NY Daily News: “Determined West Farm Tenants Band Together to Fix Up Neglected Bronx Slum Building, Work to Form Co-op”

The New York Daily News  reported on an amazing group of tenants today. The tenants at 943 E 179th street, have shown amazing resilence in face of a seemingly hopeless situation. Their building has been in foreclosure for several years, the owner has disappeared, and the court appointed a receiver has yet to step foot in the building. This is what abandonment looks like in New York today. With nobody around to make repairs or take responsibility many tenants in this situation either leave or are forced to live in horrific conditions. The tenants at 943 decided to take a different rout. They’ve been collecting their own rent for several months which goes into an account under the Tenant’s Association, and they have been using it to make their building livable again.

The residents still have a long way to go. They want to become a Co-op because  after years of poor management, they feel that no one will look after the building better than themselves. After seeing what they’ve done so far, it would be hard to disagree with them. Check out what the Daily News has to say about these tenants:

From New York Daily News: Jacqueline Rodriguez and fellow tenants Jose Luis Alameda (left) and Marcelo Alameda at 943 E. 179th St.

Some tenants in slum buildings with rats and leaks stop paying rent. Others move out, complain or ask for handouts.

But when their Bronx tenement crumbled due to landlord neglect, the tenants at 943 E. 179th St. banded together to collect rent and make repairs.

Now they boast new kitchen cabinets, refrigerators, stoves, walls and floors, and they could become homeowners soon.

With help from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, the tenants hope to buy their beloved West Farms building outright and form a co-op.

Department of Housing Preservation and Development officials harbor concerns about tenants performing renovations without permission rather than letting the city force landlords to make repairs.

But Jacqueline Rodriguez and her neighbors were tired of waiting.

“Most of the people here have been here a long time,” said Rodriguez, tenant association president. “They don’t want another landlord. No one is going to take care of the building better than the people who live here.”

Tucked between E. Tremont Ave. and the Bronx Zoo, 943 E. 179th St. began to deteriorate in 2007, after a Hamptons-based landlord purchased the four-story walkup, said Rodriguez, 32, a recreational therapist who grew up in the building.

Broken pipes and windows went unmended and cockroaches swarmed to the slum. The 9-unit building still has 248 open housing code violations. It entered foreclosure in 2008, with Lehman Brothers holding the mortgage: a nightmare scenario, said Kerri White, UHAB organizer.

“There were no repairs at all,” said Rodriguez, 32, a mother of twin infants. “We suffered without hot water for six months and without heat for months…You pay your rent and you don’t know where the money is going.”

The tenants found out about the foreclosure in 2010, when they were instructed to pay their rent to Con Edison via city marshals. Their landlord owed the utility $38,000, Rodriguez said.

The revelation spurred Rodriguez and her neighbors to form a tenants association and corporation. They opened a bank account to hold their rent in escrow.

In five months under the new system, the tenants have used their rent money to remodel several kitchens, buy new appliances and hire an exterminator.

“When I got here there were roaches and rats all over, in every crevice,” said exterminator Major Meyers of Complete Enterprize. “Now there are minimal issues.”

Several tenants who boast carpentry skills have donated their time and Rodriguez has taught some English to neighbors who speak only Spanish. The building “feels like a family” now, she said.

HPD has completed $80,714 in emergency repairs, and helped with boiler oil.

The building
–controlled by
Lehman-affiliated mortgage holder 745 Special Assets LLC
, and Aurora Bank
— could head to foreclosure auction soon.

But the tenants and UHAB are negotiating to acquire the slum before that occurs, White said.

Buying the building and founding a co-op will be difficult, but longtime tenant Juana Almanzar is up for the challenge, she said.

“I like it better with us in charge,” said Almanzar, 52. “I want to own my home.”

Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/bronx/determined-west-farms-tenants-band-fix-neglected-bronx-slum-building-work-form-co-op-article-1.1051118#ixzz1qKaU7vM7


Are “Banklords” the New “Slumlords?”

Photo via NPR.org

Last Friday’s Morning Edition included a segment titled “With Banks as Landlords, Some Tenants Neglected.” You can read the story or listen to the segment here. This story touches on an issue we at The Surreal Estate hold near and dear: how the foreclosure crisis is affecting those who live in rental housing. We believe that tenants are truly the most innocent victims of the foreclosure crisis; they are suffering without ever having signed a mortgage.

