle of predatory equity is returning to the rent regulated housing market. (Read about it in The Nation.) The ridiculous refinance of the Three Borough Pool demonstrates this. Ladder Capital bailed out Normandy and Westbrook to the tune of $146 million in a three year loan. While we don’t know the terms of the mortgage, it is clear that this rescue mortgage bails out the private equity companies in the short term, but doesn’t provide the tenants with the solid underwriting needed for the buildings to provide long term affordable housing. Tenants are going to keep organizing, monitoring the agreements, and if (or when) the buildings go into foreclosure again, they’ll be ready.

Tenants from the Three Borough Pool, and this same coalition of advocates, will continue to work with the City Council, HPD, and DHCR to push for progressive policy reforms that discourage speculation on some of New York City’s most vital infrastructure.  For too long, predatory equity landlords have been able to thwart existing regulations to make their profits; by strengthening existing laws and closing loopholes that favor landlords, we can change the predatory atmosphere that surrounds the New York City housing market. Unless we can stem speculation, our neighborhoods will continue to be sold to the highest bidder — driving gentrification, undermining rent regulation laws, and diminishing tenants’ quality of life.

For more information, check out UHAB’s policy platform.

 

Council Members Ritchie Torres, Brad Lander, Antonio Reynoso, Helen Rosenthal, Inez Barron Tenants, and Advocates Stand United against Predatory Equity: Call for responsible disposition of more than 1500 apartments currently in foreclosure.

Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Ritchie Torres with UHAB Executive Director Andrew Reicher. Photo from Council Member Brad Lander.

Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Ritchie Torres with UHAB Executive Director Andrew Reicher. Photo from Council Member Brad Lander.

For Immediate Release: March 18, 2014

City Hall — Elected leaders including City Council members Ritchie Torres, Brad Lander, Antonio Reynoso, Helen Rosenthal, and Inez Barron are joining tenants from 42 affordable buildings spread across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx and calling on the mortgage holder and the City to negotiate a deal that would end tenants’ suffering. The rent-regulated and HUD subsidized portfolio, known as the Three Borough Pool, is in foreclosure due to irresponsible financial practices called “predatory equity.” Housing advocates across the city, including Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, CASA New Settlement Apartments, New York Communities for Change, Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, Pratt Area Community Council, Tenants and Neighbors, and the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board are assisting residents in their fight to secure the portfolio as affordable housing.

Predatory equity is a disturbing trend that occurs when investors purchase and grossly over-leverage rent regulated housing with the expectation of huge returns. In order to realize financial gains, property owners attempt to illegally raise rents and reduce maintenance and operating costs. This harmful cycle leads to the displacement of low-income families, deterioration of buildings, and the loss of much needed affordable housing.

Advocates say that the Three Borough Pool is emblematic of the problems of predatory equity. In 2007, a private equity joint venture (Normandy Real Estate, Vantage Properties, Westbrook Partners, and David Kramer) packaged the 42 buildings into one portfolio with a $133 million loan. By 2010 the mortgage (now part of a much larger commercial mortgage backed security) was in default. LNR, the mortgage servicer for the security, began foreclosure proceedings in April of 2013. LNR has given the owners until April 2nd to come up with a refinancing plan that would take the buildings out of foreclosure. However, tenants and advocates hope to use the foreclosure as a juncture to transfer the properties to another owner entirely.

“We’re here today to urge any and all financial institutions not to refinance with David Kramer/Colonial Management, Normandy Real Estate, Vantage Properties and Westbrook Management,” said Benjamin Warren, Tenant Association President of 1511-1521 Sheridan Avenue. “Myself and the other residents of this portfolio know what we deserve, and it is not the carelessness of these self-interested corporations. We look forward to better days without these groups.”

The buildings are physically collapsing under the weight of an enormous mortgage. There are over 2,700 HPD violations in the portfolio. Three of the buildings are in City’s Alternative Enforcement Program, an initiative that targets 200 of the most distressed buildings in the City. Tenants, advocates and elected officials are calling on LNR Property to negotiate with the City and transfer the properties to a responsible developer who will bring the buildings back to safe condition and keep them affordable for the families who call them home.

“These guys took $133 million from the bank and not one dime has gone into taking care of the buildings we live in,” said Debra Cooper, a tenant leader at 711 Fairmount Place. “We live with constant leaks. I regularly don’t have heat or hot water. We have no mail boxes and can’t get our mail. Enough is enough. If David Kramer and his friends aren’t going to take care of our homes, it’s time they are sold to someone who can. It’s past time.”

Some members of the City Council used the situation in the Three Borough Pool to call on the City administration to renew its pledge to fight financial speculation on affordable housing. Elected officials believe that one way to dissuade investors from speculative behavior is through expanding City programs like the Alternative Enforcement Program and the Proactive Preservation Program. These programs allow the City to more closely monitor buildings in physical and/or financial distress. Officials are also considering legislation to create a “watch list” of property owners who engage in predatory equity.

“Affordable housing exists to ease the burden on middle and low income New Yorkers who are looking for a decent standard of living,” said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. “This situation highlights the need for further oversight to prevent affordable housing from being undermined by speculative and predatory equity practices in the future.”

“The loss of affordable housing to the practice of predatory equity has created a crisis in our communities that will only become more severe if we fail to take action,” said Councilmember Ritchie Torres, Chair of the Committee on Public Housing. “These properties belong in the hands of new, responsible owners, committed to their preservation and long-term affordability. As a concrete step to address these abuses I have proposed legislation that would create a publically accessible watch list of property owners that engage in this negligent and abusive practice.”

