The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Connecting Predatory Equity and the Need for a Rent Freeze

The movement for a Rent Freeze for the one million rent regulated units in New York City is the largest its ever been. Over 300 tenants gathered at both the Bronx and Brooklyn Rent Guidelines Board Public Hearings. That’s more than 600 tenants from every walk of life standing up and having their voices heard. Each of the hearings went way past 10pm even though they were scheduled to end at 8pm — tenants refused to leave while they still had testimonies to give.

It was an incredibly empowering sight to see.

The difference in narratives that tenants told between the Bronx and Brooklyn is worth noting. Bronx tenants told harrowing stories of utter neglect by their landlords and supers who were totally unresponsive. They told the RGB that their landlords did not deserve a raise after another year of refusing to provide heat, hot water, and proper repairs. For them a Rent Freeze would be a welcome economic relief as well as a signal to landlords that they don’t get more money for doing less work.

In Brooklyn however the stories were different. Tenant after tenant talked about “being forced out” of their apartments, homes, and neighborhoods. With a full understanding of our backwards rent laws, they told the RGB that every time that there is a rent increase, it gets their apartment a tiny bit closer to being deregulated. This in turn gives their landlord more incentive to harass them into leaving in order to raise the rent in the hopes that the unit can soon be at the market rate levels. For them, a Rent Freeze would also be a welcome economic relief and would be a moment where they are no longer simply reacting to their landlord’s actions but going on the offensive in this battle for their homes.

Both of these narratives — of utter neglect in the Bronx and purposeful harassment in Brooklyn — are part of the cycle of Predatory Equity that we’ve seen sprout up in New York City and beyond in the lead up to the foreclosure crises of 2008. Its happening all over the city and until we strengthen our rent laws when they are up for renewal in 2015, it will continue to happen. We can put a bandaid on the damage with a Rent Freeze this year, but in the end, its about what happens in Albany next legislative season.

Below is an article that our Deputy Director of of Organizing and Policy at UHAB, Cea Weaver wrote for the Metropolitan Council on Housing’s Tenant Newspaper about the connection between stronger rent laws and predatory equity:

In the years leading up to 2008, private equity firms with access to large pools of privately raised capital worked together with lenders to grossly overleverage multifamily housing. Assuming that they’d be able to increase revenue and make a financial windfall, “predatory equity” companies took out enormous mortgages to purchase rent-regulated buildings. When tenants refused to be pushed out of their rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments, these new landlords took a more aggressive approach: they increased harassment and reduced spending on maintenance. Buildings deteriorated and went into foreclosure across New York City.

As the housing market heats back up, predatory equity is returning to rent-regulated buildings. Meanwhile, tenants and advocates are still reeling from the first round of speculation, harassment, deferred repairs, and foreclosure. Last month, the owners of the Three Borough Pool, a group of 42 buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx that contain almost 1,600 rent-regulated apartments, were able to get a rescue loan from a private equity company called Ladder Capital. The Three Borough Pool is the largest portfolio of multifamily buildings to go into foreclosure since Stuyvesant Town.

 Normandy Real Estate and Westbrook Partners, the co-owners, are also private equity companies that were some of the most notorious actors in the first round of predatory equity. Their obtaining refinancing is a sign of the dangerous return of pre-2008 lending practices to the city.

Thanks to tenants’ organizing, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman began investigating harassment complaints from tenants. This investigation led to a deal with Normandy and Westbrook, announced April 15, that significantly increases oversight over maintenance and management in the Three Borough Pool. Tenants will get $600 each in rent rebates, a total of $1 million, and a new management company. While this ensures that the negative effects of such predatory and irresponsible real-estate deals will fall squarely on the private equity companies and landlords who chose to make them, we still need policy changes that address the root problem of speculation on rent-regulated housing and that address predatory equity at a systemic level.

New York’s rent laws are a key tool in our struggle against speculation and predatory equity. By limiting rent increases and insuring the right to a renewal lease, rent stabilization provides organized tenants with the protections they need to stand up to landlords who see their homes as gambling chips. We need rent laws that further limit landlords’ ability to drive low-income and working-class families out of their homes. We need to limit major-capital improvement increases, individual-apartment improvement increases, and the sneaky tools that landlords use to make bad financial deals work to the detriment of tenants. For too long, predatory equity landlords have profited by thwarting regulations. By strengthening existing laws and closing loopholes that favor landlords, we can change the predatory atmosphere that pervades the city’s housing market.

The final RGB vote is just a few days away…Monday, June 23rd! Join us as we stand up for a Rent Freeze in the lead up of the campaign for stronger rent laws.

