Ridgewood Tenants and Elected Officials Speak Out!

Denise Serrano of 1821 Cornelia Street Speaks to Speaker Quinn, CM Velazquez, CM Reyna, Assembly Member Mike Miller
Denise Serrano of 1821 Cornelia Street Speaks to Speaker Quinn, CM Velazquez, CM Reyna, Assembly Member Mike Miller, Antonio Reynoso

Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, City Councilwoman Diana Reyna and State Assemblyman Mike Miller, attorneys and advocates joined tenants from six extremely distressed buildings in Ridgewood, Queens on Monday of this week. The elected officials came together with the tenants to demand that Stabilis Capital Management, the mortgage holder on the properties, support a plan that will keep them permanently affordable. Tenants are suffering from leaks, mold, rodent infestation, falling ceilings, and a lack of basic plumbing, will also seek emergency repairs.

In an exciting move, tenants will be appearing in bankruptcy court with the help of pro bono counsel Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, LLP and Queens Legal Services to advocate for their right to safe and decent housing.

“As a resident of 1821 Cornelia St., I am concerned about the future of these six buildings,” said Tenant Leader Denise Serrano. “I grew up in Williamsburg, and thanks to rising rents my family was forced to move. I raised my children in this building, and on behalf of myself and my neighbors, I do not want to see that displacement happen again here.”

Stabilis’s purchase of the mortgage notes on these six buildings mirrors a recent trend wherein companies, armed with private equity money, acquire debt on regulated rental properties. The properties are often severely physically distressed due to years of foreclosure, and are often located in New York City’s gentrifying neighborhoods. Tenants and advocates fear that these acquisitions closely resemble speculation in the market before 2008, when private equity firms purchased large portfolios of rent-regulated apartment buildings, leading to foreclosure and mass deterioration of the housing stock. This week, tenants, elected officials, and organizers are calling on Stabilis Capital Management to break with this pattern and support the transfer of the properties to a non-profit developer who would provide extensive physical rehabilitation while keeping the properties affordable in perpetuity.

Tenants, who have been organizing for several months, have asked CATCH – a non-profit that practices mutual housing – to try and to take over their buildings.

“These buildings must be transferred to an owner who will rehabilitate them and keep rent affordable,” said Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez. “Tenants have suffered enough already because of poor managerial decisions.”

“I’m here today to support my constituents and neighbors who have been suffering from these horrific and unimaginable living conditions for over five years,” said Assemblymember Mike Miller. “I support the transfer of these properties to a non-profit developer who would provide the necessary repairs while keeping the rents affordable.”

“Stabilis must repair these buildings or sell them to a good developer who will” said City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn. “Whether these homes are in foreclosure or bankruptcy court, Stabilis’ obligations to provide services to tenants remains the same.  I want to thank Congresswoman Velazquez, Councilmember Reyna, UHAB, Legal Services, HPD, and especially all of the tenants for their hard work to save these homes.”

“Today, after months of discussion, organizing, and legal advocacy, we are able to stand before Stabilis and tell them: ‘We have a plan.’,” said Councilmember Diana Reyna. “We have a plan that will put an end to five years of undignified living conditions, that will ensure that the future of these families remains in the buildings they call home, and that will not undermine Stabilis’s business model. We are calling on Stabilis to include the tenants in any agreement to ensure that these properties are up to code and in the hands of those who live in the buildings.”

We can’t keep letting these vicious cycles sent buildings deeper into distress. Whether they live in a building in foreclosure, a building in bankruptcy or not, all tenants have the right to safe, decent housing,” said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. “When properties get this bad, we need everyone to come to the table – including banks and lenders – to put them back on sustainable tracks. Tenants deserve nothing less.”

“The blight and distress of these properties is not only hazardous to the well being of the families who live there, it also threatens the stability of the surrounding neighborhood,” said HPD Commissioner Mathew M. Wambua. “We are resolved to use our resources and enforcement tools, such as those in the Alternative Enforcement Program, to keep the pressure on negligent landlords and owners to ensure that these tenants get relief and the quality of housing that they deserve. We thank our elected officials for their partnership and support in working to end the cycle of overleveraging and distress that has plagued these buildings.”

 “The tenants in these six properties have suffered at the hands of predatory equity groups for long enough,” said Kerri White, Director of Organizing and Policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. “These buildings need to be transferred to a responsible developer with the capability of renovating them while keeping rents affordable for the residents. We will do anything in our power to reach this outcome, whether its demanding Stabilis work with HPD on a preservation sale, or advocating through the bankruptcy court, the tenants will keep fighting for what they deserve.”