“What these predatory investors are doing is simply unconscionable; everyone in this city deserves a safe, affordable, and well-maintained place to call home,” said Council Member and Bronx delegation leader Annabel Palma. “The administration must take aggressive action against these irresponsible owners and make good on its promise to preserve the city’s affordable housing stock.”

“No one should live in an apartment with mold, water damage or rusted, broken pipes in New York City. It’s time to close the gap between the rights of tenants and obligations of property owners. When homeowners across the country were facing foreclosure because the banking industry had gone rogue, the federal government stepped in to regulate the industry and offer financial assistance through the HAMP modification program. Tenants are no less important than property owners,” said Council Member Mark Levine. “It’s time for the City to step in to empower tenants and to put an end to these abuses. No one’s quality of life should be diminished because of negligent slumlords.”

“Predatory private equity is sucking the life out of our communities, leaving buildings vacant and in decay across New York City. Thousands of long time, hard working residents will be forced from their homes and this is unacceptable,” said Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez. “The city must step in to save these tenants or else this disturbing trend will continue wreaking havoc in our most vulnerable communities. Going forward, the state needs to put safeguards in place to prevent these practices because in every scenario, NYC residents and taxpayers are losing.”

“Today I’m proud to stand with the tenants of the Three Borough Pool. Predatory lending is rooted in disingenuous dealings and tenant harassment, practices that have allowed building owners to shed affordable housing in the race for greater profits, said Council Member Helen Rosenthal. “On the Upper West Side, advocates and tenant leaders have stood firm against speculators like Meyer Orbach whose portfolio includes 25 buildings located between West 106th and West 109th Street. Like the investors behind the Three Borough Pool, The Orbach group has used frivolous litigation and intimidation tactics to push long-term rent regulated tenants from their homes and strip regulated apartments of their affordability through vacancy decontrol. These actions are unconscionable and we must call on every available recourse in our city government to help tenants save their buildings, protect their homes, and preserve their quality of life.”

“Together, we have the opportunity to ensure that over 1,500 families live free from bad conditions, harassment, speculation and fear,” said Sheila Garcia, an organizer at CASA New Settlement Apartments. “Tenants across these buildings want a landlord who will follow the laws and listen to their concerns. Tenants across these buildings have raised families and built communities that we cannot let be destroyed, period, but especially not in the name of speculation.”

“Brooklyn tenants living in HUD subsidized buildings that are part of this foreclosure pool have had enough,” said Jon Furlong, Assistant Organizing Director at the Pratt Area Community Council (PACC). “PACC is proud to stand with the tenants from ALL the affected buildings to ensure they get the repairs and services they deserve. We must continue working together to prevent this type of speculation in multi-family buildings.”

“We’re pleased to see the City Council standing with Three Borough Pool tenants in their fight for a better deal,” said Kerri White, Director of Organizing and Policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. “However, as a City, we need to figure out ways we can stem speculation on affordable housing in the first place. Tenants shouldn’t have to suffer for years and face foreclosure, waiting for the opportunity to fight for something better.”

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Fight for affordable housing! Fight for a better deal!

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Forty-two buildings spread across the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn are currently in foreclosure. These buildings, home  to more than 1500 low-income families, are now at risk of being lost to the same speculative financial instruments that led to a massive housing crisis in 2008. Investors continue to gamble on these homes, while 1500 families suffer in hazardous living conditions. 
At this moment in NYC, we cannot afford to lose even one unit of housing for the poor and working class. Let alone more than 1500. That’s why tenants are organizing and fighting back. Join us on Tuesday, March 18th at 11AM on the steps of City Hall to fight back against speculation on affordable housing and for a better deal for tenants!
 
A group of four predatory equity groups (Normandy, Westbrook, Vantage, and Colonial Management) took out a $133 million mortgage in order to buy the portfolio in 2007 during the housing boom. They hoped to cut maintenance costs and force tenants out to raise rents. When people refused to leave their homes, the landlords pocketed the tenants’ rent and let the buildings deteriorate more and more until finally they defaulted on their debt causing all 42 buildings to fall into foreclosure in April 2012.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Tenant have been suffering from neglect and harassment for years. No heat and hot water for days at a time. Elevators that are broken as often as they work. Ceilings that have collapsed or are missing entirely. Repairs that should take hours take months to complete — and then, they are only patchwork. One building hasn’t had gas since August. These conditions are unjust, and tenants are demanding change. 
 
On Tuesday at City Hall, we say enough is enough! We demand safe, permanent, and affordable housing. If Colonial Management won’t take care of these buildings, we demand that the bank sell them to someone who can. 
Will you stand with us on Tuesday morning?
 
For more information, or to let us know you’ll be there, contact Kerri White at 212-479-3358  or at kwhite@uhab.org

Crown Heights Tenants Rally for Affordable Housing

Tenants from 230 and 232 Schenectady Avenue rallied last month against Sanford Solny, a Borough Park based broker who is working with slumlord Bernard Neiderman and his friends to flip their homes for profit.

Solny, Neiderman and their friends will be unsuccessful! For the past two years, tenants have been working with established non-profit housing organization, the Mutual Housing Association of New York, on a deal that will both give tenants a say in how their buildings are managed and keep their rents affordable in perpetuity.

Thanks to JFREJ, NYCC, the Crown Heights Assembly Tenant Union, Take Back the Land, and Brooklyn Legal Services for their continued support!

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