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.”


Rep. Velázquez, Speaker Quinn, Council Member González, Tenants and Housing Advocates Demand Immediate Repairs On Neglected Homes

sunset park

Distressed buildings have 684 total violations; Among most hazardous in the City

Brooklyn, NY – City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, Congresswoman Nydia M. Velázquez and Council Member Sara M. González today joined tenants, Occupy Sunset Park, and UHAB from three distressed Sunset Park buildings languishing in foreclosure to demand the mortgage holder, Seryl LLC, meet with tenants and remedy 684 outstanding violations or sell the properties to a responsible new owner who will. 

In 2011, Astoria Savings Bank foreclosed on 545, 553 and 557 46th Street in Brooklyn and sold the note to private equity company Seryl LLC.  Since then, the buildings have deteriorated and fallen into disrepair, with tenants subjected to mold, persistently leaky roofs and ceilings, lead paint and rodents throughout their homes.

“It is unconscionable that tenants should suffer due to poor financial decisions made by their building’s owners and because of risky moves made by housing speculators,” said Congresswoman Nydia M. Velázquez.  “The owners of these buildings need to immediately step in and repair these properties, so residents have a safe, decent place to raise their families.”

The three buildings have 684 total violations spread over 51 apartments, with an average of 13 violations per unit. The NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s (HPD) has an extensive history of enforcement action at these properties in efforts to hold the ownership’s for its failure to respond to the tenant’s concerns and the serious maintenance issues that were going unaddressed.

In January, the properties entered HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP), a groundbreaking initiative spearheaded by Speaker Quinn that authorizes HPD to annually target the 200 most physically distressed buildings in the City to hold the landlords accountable for their repair and rehabilitation.

Conditions in the building include mold, water leaks in the ceilings, rodents, lead paint, roof leaks, and lack of window guards. In addition to HPD having paid to provide fuel at 553 46th Street to keep the heat on during the winter months, over the course of several years the agency spent tens of thousands of dollars to perform emergency repairs to the most hazardous violations that the owner failed to correct. HPD has also brought litigation in Housing Court against all three properties seeking the correction of the open housing code violations.

“Too often, tenants are the ones forced to pay the price for bad lending decisions,” said Speaker Christine C. Quinn. “Our message is clear: Seryl must immediately begin repairs and fully restore these homes, or sell them to someone who will. We cannot allow this negligent mortgage holder to continue to put the housing of New Yorkers at risk. I thank Congresswoman Velázquez, Council Member González, my colleagues in government, UHAB, Legal Services New York and all the tenants who have fearlessly organized and are standing up to protect the future of their homes.”

“I firmly believe these tenants and all New Yorkers have a right to clean, safe, affordable housing,” said Council Member Sara M. González. “I am committed to continuing to ensure their rights and hope that today’s action will bring them the relief they deserve. After months working with residents, community based organizations and various City agencies, I am eager to move forward and provide permanent relief for my constituents living in these buildings. I would like to thank Speaker Quinn and my colleagues at every level of government for turning their attention to this very troubling situation.”

“These tenants have endured years of neglect and mistreatment because of bad management and irresponsible lenders. Low-income tenants aren’t pawns–they’re people with rights that have to be respected and enforced,” said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. “It’s time to stop these vicious cycles that over-leverage properties, fuel speculation and threaten affordability.”

“To the landlords who refuse to respect their residents and our community I have only one message: just leave. Brooklyn has no room for delinquent property owners—we have some of the most sought after real-estate in the country and it should be no problem for this company—and others like it that refuse to take care of their tenants’ needs—to find a willing and responsible buyer,” said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.  “The Brooklynites who live in these buildings want and deserve better—and I join Speaker Quinn, Congresswoman Velazquez and Council Member Gonzalez in demanding these residents’ voices are heard and their needs met—with all repairs made immediately and the general conditions of the building brought up to code.”

“Families who live in blighted buildings face the reality of coming home every day to conditions that are detrimental to their health and wellbeing, and which can be so hazardous as to blight the surrounding community. AEP exists to act as a mechanism to identify and intervene in buildings like the three properties on 46th Street,” said HPD Deputy Commissioner Vito Mustaciuolo. “I thank the Speaker for her strong support in helping to create and strengthen AEP, giving HPD the enforcement tools necessary to bring relief to thousands of New York families struggling in some of the worst buildings in the city. I also commend the hardworking AEP, Housing Litigation, and Neighborhood Preservation staff for their tireless efforts to protect our City’s tenants and ensure that owners are held accountable for their actions.”

Speaker Quinn, elected officials, housing advocates and South Brooklyn Legal Services a  constituent corporation of Legal Services NYC, joined the Tenant Associations of 545, 553 and 557 46th Street and residents to demand Seryl LLC meet with tenants and reach an agreement to preserve and restore their homes.

Though tenants and organizers have repeatedly requested meetings with Seryl LLC to discuss the mortgage holder’s plans for the buildings, the company has been unwilling to meet with residents to address their concerns.

“We want Seryl to give the receiver more money to make the needed repairs. Last week we had no hot water for 8 days and on Friday we woke up to find there was no electricity and no light in the hallways of 553 and 557,” said  46th Street Tenant Association President Sara Lopez who has lived in the buildings for over 35 years. “We have been fighting for 10 years because the previous landlord did nothing. We went on rent strike to solve the serious problems of these buildings.  We have seen some improvements so we see the receiver is trying to get work done. We have a new fence and lights outside and new doors. But we still need money for the major repairs.  The boiler must be replaced.  The roof is destroyed and brick have already fallen.  It’s an emergency and we must avoid a tragedy.”

