Milbank, How We Got Here

There are not always easy answers. Sometimes during a campaign hard decisions have to be made based on what you know you can get now, or waiting and fighting for something that may be better, but could possibly be worse. Unfortunately, in our affordable housing campaigns, like in our lives, not everything is under control and there are times when the outcomes are not clear. These times are very difficult for tenants and organizers because there isn’t a right choice. Sometimes you just have to do the best you can with the information you have.

This brings us to the topic of today’s post, Milbank. As you may know, there was a press conference held on April 19th with many elected officials, Steve Finkelstein and of course, the tenants. As many noted, it was a beautiful day, the kind of day that makes you feel like nothing can ever go wrong. This optimistic feeling spread through the press conference as many expressed their surety that Finkelstein Timberger Real Estate will bring a great outcome to the families who live in the buildings. This picture glosses over a lot of the hard work and tough decisions it took to get to this place.

Let us rewind to a few months back, when the atmosphere was much drearier. A few months ago, it didn’t seem like a sure victory for the Milbank buildings. The tenants and advocates knew that there were many purchasers interested in the buildings and the special servicer, LNR, who was in charge of managing the loan through the foreclosure, was adamantly against working with the tenants. It seemed unlikely they would be willing to take a severe cut in order to sell to a preservation purchaser: someone whose main goal would be preserving the safety and affordability of the housing for the tenants who live there. Because of this, tenants had to make some pretty tough decisions on what would be an acceptable outcome.

In November, Finkelstein Timberger Real Estate began working on purchasing the building and had a several meetings with the tenants, their attorneys and advocates. Tenants expressed their many concerns, including rent increases, back rent demands and the extent of repairs. There was a lot of debate if this would be a good outcome for the buildings. Tenants spent a long time discussing the pros and cons of moving forward with Finkelstein. In the end, they wanted an owner, someone who could be held accountable. Plus, buildings needed immediate intervention, so the tenants decided if they could protect their rights, then moving forward with Finkelstein might be the best option. So the tenants, with their attorneys, began to work on a list of demands that any owner would have to comply with. This was later turned into the set of agreements that Finkelstein signed with the tenants.

There is no doubt that the tenants feel it was a victory to get Finkelstein to make an agreement with them, as well as another with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and it was a long and difficult decision process to decide what would have to be included that would protect the tenants’ rights and assure them that their homes would be taken care of.

Now that Steve Finkelstein has finalized the purchase of the building, we will hopefully begin to move forward. Everyone is hoping he is a man of his word, and he certainly has a lot to lose ($1.75 million) if he doesn’t keep up his part of the deal. However, the Milbank tenants have suffered years of disrepair, harassment and dangerous living conditions, and we are all hoping that this era has come to an end.

So what do we do in the meantime? We wait, but not standing silently in the wings. Tenants are watching every move Finkelstein Timberger makes. They know they have the power of organizing – and they are going to use it.They will not stand for Finkelstein to ignore their concerns about the buildings the way that Milbank and other previous landlords ignored them. The mood at the press conference felt somewhat conclusive. But for the tenants this is not over until all the work is done and they once more live in safe, secure habitable housing.

The Milbank story is inspiring, and tenants in Finkelstein’s buildings all over New York City are using it to demand better conditions from their landlord. Starting tonight, tenants from 1055 Grand Concourse – a property he purchased in November – are meeting with lawyers, officials, and Finkelstein Timberger to demand better conditions in their homes, too. With any luck, and with a lot of organizing and collective power, Milbank can become pattern for tenants in affordable housing: demand agreements, require oversight, and most of all: don’t rest until the affordability is secure and repairs are made!

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