The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: code violations

Mapping Foreclosure in New York City from 2007 to 2012

Created by Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Created by Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Last week, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a map illustrating regional trends in foreclose throughout New York City. The maps follows changes in neighborhood foreclosures from 2007 to 2012. The results are startling.

When viewers hit the “play” button, areas of central Bronx, central Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island immediately become “colored” in foreclosure. From 2007 to 2008, foreclosures began to multiply in these boroughs.  For example, in the  Bronx neighborhoods of Belmont, East Tremont, and Crotona Park, foreclosures increased from 4  to 9 percent. In the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Ocean Hill, foreclosure increased from 6 to 12 percent.  In the Queens neighborhood of Jamaica, foreclosures increased from 3 percent to 12 percent.  And, in the Staten Island neighborhood of Far Rockaway (which was recently hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy), foreclosures increased from 2 to 10 percent. While northern Manhattan has a foreclosure rate of 4 to 8 percent, neighborhood South of 125th st. are noticeably pale.  

According to a Citizens Housing and Planning Council (CHPC) report, entitled “The Impact of Multi-Family Foreclosures and Over-Mortgaging in Neighborhoods in New York City,”  one reason this is meaningful is that buildings in foreclosure have a negative impact on the neighborhood around them.  Most buildings that are located near foreclosed buildings already have a high number of code violations.  CHPC’s data illustrates that two years after a building enters foreclosure, code violations in buildings within 250 feet increased by 32.8 percent. While authors of the report dismiss a direct causation of foreclosure on increased deterioration, they do assert that neighborhood instability increases the likelihood of dilapidation.

The same CHPC report also explores demographics of the neighborhoods with exceptionally high number of over-leveraged buildings. The data reveals that 8.5 percent of residents residing within 250 feet of a foreclosed building are living below the poverty line.  22 percent of residents are immigrants, and “minus 7 percent” are white.   Such data illustrates the the way in which racial and class inequalities exist within foreclosure trends.

While the map is visibly shocking, we have some unanswered questions.  For instance, which neighborhoods experience high single-family foreclosures and which neighborhoods experience high multi-family foreclosures? And, of the multi-family foreclosures, how many were caused by predatory equity schemes?  Also, how can we map the demographic trends revealed in the report alongside foreclosure?

Finally, we want to point out the manner in which the map uses the color red to depict foreclosure.  Red, as we learn in geography classes, means “watch out” and “be afraid” (think communism and blood).  Foreclosure in New York can mean many things, some of them scary.  However, when we go into buildings in foreclosure, one of the first things we tell tenants (who are protected from eviction under rent regulation laws) that foreclosure can be an opportunity.  In rent-regulated multi-family buildings, we hope that foreclosure can create an opening for tenants to organize and fight for positive change!

Behold: the Power of 311!

18.6 million 311 calls in 2010, source: Wall Street Journal, 2010)

Over the past couple of years, researchers have analyzed 311 in all sorts of fascinating ways.  Mapping out what kinds of complaints New Yorkers are reporting can tell us a lot about the state of the city, how it’s changed, and the kinds of things New Yorkers want to kvetch about.   Apparently, 311 operators receive calls for advice on anything from how to dispose of spoiled milk to help with marital problems.  As tenant organizers, we’re particularly interested in 311 calls in relations to tenants.  According to a 2010 NY Times article:

Tenant complaints are the fourth most common calls to 311. And that doesn’t count inadequate-heat complaints, which are second only to noise.

Calling 3-11 to record a housing violation can be a pain.  I’ve only done it once or twice, but most of the tenants in the buildings I work in have had frustrating experiences.  Tenants are required to spend time on the phone, schedule an appointment with a city inspector to inspect the violation,  and ultimately see few or no tangible results.  In an emergency, the city makes the necessary repairs, particularly to address lead paint or problematic leak.  At the very least, the city records the violation and tags on a fine for a landlord.  It’s difficult to encourage tenants to continue calling 311 when it all seems so futile.

Nevertheless, one of the first things we encourage tenants to do is to call 311 and report all violations in their building and apartment.  During a building campaign, a high violation count can be used by lawyers, politicians, and the media to demonstrate conditions in a building or unit, and to draw attention to the larger campaign.

We realize that the violation count on a building does not tell the whole story, and can often inaccurately state the level of distress.  We often see landloreds sweeping in to buy a building, and quickly clear violations through patch-work repairs: painting over mold, throwing some dry wall on a leak.  These repairs are not sustainable, and create reoccurring problems both for tenants and for the city that has to send inspectors back to record the same violation over and over again.  This problem is the basis for the new city legislation which would force landlords to fix underlying conditions.  Instead of patching a leak, they’d have to fix the roof.  As organizers, we encourage tenants to call 311 on any problems including faulty repairs so that the violation count can more accurately reflect conditions.