It’s Crunch Time: We Need a #RentFreeze!

There are certain moments when you simply have to ask yourself, “Wow. Is this really happening?”

When the NY Daily News reported that the Rent Stabilization Association was putting out advertisements advocating that New Yorkers support a rent increase, I experienced one of those moments as I tried to get my jaw off the floor.

This is no small time advertising push. This is a six-figure ad buy that will cover the costs of over 700 TV and Radio ads ahead of the June 23rd final Rent Guidelines Board vote. The Rent Stabilization Association, which claims to represent the 25,000 landlords of rent-stabilized buildings in the city, is as the Daily News put it so eloquently: “trying to do the impossible — convince New Yorkers that the rent is too damn low.”

via NYDaily News

via NYDaily News

These same landlords who refused to make repairs or keep the heat on in hundreds of thousands of rent stabilized units across the city are now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to persuade their tenants that they deserve a pay raise.

These same landlords that over-leveraged countless buildings and took sledgehammers to apartments when doing “repairs” in order to harass tenants out of their homes are telling us to pay up!

As we tell every tenant association that we work with, power comes in two forms: Organized money and organized people. Clearly the Rent Stabilization Association has organized money — since they don’t use it on repairs and services for their tenants, they have to use it somehow, right?

But we have organized people.  For the first time in recent memory, the RGB — the Mayoral appointed board that votes on how much the rent should change from year to year in rent stabilized units — is having hearings in the outer boroughs and in the evening so that working people can have their voice be heard.

This past weekend, nearly over 300 tenants in the Bronx and Brooklyn marched for a Rent Freeze, gearing up for the upcoming few weeks of hearings. Tonight is the first one, in the Bronx at Hostos Community College! (A full schedule is below.)

Never in RGB’s history has it voted for a Rent Freeze. And with the May 5th preliminary vote of a 0-3% increase, for the first time in history, a Rent Freeze is within reach! Its up to us to grab it.

The landlords are scared. Over time they’ve grown used to the rents going up every year — now that this is under threat, they are coming out swinging, doing everything they can to stop this movement. They’ve had their allies at REBNY pressure Mayor de Blasio to walk back on his campaign promise to support a Rent Freeze. They’re now putting hundreds of dollars into a campaign to convince tenants that they don’t pay enough in rent. You better believe they will be at these hearings, claiming that they’re barely getting by with the rents being what they are now.

We’ve got to fight back.

The questions is: Will you be there to show the RGB otherwise? Will you share your story about what a Rent Freeze would mean for you and your family? If you don’t want to testify, will you be there to support your fellow tenants as they give their testimonies?

We need each and every single person to show up and show the RGB that we need a Rent Freeze!

Below is a list of the coming hearings the RGB is hosting. We’ll be at them all. Will you join us?

If you can’t make it in person, you can still be involved by calling the Mayor (212-788-3000) and Deputy Mayor (212-788-8510). You can also participate on twitter, by tweeting at them using the #RentFreeze (@BilldeBlasio, @DMAliciaGlen, @MMViverito)! 

Thursday,
June 12, 2014
Public Hearing
(Public
Testimony)
Repertory Theatre of
Hostos Community College/CUNY
450 Grand Concourse
Bronx, NY 10451
Map & Directions
Campus Map (Repertory Theatre is located in Building C – East Academic Complex)
Agenda
5:00 – 8:00 P.M.
Monday,
June 16, 2014
Public Hearing
(Public
Testimony)
Emigrant Savings Bank Building
49-51 Chambers Street
(between Broadway and Centre Street)
New York, NY 10007
Map & Directions
2:00 – 6:00 P.M.
Wednesday,
June 18, 2014
Public Hearing
(Public
Testimony)
Brooklyn Borough Hall
209 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Map & Directions
5:00 – 8:00 P.M.
Thursday,
June 19, 2014
Public Hearing
(Public
Testimony)
Queens Borough Hall
120-55 Queens Boulevard
Kew Gardens, NY 11424
Map & Directions
5:00 – 8:00 P.M.
Monday,
June 23, 2014
Public Meeting
(Final Vote)
The Great Hall
at Cooper Union
7 East 7th Street
at corner of 3rd Ave. (Basement)
New York, NY 10003
Map & Directions
6:00 P.M.