City Government and Tenants Warn Speculative Buyers of the Vantage/ Lone Star Portfolio to Back Off!

Photo: William Alatriste, WNYC

Flor Matos, una de las residentes del inmueble 566, de la calle 190, que vive desde hace 29 años en el sitio, expresó sentirse muy preocupada ante la incertidumbre de no saber lo que va a pasar. “De llegarse a vender el edificio, por más de lo que vale, es casi seguro que nos van a subir la renta y continuaremos esperando para que nos reparen la calefacción.” (El Diario)

Flor Matos, one of the residents of the property at 566 W. 190th St, who has lived in the building for 29 years, said she was very concerned about the uncertainty of what will happen. “By selling the building for more than it’s worth, it is almost certain that they will continue to raise the rent and wait to repair the heat.” (Our own translation.) 

City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn

“It’s outrageous that Vantage and Lone Star would jeopardize the stable housing of hundreds of New Yorkers to turn a quick buck,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said in a statement. “If these buildings are sold with millions of dollars more in unsustainable debt, tenants will be the ones who pay the price when the new owners can’t make mortgage payments or repairs. I urge Lone Star and Vantage to put tenants first and to sell these properties to a responsible buyer who will ensure the upkeep of these buildings is maintained.” (Crain’s NY)

Commissioner of HPD Matt Wambua

“We want to make sure that to the extent that these buildings are sold that they’re sold to responsible owners and that they’re sold at prices that will be responsible prices,” HPD Commissioner Matthew Wambua said. (WNYC)

More Press is below. You can read HPD’s press release here, and please stay tuned as we continue to add press links throughout the day!

Micro-Apartments Hit NYC

Mayor Bloomberg, Dept of City Planning Director Amanda Burden (Left) and HPD Commissioner Matt Wambua (Right) in a mock-up micro-kitchen. Photo via the AP.

Yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the City of New York is going to undertake a new housing project, adAPT NYC, that will bend existing zoning rules to allow apartments as small as 275 square feet. The pilot program will start on city owned land on East 27th Street in Manhattan, and is designed to accommodate the growth of one and two member households in New York City. It will begin with a competition run by HPD, which is requesting proposals from architects and designers. The rules are thus: 75% of the units must be so-called “micro-units” and 20% of them must be for low-income individuals. The rest of the units must be “affordable,” which is pretty vague, but HPD Commissioner Matt Wambua claims they will rent for much lower than the $2000-$2700 that a typical one bedroom or studio goes for in Manhattan.

According to city data, New York City is made up of no less than 1.8 million one and two member households, but just 1 million studios and one-bedrooms. These apartments are typically more expensive (per room) than larger apartments, as a simple Craig’s List search can quickly demonstrate. Mr. Bloomberg is quoted in Crain’s New York as saying:

Developing housing that matches how New Yorkers live today is critical to the city’s continued growth, future competitiveness and long term economic success. The city’s demographics have changed. We have to change otherwise people will not come here.

This is an interesting program that we plan to watch as it gets off the ground, and it’s exciting to see a city responding in a creative way to its shifting population. However, adAPT seems to be geared towards young, single New Yorkers, recently graduated, attempting to break into the workforce, and seeking affordable housing. This population is not the target demographic of our work at UHAB: many of the tenants we work with are part of large families who are already in apartments that are too small for them. However, there is potential in this program to positively impact these low income families.  It is possible that young New Yorkers, currently living with roommates in larger apartments, are actually seeking smaller, more individual living spaces. If that is the case, perhaps the emerging micro-apartments will take the stress off the small number of well sized, rent-regulated housing stock.

Bloomberg claims the program has also been designed to discourage landlords who illegally subdivide apartments. This dangerous practice has contributed to the death of too many New Yorkers, many of them children, some of them firefighters. (You can read more about that here and here.) If this program serves to increase oversight and safety in apartments, and helps crack down on landlords looking to squeeze as much money out of their building as possible, we’re definitely for it.

All in all, mirco-apartments are not really a bad idea. Manhattan, at least, has seen a growth in one and two member households – they currently make up 76% of the island. Of course, we believe that the dire need in New York City affordable housing may be elsewhere. But as Kerri White of UHAB Organizing told the AP: as long as living conditions are good, and the rent stays affordable, we have no particular concerns about the program.