In addition to the concrete ways that 311 violations serve as a tool for tenants and urban-improvement, I believe that there’s a whole other value to 311 that’s often overlooked.  311 is a venue for agitated New Yorkers to complain about anything from a hole in your ceiling to a noisy ice cream truck parked outside at 11:00 pm, and this helps the city run a little better.  If not for a service to report your annoying neighbors or a loud dog, what would the city become?  In my mind, it would be a hot mess of overflowing aggression towards other people?  Through taking out our anger on a friendly operator and feeling as though justice has been served, we can all move on with our lives.

In case you are curious (or angry about your neighbor’s pet lion and not sure what to do) here are some notable reportable violations  that you might not have been aware of:

  • Report an item or animal that has fallen into a catch basin.
  • Make a complaint about a yellow taxi driver’s rudeness, unsafe driving, or refusal to comply with a request, or a problem with vehicle maintenance.
  • Report a foul odor coming from an unknown source.
  • Report a homeless person who is currently ill, dangerous, creating a hazard, or outstretched in a subway or other Transit District area.
  • Report a dog that barks too much and too loudly.
  • Report of noise from inside a house of worship.

“Tenants Turn to Lenders to Repair Buildings” Wall Street Journal

As published in the Wall Street Journal by Eliot Brown

Housing advocacy groups and the Bloomberg administration are asking bank regulators for help in fixing up deteriorating apartment buildings.

Tenants in a foreclosed Bronx building at 735 Bryant Ave. say the mortgage holder should make repairs.

Photo courtesy of Joel Cairo of The Wall Street Journal

Advocates say that hundreds of buildings in New York City are falling into disrepair because their owners took on too much debt to buy them in the boom years leading up to the recession. With many of these properties now in foreclosure proceedings and building-code violations stacking up, banks and other debtholders will help decide their future.

Housing advocates, who used to target landlords and opportunistic buyers to fix up aging buildings, have been pressuring lenders in recent months to sell troubled mortgages at discounts so the new owners will be able to afford repairs. They’ve also been pressuring lenders to fix up properties themselves.

Lenders, however, have rejected the notion that they should sell foreclosed properties or distressed mortgages for less than what buyers will pay. They say they have an obligation to maximize returns for their investors. The onus is on buyers to pay a price that makes sense, they say.

To raise pressure on the banks, advocates and Bloomberg officials earlier this month met with Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. officials to convince the bank regulators to intervene on the issue. The meetings were informational and the FDIC didn’t make specific commitments on the issue, attendees said.

Elected officials and advocates are hoping regulators would be able to push banks to sell properties to buyers with strong track records at sustainable prices. A spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development said the agency was encouraged by the initial talks with the banking regulators and it expects to follow up in coming days. Still, it is unclear how much ability and willingness regulators have to intervene in this regard.

In a statement, FDIC spokesman Andrew Gray didn’t comment on specific properties. He noted that the agency has requirements for banks to mark loans to their actual values, and standards for banks to make new loans based on “prudent” expectations. “The standards require prudent underwriting, including consideration of the borrower’s ability to repay personally or through cash flow from the property,” he said.

Since 2006, foreclosure filings have been made on more than 2,100 multifamily properties in the city, the highest level since the early 1990s, according to a study by New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy released earlier this month. Many expect filings to continue to grow in coming years as more mortgages made during the peak of 2006 and 2007 mature.

Housing advocates and officials charge that lenders have a responsibility to see that foreclosed properties and distressed mortgages are sold for sustainable prices that are in the long-term interest of tenants. “They’re just getting their money and running,” said Dina Levy, an organizer at advocacy group Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.

Generally, the groups tend to have little leverage and the lenders are able to sell defaulted mortgages and foreclosed properties as they please. The efforts have had some effect, however. Earlier this month, a troubled loan tied to a set of buildings in the Bronx known as the Milbank portfolio sold for about $28 million. The company that oversaw the mortgage, LNR Property, had initially found a bidder willing to pay close to $35 million, but the selling price was lowered after significant pressure from advocates and a wave of code violations were issued by the Bloomberg administration.

The meeting with FDIC officials followed a news conference held by community groups and elected officials including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn in which they criticized large multifamily lender New York Community Bank. The bank, they said, owns a large set of foreclosed properties in which physical conditions have deteriorated, with more foreclosures in the works. “By holding banks accountable now, there is a chance that the next landlord might actually be responsible—not just out to make a quick buck,” Ms. Quinn said in a statement.

Lenders point out that they often don’t have the ability to fix up deteriorating properties because they don’t have control of them. It can often take more than a year to take hold of a property given New York foreclosure laws, lenders say.

“It is truly unfortunate when economic conditions lead to foreclosures, and even more so when they cause a borrower to neglect his responsibilities to his building and his tenants,” a New York Community Bank spokeswoman said in a statement. “On the rare occasions when this does occur to someone we have lent to, we intervene to the extent we are permitted to do so but, as lenders, there are limits to what we can do.”

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