The families interviewed for this segment live with bed bugs, mold, leaks, fallen ceilings and aging appliances: the same litany of abuse that tenants in New York City face in their day to day lives. The article grapples with an emerging issue in the weak multifamily housing market: lenders who become landlords as buildings are unable to be sold at foreclosure auction. This category of bank-owned property is known as Real Estate Owned, or “REO.” It is unsurprising that banks who make bad loans also are negligent property owners.

There is one significant difference between the New York City market and the markets discussed in Morning Edition. (Oakland, CA and Washington, DC) In New York, we have yet to see a real influx of REO properties to multifamily housing market. It seems there is no shortage of idiots willing to pay top-dollar to own property in New York City. As one person described it recently, far-flung speculators don’t necessarily know the difference between Park and 72nd and Park and 172nd. To them, it’s all just Park Avenue. Perhaps as the market stays depressed and the amount of foreclosures continues to rise, we will come across more REO properties. But for now we’re just beating off slumlords with a stick to try and clear the path for qualified preservation developers.

New Foreclosure Legislation Would Require Banks to be More Transparent

Yesterday, New York 1 reported on legislation proposed by Christine Quinn that would require banks to notify the city when they’re going to put a building in foreclosure. This legislation will help tenants who live in foreclosed buildings continue to get the services they need, which is very important, considering foreclosure often means divestment and deterioration for the buildings.

The tenants who live in 164 Dikeman, the building featured in the NY1 video, are a great example of why this type of legislation is needed. For this building, the foreclosure process consisted of an absentee landlord and deteriorating conditions.  The residents discovered that the foreclosure was only the tip of the iceberg of the buildings problems. Due to the poor conditions the building fell into the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s (HPD) Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP), meaning it was one of the 200 worst buildings in the city. On top of this, the residents realized all the tenants were being illegally overcharged for rent, while receiving no services. The tenants were able to file for rent reductions to have the legal rents restored, but while this was going on the bank sold the notes to a building to a Eman Realty who has now become the owner.

Unfortunately, the new owner has not proved to be more responsive than the last.  Eman Realty’s principal, Alexander Varveris, has a history of being a neglectful landlord.  Eman took over in September, yet tenants have seen very little change in the building.

Besides tipping the city to be on the lookout for declining physical conditions, another reason this legislation could be helpful is it could provide more time for the tenants to have a voice in what happens to their homes after the foreclosure ends. The tenants at Dikeman were not able to intervene in the sale of the note because they were not aware that was a possibility and that a new landlord was going to take over through a note sale. The residents are fed up with the neglect and would like the building to become Co-op. The tenants and UHAB are currently organizing and working towards this goal, but this outcome might have come sooner and possibly easier for the tenants if the foreclosure proceedings were more transparent to the city and to residents of the buildings.

VIDEO: 1520 Sedgwick Auction Celebration!

1520 Sedgwick tenants today triumphed against Predatory Equity! Watch them celebrate at the foreclosure auction!

For a history of the building, read here!

The Birthplace of Hip-Hop Reborn….At Last!


Ok,  I hope you are adequately inspired to talk about preserving some affordable housing.

That video was taken four years ago in the famous community room of 1520 Sedgwick– aka the place where DJ Kool Herc is considered by many to have launched a new music form now known as Hip-Hop. The building’s other notable distinction was to have been one of the the first housing developments built through the Mitchell-Lama program, a New York State subsidy offering that created affordable housing for low and moderate income New Yorkers.

In 2007, Real Estate in NYC was booming (or bubbling depending on your point of view).  It was the height of the Real Estate market and 1520 Sedgwick became a target. Speculators were paying outrageous prices to get a hold of apartment buildings and banks were making irresponsible loans, fueling a very dangerous trend. (UHAB would come name this practice “Predatory Equity” and Sedgwick was one of the earliest victims).

Mark Karasick, a luxury commercial real-estate developer, set his sights on 1520. Later he admitted this was part of a “flipping scheme” in which he planned to deregulate and resell 4000 apartments throughout the Bronx.

The tenants were outraged, ready to organize and prepared to fight for their homes.  The residents began working with UHAB and Tenants & Neighbors on a preservation campaign. Tremendous support flooded in from a number of places, but most notably from  Senator Schumer,Congressman Serrano and “Hip-Hop Founder”,  DJ Kool Herc (tip: if you have a morbid curiosity to watch Senator Schumer try to rap, you should click this link).

Eventually, Sedgwick was granted status as the actual Birthplace of Hip-Hop and designated as eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The residents fought hard, but greed won out and Karasick took ownership of 1520 Sedgwick, removed it from the Mitchel-Lama program, and quickly let it fall into a state of disrepair.

The Tenant Association remained strong and stayed on Karasick. Eventually, the outrageous amount of debt Karasick had loaded onto the building overwhelmed the project and Sedgwick went into foreclosure.

