The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: new york city

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?

Crown Heights Tenant Union To Meet This Thursday

Photo: San Fran.'s Tenant Union

Photo: San Francisco Tenant Union

Crown Heights is gentrifying.  Everyone knows it, but how does it actually play out on the ground? When a neighborhood gentrifies, where are the people who used to live there?  (Often, those experiences are lost and made invisible.  San Francisco’s Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is working to bring this issue into the public eye through sidewalk stencils.)

Along with gentrification comes harassment and illegal activity.  When landlords project that property values will rise, they purchase a building for too much money, assuming they’ll make it back through the high rents that they’ll be able to charge.  Unfortunately, what they don’t take into account is that many New York City buildings are rent stabilized, and that rents can’t just be raised willy-nilly.  So they use other tactics: Harassment,  Major Capital Improvements,  Lack of repairs, Buy-outs.  Anything to force long term tenants out to bring in new, higher paying ones.

In order to pay back a too-big mortgage, landlords don’t stop with the illegal activity after getting a long term tenant to move out.  Instead, they illegally overcharge new tenants, often young people who are also unaware of New York City rent laws.  Some landlords (like ZT Realty) overcharge unsuspecting newbies thousands of dollars.  And the worst part is, they get away with it!  (And they continue to buy more buildings!)  This is the cycle of predatory equity when it works for landlords.  Because the debt levels on these buildings are so high, if landlords were to actually abide by rent laws and respect tenant rights, they wouldn’t be able to pay back their mortgages and the buildings (like so many that we see) would fall into foreclosure.

A group of tenants in Crown Heights have begun meeting as a Tenant Union, hoping to organize and make demands to landlords, lenders, and the City.  Many of the tenants have lived in the neighborhood for decades, and have been experiencing landlord harassment and decreased services, and want to speak up for their rights.  Others have lived in the neighborhood a year or two, and don’t like what they’ve been seeing or are personally being illegally overcharged.

UHAB has been organizing with small, distressed buildings in this neighborhood for years, and have seen this same pattern play out over and over.  We decided to team up with the Crown Heights Assembly to jump-start the Tenant Union and launch a campaign to protect tenant rights and preserve affordable housing.  Join us for the third meeting of the Crown Heights Tenant Union.  We’ll be meeting Thursday evening, 7:00 at 805 St. Marks (between Brooklyn and New York Ave).  

Mapping a Tale of Two Cities

Everyone is talking about Bill de Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities.”  One is the rich New York, the other is the poor, working class New York.  That division can be seen on gender lines, racial lines, and political lines. But there is one uniting factor in all of BDB’s divided New York: everyone voted for him. Winning by a landslide, Mr. De Blasio will become New York City’s mayor in January and, with that, the platform of income inequality (Occupy Wall St, sound familiar?)

 Atlantic Cities published a map illustrating the two cities by percentage change in property values between 2008 and 2012.  The map essentially shows which neighborhoods were hardest hit by the housing crisis:

With a few exceptions, it’s Manhattan and adjacent sections of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx that have seen assessments go up in the data from the New York Department of Finance that Walker mapped, which encompasses 958,000 properties. In many of the working-class neighborhoods of the outer boroughs, the value of real estate has actually fallen.

 This map speaks to two main issues in housing: first, that low-income tenants residing in wealthier or gentrifying areas are being forced out of their homes due to speculation and predatory equity.  It also speaks to the ways that the foreclosure crisis has hit homeowners, specifically black homeowners, in a particularly hard way. It’s clear who suffers and who profits in these scenarios. Working class and middle class New Yorkers loose homes, equity, and stability, while wealthy New Yorkers (bankers, landlords, and developers living in high income neighborhoods) profit.

 In our work, we see mostly the tenant side of the story. We see low income tenants living in buildings and neighborhoods swept up in predatory equity.  Tenants are harassed through fees added on to their rents, through lack of repairs, though illegal rent increases. We see this is the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Ridgewood, but also throughout the Northwest and Central Bronx.

 While speculators may be throwing huge amounts of money into gentrifying neighbors, out of town private equity companies have not done their research on the “Tale of Two Cities.”  It seems like speculators assume that they can skirt rent laws, force tenants out, and bring in higher paying tenants.  Too bad for them, many tenants, especially the ones we work with, are organized and know their rights.  Bill de Blasio has promised to fight for a a rent freeze, something we’d certainly support and that would make the Predatory Equity model even more unsustainable. While Michael Bloomberg’s administration – by the own admission – doesn’t know what to do about gentrification a rent freeze would go a long way towards keeping neighborhoods affordable and discouraging speculation.

