The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

Tag Archives: predatory equity

Flipped Again: More Private Equity Groups Speculate on The Three Borough Pool Portfolio

PHOTO: JOHN TAGGART FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

PHOTO: JOHN TAGGART FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal reported on the most recent update in the saga of the Three Borough Pool, a group of 42 buildings which over the last 8 years have been packaged together in one mortgage, speculated on, foreclosed on, refinanced and is currently being broken up and flipped again. This group of buildings is another example of the continuing cycle of predatory equity and is further proof that we have yet to come up with a solution to the problem of speculation in the rent regulated housing market.

UHAB has been tracking and organizing in this portfolio for several years. It is one of the classic examples of predatory equity. Three private equity companies (Normandy Real Estate Partners, Westbrook Partners, and Vantage Properties) partnered up with David Kramer, the president of Colonial Management, to package 42 buildings spread across the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan. The investment group took out a mortgage with Barclays who then packaged the note into a Commercial Mortgage Backed Security (CMBS.) Securities like this were a common tool that many believe contributed to the 2008 financial crisis and are disastrous for affordable housing. In the Three Borough Pool, like other CMBS portfolios (Stuyvesant TownRiverton, Fordham Towers/Robert Fulton Terrace, and the Milbank portfolio) the owners eventually defaulted on their mortgages and the buildings fell into foreclosure. In 2013, UHAB and other housing advocates began working with tenants in the buildings to push for a responsible sale of the properties. However, two of the private equity companies that led the building to foreclosure were able to refinance and pull the buildings out of foreclosure. It is these companies who are now once again selling the buildings.

This weekend’s WSJ piece focuses on 8 of the 42 buildings; these 8 properties were recently sold to a real estate investment company called Black Spruce Management. According to Normandy & Westbrook, prior to the sale they made a lot of repairs to the buildings. This assertion comes as a surprise to the tenants who are facing major condition concerns on a daily basis. HPD code violations have actually increased over the past year, but the problem is actually deeper than that. These buildings have a long history of neglect and failing conditions, and they need more than patch work that could clear violations. The night before this story came out, one of my co-organizers received a call from a tenant in one of these buildings who was in tears because she found a rat in her living room in the apartment she shares with her grandchildren. Tenants in these buildings have suffered from systematic leaks, mold and lack of heat and hot water. These problems are deeper than code violation repair, they are problems which demand more extensive renovation, which would require a large financial commitment. Considering the amount that Black Spruce paid for these buildings, it is unclear if there is financing for this type of deep repair work.

The WSJ story claims that the new debt on these properties is considered low. First of all, the new mortgage of these buildings is an average of about $83,000/unit. This is the same average debt level as when the owners defaulted on the CMBS mortgage. Second, the mortgage does not tell the whole story. The full purchase price on the 8 buildings was over $57 million, or about $110,000/unit. This means about 25% of the financing is equity investment. As Black Spruce mentioned from the article, they are backed by investors: investors who are presumably seeking a return on the millions of dollars they gave to Black Spruce to purchase these buildings. Having a “lower” mortgage at the expense of putting more off the books equity into the deal does not solve the underlying problem: these are rent regulated buildings with low-income tenants and limited ability for rent increases. If the financial stability of the buildings is contingent on large rent increases, this portfolio will fail. Unless, of course, the plan is to either push the current low income residents out of their homes in order to raise rents, or to starve the buildings of money needed for maintenance in an attempt to keep costs down. This is not a new practice. This is Predatory Equity 2.0, the same kind of speculative financial venture that landed these buildings in foreclosure in the first place.

This type of speculation is particularly relevant as we approach June 15th, when the current rent regulations are set to expire. The current rent regulations are not strong enough. Advocates and tenants know that it is impossible for landlords to achieve their financial expectations when they over pay for buildings by continuing to rent to the low and moderate income families who have lived in these buildings for years. Predatory equity, like in the Three Borough Pool, makes rent regulated tenants the victims of harassment as landlords aim to push them out to achieve higher rent increases. It is vital that our legislators in Albany recognize the importance of strengthening the rent regulation laws. It has become a business practice for landlords to buy buildings with the intention of violating our laws and we shouldn’t allow it to continue. The only way we will be able to put a stop to these illegal practices is for our elected officials to reinforce the original intentions of the stabilization laws: to protect tenants in these buildings from being held hostage by greedy landlords who seek to make a profit off the suffering of our neighbors and our communities.

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.

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.  

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?

Accepting Money to Leave

money

Predatory equity takes place when landlords buy buildings based on the “projected” rents of a building rather than the current ones, subsequently paying huge amounts of money for rent stabilized affordable housing.  The only way the finances will work is by forcing out long term residents and bringing in higher paying ones.  This process, also known as gentrification, is taking place in rent stabilized, affordable housing all over New York City.

Predatory landlords do everything in their power to get long terms residents to leave their apartments such as ignoring tenant rights, decreasing basic services, or offering buy-outs.  While asking tenants to accept money to leave isn’t illegal, it almost always is against the tenants’ interests.   (Check out our one-pager on how to decide whether or not to accept a buy-out)  One super at 725 4th Ave in South Slope, Brooklyn spoke with the Gothamist about his experience asking tenants to accept buy-outs to move:

“He said he was hired with a mandate to clean up the building,” so he did.  It was his job.

After the fourth of fifth [buy-out], Duarte said, “I felt like I was doing wrong,” but people kept coming, and if he wanted to keep his job and support his family, he had to continue paying out. Twenty families left in the first round…Some tell Duarte that taking a buyout was the biggest mistake of their lives. He is sympathetic, but said, “I never pushed anybody out. They asked me, and I made an offer. I hoped they didn’t take it.

Long term residents living in Crown Heights, Bushwick, and other quickly gentrifying neighborhoods have their own stories of being offered buy-outs.  Most often than not, tenants who accept money to leave will have a hard time finding a new apartment in the neighborhood in a similar price range.  Families and communities are uprooted.  Furthermore, each time a family leaves, the price of an apartment unit increases, and the precious stock of affordable housing diminishes.

This crisis is not just a trendy Brooklyn one.  At 836 Faile St. in Hunts Point, tenants have been offered $3,000 to move out of their rent stabilized homes! (Likely this is to produce a cluster-site homeless shelter and allow private developers to profit off of evicting long term residents and exploiting the homeless crisis).

The more tenants understand their rights and the pros and cons of accepting buy-outs, the more they are determined to fight for their homes.  To learn about how to fight back against predatory landlords, come out to the Crown Heights Tenant Union meetings every 3rd Thursday of the month at 7:00 pm at the Center for Nursing the Rehabilitation.

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