The tenants of 1520 Sedgwick were particularly lucky to have the on-going support of the city housing agencies, HPD and HDC. Both government agencies stayed diligent when it came to Sedgwick and both code-enforcement and emergency repairs kept the building from falling off a cliff under Karasick’s ownership.

Most significantly, when a affordable housing group stepped in an effort to get rid of Karasick and to work with tenants to bring stability and affordability back to the building, HPD and HDC endorsed the plan, committing to support the project for the long-term.

Tables Turn:

Today, shortly after 2pm, at the Bronx Supreme Court, a foreclosure was held on 1520 Sedgwick. The winner of the auction was Workforce Housing Advisers  the affordable housing group who has been working with  residents and HPD. The rehabilitation of the buildings is slated to start before the end of the year, and a regulatory agreement that dictates long-term affordability (not unlike the Mitchell-Lama program!) will go into effect almost immediately.

Tenants were at the auction to witness the culmination of their long, and ultimately succesful battle to save their homes.

It is difficult to adequately describe what this victory means to all those fought long and hard to preserve the Birthplace of Hip-Hop.

What comes to mind is a single word…. hope. Hope that the future for this building will be as bright as its past. Hope for the countless other buildings that have fallen victim to predatory equity that a better future might await them too.

So tonight (and probably tomorrow too) we will raise a glass to the tenants of 1520 Sedgwick and their team of supporters….they fought back and they won!

For more history of the fight to Save 1520 Sedgwick, check out the following articles:

Will Gentrification Spoil the Birthplace of Hip-Hop? NY Times May 2007

An Effort to Honor the Birthplace of Hip-Hop  NY Times July 2007

City Rejects Sale of Building Known as Hip-Hop’s Birthplace NY Times March 2008

Bronx Building to be Withdrawn from Mitchell-Lama Participation NY Times August 2008

Problems Mount at Bronx Building Bought in a Bubble NY Times January 2010

Saving the Birthplace of Hip-Hop Shelterforce Spring 2010

Gotham Gazette: “Foreclosures Leave Apartment Building in Need of Repair.”

This month’s housing article at the Gotham Gazette features 1255 Longfellow, a building that The Surreal Estate began organizing in June. On Monday, our friends in UHAB’s Development Department did us a favor and came out to the building to do a rough building needs assessment. They determined that the building would only be habitable for a short-while longer, and that it needed at least $2.5-3 Million in repairs.

The housing bubble may have burst a few years ago, but many New Yorkers — and the buildings they live in – can still feel the pain. An estimated 30,000 foreclosures are pending in courts in the five boroughs, with many cases lingering for years as owners and lenders abandon the properties and leave renters to cope with woeful and often dangerous conditions.

Much of the attention during the crisis has focused on owners of single-family dwelling who cannot meet their mortgage payments and end up losing their homes, thousands of renters whose landlords default also have their homes at risk. While recent litigation and a push for new legislation have combined to shine a light on this situation, changes are not coming soon enough for residents whose homes are literally falling apart.

Read more at Gotham Gazette.

Surviving Irene, in a New York Community Bank Building

Just one short week ago, New Yorkers were running around mad with hurricane prep. By Sunday morning it was all over…and for many of us, the Irene’s bark was much worse than her bite. The trains were up and running again by Monday morning and some were calling it the “hurricane that wasn’t.”

Not for tenants. Many of the buildings we work with leak with a slight drizzle. Some tenants report flooding if their neighbor upstairs is just doing the dishes. These buildings could not sustain even the large scale rain storm that Irene turned into.

Some tenants took matters into their own hands. The photo above is of 230 Schenectady, where tenants fashioned a tarp out of a kiddie pool to try and block off some of the water. They report that it helped, a bit, but basement flooding, and severe sewage issues related to the storm.

Not all tenants were able to climb up to their roof and build their own, makeshift shelters. Below is a picture of a ceiling at 1255 Longfellow. It began to leak on Saturday evening with the heavy rain, and by Saturday morning it had entirely caved in.

These buildings are both in foreclosure and the tenants have no hope of repairs. New York Community bank is the mortgage holder, and they have been notified numerous times about the unlivable conditions in both of these buildings.  They continue to refuse to work with tenants, advocates and HPD to provide relief.

New York Community Bank does not have a plan to dispose of these mortgages in a responsible way, that ensures proper repairs and long term affordability. New York Community Bank does not intend to provide the necessary relief to make these buildings livable. It’s time to make New York Community Bank take responsibility for their bad lending practices!