Eye Witness News Releases Investigative Report on New NYC Affordable Housing Stock

Yesterday, Eyewitness News released an investigative report on conditions in newly built affordable housing.  These buildings were constructed  as a result of Mayor Bloomberg’s big push to develop 165,000 units of affordable housing in the city.  Unfortunately, the housing stock has been proven to be architecturally unsound and dangerous to live in as a result of mold and leaks.

In each one [building], Eyewitness News found the dreams of working families to live comfortably drowned out by leaks.

“Water was actually pouring down as we came in to check apartment, had to be a main pipe that broke,” said Hermer Perez, a resident.

“So, whenever it snows or rains you can’t use your bedroom?” Hoffer asked.

“Yes, that’s it,” the resident said.

“You should be able to sleep in your room,” Hoffer said.

“I know,” the resident said.

“All the water came through cracks in ceilings and it was like it was raining in here,” said Erika Martinez, a resident.

The leaks have damaged new units that rent for up to $1,500: warped window sills, water stained ceilings, and mold.

As tenant organizers, we regularly see atrocious conditions like the ones described here.  The difference is we generally work  with tenants suffering in old, rent-stabilized apartment buildings which have been caught up in the process of predatory equity and as a result severely neglected.  What is shocking in this case is that there is no excuse for such malfunctioning architecture- the buildings are brand new!

No one says it better than Lantanya Rentas, a resident of one of these buildings in the Bronx.

“This is a brand new building?” Hoffer asked.

“Yes it is,” said Lantanya Rentas, a resident.

“What do you make of that?” Hoffer asked.

“A cheap job, fast work, they just wanted their money I guess,” Rentas said.

To read the report, click here.

Crain’s New York Business: “Sold! Birthplace of Hip Hop Beats the Rap.”

A Bronx building famed for its role in the origins of the musical phenomenon escapes the clutches of a “predatory equity” scourge the tenants feared would lead to its demise.

Read more at Crain’s New York Business.


New York Times: “For Birthplace of Hip Hop, New Life”

After a long struggle, ownership of a Bronx building known as the birthplace of hip-hop, which had fallen into neglect and foreclosure, was taken over on Monday by a group that specializes in preserving working-class housing.

The building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Morris Heights neighborhood was, in the early 1970s, the home of D.J. Kool Herc, whose community room parties were pivotal to the early development of hip-hop.

Read more at the NY Times.

Change is coming to the South Bronx

In the past week, both Crain’s New York and the New York Times have published articles hailing big growth in the Bronx. Three Cheers for the Blossoming Bronx, in Crain’s, discusses the growth in jobs, wages, and housing stock that are creating a near-renaissance in the borough that “just rings of New York.” It discusses the potential that the Bronx has to weather the economic storm and continue to develop throughout financial crisis. Government Can’t Help? Tell that to the South Bronx in the New York Times talks about the role that government agencies – specifically New York City agencies – have played in rebuilding and redefining the northernmost borough. Reaching all the way back to Ed Koch’s mayoral terms, the article praises New York City government for exerting such a positive influence on an area of the city that desperately needed its help.  They’re both good and hopeful articles, and it’s great to see such praise bestowed on what can sometimes feel like New York’s forgotten borough.

The Bronx is the only borough on the mainland and is therefore the only major shipping and transportation link between New York City and the rest of the state. 18-wheelers (full of all the stuff that more than 8 million New Yorkers want or need) creep along these highways and cover the borough in exhaust so thick that carbon monoxide levels are twice the national average and 38 points higher than the New York City metro area as a whole. Additionally, most of the trains in the Bronx travel above ground, further compounding the serious air-pollution problem.

And we obviously know, the housing is a mess. The residents who have secured decent housing have to spend exorbitant amounts of energy fighting to keep it decent. For many Bronx residents, ensuring that repairs are made and that they are not taken advantage of by scummy landlords consumes almost as much time as a second job.

That all being said, the Bronx has changed for the better. But the struggle for decent neighborhoods has many chapters left. (For example, neither article mentions what’s going to happen if this growth continues, and residents begin to get pushed out. Neither article mentions how – if at all – the city plans to protect affordability as the Bronx blossoms.) What I’m saying is that all those people working hard to make these celebrated changes in New York City’s poorest borough – which contains the nation’s poorest 2010 census district – should not rest on their laurels. The Bronx needs its politicians, residents, and advocates to consider serious structural changes regarding housing, transportation, and economic growth. Without this, the Bronx cannot deliver the safety and affordability that its residents deserve.