 

We Need to Organize, People! By Guest Blogger, Keisha Jacobs

This post is written by Keisha Jacobs, an organizer and member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union.  Keisha acted as MC for Saturday’s march and picnic where the CHTU targeted several landlords to sign onto the CHTU demands.  For more information about CHTU, visit http://www.crownheightstenantunion.org 

keisha1

Hello and welcome. Welcome everyone. I’m so glad to see all of you here this afternoon. We are here today to show our solidarity as long standing tenants and new residents against the negative changes in our Crown Heights community. Predatory practices by banks, landlords and building management are forcing rent stabilized tenants out and overcharging new residents.

The stack of small injustices, the clerical mistakes on your rent receipt the administrative errors like cashing your rent check late. The miscommunication, repeated unreturned messages. Come on folks! You know that it looks like. They say they’re coming to FINALLY fix your sink. You take a valuable the day off only to have them never show up. Or the ceiling in your bathroom that’s coming down around your ears, but you see workmen fixing your new neighbors apartment because they pay twice as much as you do.

These things are not just oversights. It’s not incompetence.  It’s not mismanagement. This is not just a simple screw up.  It’s systemic. It’s tactical. You are being targeted.

There are speculators betting on our neighborhood, people. The predatory equity practices by the banks have placed a gamble on our homes. Our landlords have huge mortgages on the buildings we live in. Values set by appraisers using some arbitrary figures of which your rent controlled or rent stabilized apartment is not a factor. In order to cover their bets, your apartment needs to bring in a higher price. So to make up the difference they skimp on services. No heat or hot water for days during the coldest times of year. Major infrastructure items like plumbing, furnaces or water heaters don’t get repaired or replaced. The lobby and halls haven’t been painted in a decade. And repairs in your apartment go undone. All the while we are being dragged back and forth to housing court in an effort to evict us, or being harassed, or offered paltry buyouts to move us from our homes.

We need to organize, people. This is organizing. Get your neighbors together and if you haven’t already get your rent history and start your tenant association and join us.

On June 18 we will be at the Brooklyn rent guidelines board meeting at borough hall and we DEMAND A RENT FREEZE! We are here to fight. Enough is enough. Hands off our homes!

Join tenants from all over Brooklyn at Borough Hall on June 18th from 5:00 to 8:00 to demand a rent freeze!  If you’d like to travel with the Crown Heights Tenant Union, we’ll be meeting at 6:00 at Franklin and Eastern Parkway.  

MEDIA ADVISORY: HUNDREDS OF CROWN HEIGHTS TENANTS RALLY, MARCH FOR HOUSING JUSTICE

This Saturday the tenants of Crown Heights are taking to the streets o tell their landlords that they are fed up with the cycle of displacement and rent overcharges! Tenants will be rallying with elected officials before marching through the neighborhood — stopping at some buildings with the worst landlords — and then ending with a picnic!

Please join us for ANY part of the day.

Media Advisory for June 7th, 2014

Kerri White: (212) 479-3371 // (520) 507-5863 (c)

Joel Feingold: (608) 201-9345

Hundreds of Crown Heights Tenants Rally,March for Housing Justice

Crown Heights Tenant Union, elected officials, and housing advocates call for strengthened tenant protections to end displacement and systematic rent overcharges.

WHO The Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU), a new alliance of long-term residents and recently-arrived tenants who have joined forces to fight displacement, harassment, and the rapid loss of affordable housing in Crown Heights. The CHTU will be joined by State Assembly Members Walter Mosley and Karim Camara and housing organizers from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.

WHEN Saturday, June 7th 2014, 12:30 pm

WHERE Dr. Ronald McNair Park: Eastern Parkway and Washington Avenue

WHAT Rally and March to end landlord tactics that displace long-term, working-class residents — and to call for meaningful tenant power over affordable housing in one of New York City’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

WHY Recent data shows that New York City faces a severe housing crunch, and that the cost of renting in New York City is sky-rocketing. This problem is particularly profound in Crown Heights, where the real estate industry is seeking to profit from rising rents through harassment and displacement of long term residents and illegal overcharging of newcomers. The Crown Heights Tenant Union is using a collective bargaining strategy to push back against these unethical and at-times illegal tactics. CHTU demands include: a five-year rent freeze, a ban on common methods landlords use to vacate rent regulated buildings and convert them into luxury apartments, and radical strengthening of State tenant protection laws. On Saturday, June 7th, the Crown Heights Tenant Union will be calling on BCB Capital Management, Pinnacle Realty, and TGB One Associates, among others, to comply with these demands through a legally binding agreement.

Putnam Portfolio and Stuy Town: Preservation Opportunities for Affordable Housing Once Lost to Speculation

Metro North Residents at Putnam Rally, photo courtesy of Tenants & Neighbors

In recent years, speculation in the affordable housing market is an accepted fact. Real estate investment targets the homes of low income families with the express intent to make financial profit from exploiting the residents who live in these buildings. This practice has failed. Over and over again. However, this hasn’t stopped the perception that massive profits can be gained by gambling on NYC’s affordable housing stock. The question in front of our policy makers now is how will we respond to this continuing and destabilizing crisis?