Speaking of speculation, journalists near and far are speculating whether or not a de Blasio mayoralty will live up to it’s progressive campaign platform. We hope so. Here’s another thing we know: if he starts to waver on his housing goals, there are organized tenants all over New York City ready to hold him to his promises. We’re with them.

 

Organizers Meet with the Tenant Protection Unit

As the first part of its series of Fall Organizing Trainings, ANHD gathered about 20 tenants and organizers for its “Working with DHCR’s Tenant Protection Unit” session on October 8th. The conversation was led by Ericka Stallings, director of the Initiative for Neighborhood and City-Wide Organizing. Its purpose was to demystify the Tenant Protection Unit (or TPU), a New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal sub-unit that was created in 2012. Its self-stated purpose is as follows:

 The TPU works proactively to:

  • Protect the rights of rent regulated tenants and provide information to both tenants and owners
  • Increase compliance with and enforce rent regulation laws
  • Detect landlords’ fraudulent acts and non-compliance with housing laws

The first part of the three-hour session was a discussion among the organizers about what they knew about the TPU, what they’d like to know, and any direct experience they’ve had so far with the unit. Then in the second part of the session, representatives from TPU joined us to give more information and answer questions. Here is a summary of what was discussed:

The TPU focuses on widespread patterns in landlord behavior, rather than dealing with individual tenant cases. For example, they may start by looking at trends like which neighborhoods rent is increasing the fastest in. Forensic auditing experts then conduct investigations on landlords, and can subpoena them for documents. This information is used to build cases against landlords – hence their unofficial slogan, “TPU is coming after you”.

This article illustrates some of the work the unit has done so far, including investigating a terrible slumlord in Flatbush and bringing tens of thousands of units back into the rent regulation system. Two other issues they work on are increasing the number of landlords who register the rents in their buildings, and auditing Individual Apartment Improvement (IAI) rent increases.

According to the TPU, when you submit a complaint, the more information you have the better. This can consist of photos, surveys filled out by tenants, documents given to tenants, bills, leases, court papers, and notes taken during conversations with the landlord. The complaint should relate to a larger, pervasive problem in New York City rent regulated housing. The TPU evaluates whether they will further investigate based on their capacity and their overall strategy.

Our task now is to find out how to best leverage the TPU’s resources in our organizing. Some important limits to be aware of: their staff is about 30 people, and their jurisdiction is only in rent stabilization. We look forward to working with the TPU, and we hope they will be a valuable addition to our fight against irresponsible and predatory landlords.

Speculator today, slumlord… today?

broken stairs 10.7.13 now fixed

After two years of tenant organizing, not that much shocks me anymore.  I’ve seen holes in ceilings, mold covering bedroom walls, and families living without basic amenities like fridges or stoves.  But walking into 755 Jackson Avenue in the Bronx was a shock.

A quick rundown: The building has 11 units and 215 code violations. It’s in HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program, and on the Bill de Blasio’s Worst Landlord List.  The building has asbestos, lead paint, mold, leaks, and two tenants were injured on a collapsed staircase (pictured above).

And if that’s not enough, it’s owned by the one and only Stabilis Capital Management.  (In case you forgot, Stabilis is the lender on 836 Faile Street and six buildings in Ridgewood, all of which are in foreclosure and in deplorable condition.)

Wait! Stop the presses!  Stabilis owns buildings?  That was our question, too, given that we’ve only ever seen them acting as a mortgage holder interested in flipping debt.

That probably was their plan here as well, but things went wrong: Stabilis bought the debt at 755 Jackson Ave while the building was in foreclosure.  When the building went to auction, we assume no one bid and Stabilis took the title by default. It seems like it was all a big mistake. With a lot of consequences.

While Stabilis became owner in June, they have done nothing to step forward and claim responsibility for the building.  This has left tenants in a position where they don’t know who to call in an emergency or who to pay rent to. It leaves the City responsible for repairs. The building is effectively abandoned.

We’re now organizing at Jackson Avenue and tenants are planning to push Stabilis out of their building. And now that we know how Stabilis treats the buildings they own, we’re doubly fired up to fight against them at Faile Street and in Ridgewood, Queens.

Tenants, elected officials, and advocates are demanding that Stabilis find a responsible way to dispose of this property, and the other distressed multifamily buildings in their portfolio.  Check out Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo’s letter to Stabilis Capital here, and stay tuned to our campaign!!

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