Stuyvesant Town is likely the most famous affordable housing complex that was victim to the overleveraging crisis of the early to mid-2000s. This is because both it is the largest housing complex with over 11,000 apartments and the fact that in 2006 it was purchased for an astronomical price of over $6 billion. This deal was in default within 3 years. Due to the complex nature of the financing, the buildings have been in limbo since 2009, but as was reported by the New York Times, the properties are back on their way to auction, and unfortunately, there are already willing bidders preparing to speculate on the buildings again.

Although, Stuy Town is the largest and most recognizable portfolio, it is hardly the only large complex on the edge of another critical moment. The Urban American Putnam Portfolio is a group of five former Mitchell Lama projects in upper Manhattan and Roosevelt Island that comprises nearly 4,000 units of what used to be protected, affordable housing. This portfolio is, similar to Stuy Town, at risk of being flipped again. Last week, Bloomberg News rendered an accurate and clear explanation of the history of the properties and the risk the portfolio is currently facing.

To give a brief history, in the height of the housing boom the portfolio was flipped twice under business plans to remove the affordability from the project, push out lower income residents and raise rents as high as possible. Urban American purchased the buildings for $918 million, taking out an $800 million mortgage financed by Fannie Mae. Fannie Mae also took the opportunity to invest at least $60 million in equity in the portfolio (although they won’t admit it) something which seems to be in direct conflict with their mission to protect affordable housing. It should come as no surprise that this isn’t the only time they’ve invested in these types of deals. To complicate matters further, it was discovered that the City Investment Fund partnered with Urban American in this predatory deal. The City Investment Fund includes money from the New York City and New York State retirement systems; a bitter irony considering many of the residents in these Mitchell Lama projects were public workers.

This $800 million mortgage is now due, which has inspired a flurry of activity around the portfolio. Urban American is looking for a new investment partner that would help them refinance. Brookfield Properties has expressed interest in buying a stake in a $1.1 billion refinancing. This is a $182 million increase over the last purchase price, which has stretched the rents to the highest level and allowed the conditions of the properties to decline. In the event of this refinancing both the City Investment Fund and Fannie Mae would be paid off, fulfilling their fiduciary responsibility at the expense of thousands of New Yorkers’ having an affordable place to live.

It DOESN’T have to be this way. We as a City can decide that we are going to fight to preserve these homes, as well as other buildings that are victims of this crisis. We can do this without creating diminution in value to the bondholders. Here’s what we need to do:

Fannie Mae: The mortgage was due in early May. As a deal has still not been completed, Fannie Mae is in a position as holder of the defaulted debt to push for a quicker preservation deal. Fannie Mae could also commit to finance a preservation deal that would protect the affordability and commit to improving the conditions. Additionally, Fannie Mae should take responsibility for the fact it invested in this portfolio and use its equity stake as additional leverage to push for a better outcome.

City Investment Fund/Comptroller Scott Stringer: The Comptroller should support the tenants and the preservation of affordable housing by taking a stance that doesn’t ignore the impact of his predecessor’s actions. Pension funds should never have been used in a deal that puts low and moderate income tenants at risk of losing their homes. However, there is no reason why the City Investment Fund couldn’t explore the opportunity to remain invested in these properties as long as an owner steps in who commits to affordability and decent housing.

HPD and other City Agencies: This portfolio represents a substantial amount of affordable housing in Upper Manhattan and Roosevelt island, and it should have never been allowed to lose its affordability protections. HPD and the other City Agencies should explore ways to once again tie rent restrictions to these buildings through the use of tax abatements or subsidy that would (a) provide much needed capital towards repairs and (b) add regulatory agreements that would keep the buildings affordable for the residents who call them home.

Mayor de Blasio and other Elected Officials: Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the other Elected Officials should support the residents of these properties and the need to protect these units of affordable housing, a much needed resource of affordable housing in upper Manhattan and Roosevelt Island. They also could call all the above mentioned parties to the table with the tenants to negotiate how to preserve these properties.
This is not an easy task, in fact it will be difficult and tedious and with no assurances that we can win. However, the tenants are ready to stand up and take on this fight, the only question is who will stand with them?

This is not an easy task, in fact it will be difficult and tedious and with no assurances that we can win. However, the tenants are ready to stand up and take on this fight, the only question is who will stand beside them?

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