“Seryl LLC is one of several private groups who have purchased defaulted mortgages on rent regulated housing in New York City” said Kerri White, Director of Organizing and Policy at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. “Across the city, groups like Seryl LLC are allowing buildings to languish in foreclosure, presumably hoping to flip the property for a quick buck when the market improves. Many of these buildings are severely distressed and financially overleveraged, and need a long term preservation plan to bring them back to livable conditions while maintaining affordability. While conditions continue to deteriorate, tenants like the residents at 46th Street are left suffering and Seryl is nowhere to be found.”

“My clients have had to live with horrible landlord after horrible landlord,” said Brent Meltzer, Co-Unit Director for South Brooklyn Legal Services. “Seryl needs to come out of hiding and let the tenants know if it will sell it to a responsible owner or whether it intends to be another horrible landlord. If the latter, my office will work with the tenants and our elected officials to explore every legal angle to stop Seryl from preying on vulnerable, low-income tenants.”

Occupy Sunset Park/Ocupemos Sunset Park has been supporting the 46th St. tenants’ organizing efforts since the early days of their rent strike in July of 2012, and was there to support them at the press conference today.

Occupy Sunset Park/Ocupemos Sunset Park has been supporting the 46th St. tenants’ organizing efforts since the early days of their rent strike in July of 2012, and was there to support them at the press conference today. OSP representatives stated,  “We applaud the tenants for carrying on this tenacious fight for safe, secure and affordable housing for their families.  As their T-shirts say, ‘Housing is a Human Right’, and Occupy Sunset Park will continue to accompany the tenants to ensure that all the promises made today by politicians and city officials are kept and that the tenants have a voice in the future of their buildings.”


Fighting for Preservation in Ridgewood, Queens


Tenants living in 6 buildings in Ridgewood, Queens are caught in the middle of a complicated foreclosure and bankruptcy case which will determine the future of their homes. While the courts continue to drag out the 5-year-and-counting foreclosure, tenants suffer from horrible living conditions with no one to turn to.  Check out Friday’s video from Channel 11 News demonstrating the unsafe living conditions tenants face on a daily basis. 

Here are tenants allies and adversaries in the fight for affordable housing preservation:

Steven Kates, Landlord: Mr. Kates is fighting the foreclosure in bankruptcy court. However, he never could be trusted: he lied about the number of units in the 6 buildings to take out an unreasonably large mortgage! Tenants are fighting to make sure that he does not get to keep these buildings. 

Stabilis Capital: The original lender, Washington Mutual, collapsed in the 2008 financial crisis.  Chase, who took over the failed bank, sold the debt to Stabilis — a private equity company we’ve seen lend on other severely distressed properties. We hope that Stabilis will come to the table to meet with residents and advocates to work out a deal that will benefit tenants and NYC’s affordable housing stock.

CATCH: Tenants have asked CATCH, a nonprofit preservation developer to purchase their buildings, rehab them, and rent them at affordable levels. Tenants want to have a voice in the way their buildings are managed, and CATCH runs buildings they own through “mutual housing,” which ensures resident-input. However, in order for CATCH to buy the buildings, they will have to purchase the note at a discount and wind their way through bankruptcy court.

Elected Officials: Tenants have found a great deal of support from their elected officials, including Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and City Councilwoman Diana Reyna. They hope that through political pressure, Stabilis will discount the mortgage on these six properties (which they likely bought for a discount from Chase) and sell them to CATCH. With the help of Councilwoman Diana Reyna, tenants are asking HPD to remove these buildings from the lien sale list. The liens are a crucial tool that will give the tenants some serious leverage in the bankruptcy case.

Queens Legal Services: Tenants are represented by Queens Legal Services to help make sure that immediate repair needs are met. While the bankruptcy case has made legal matters a little confusing, attorneys are strategizing to get repairs done as soon as possible.

Stay tuned on this exciting fight to preserve affordable housing in Ridegwood, Queens!

Friday News Update: Direct Action Edition!

Happy Direct-Action Friday! Have you been feeling apathetic? Disconnected from social movements manifesting in your neighborhood? Today’s news on three bits of activism taking place in Brooklyn:

1. Tenants in Williamsburg and Greenpoint are standing up for themselves and demanding an end to illegal evictions throughout these famously gentrified neighborhoods of high-paying hipsters.  Tenants complain of living for years without heat or hot water, and that landlords are using all sorts of tactics- as extreme as fire- to force low-income tenants out.  Wednesday, community leaders and tenants gathered to protest landlords who engage in illegal harassment.

Evelyn Cruz, a representative of congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, told crowds at the rally that hipsters are welcome to join in the fight for justice in the community.  She said (as reported in an article in Capital NY):

Any hipster that believes in justice, any hipster that believes in progress, any hipster that believes that hardworking low-income tenants deserve a decent and affordable place to live, we invite you to join this coalition,” she told the crowd.

2. A second tenant action has been gaining momentum, particularly though the support of Occupy Sunset Park and Take Back the Land.  Tenants in three buildings on 46th St. in Brooklyn have been on rent strike for weeks in attempts to improve the atrocious conditions they have been dealing with for years. We actually learned about these buildings and met with tenants when we were  researching buildings in foreclosure with Astoria Bank. The buildings remain in foreclosure, but the debt has been sold to Seryl LLC.

Tenants cite fear of fires and electrical blackouts, issues with the boiler, mold, and rodents as the major concerns in the buildings and the reason for the rent strike. If you’re interested in getting supporting the tenants and being involved in their fight, Occupy Sunset Park is holding vigils from 6:00-7:00 pm every night on 46th street between 5th and 6th ave.

3. An awesome display of video activism has brought even more concrete evidence to illustrate how racism is embedded within NYC’s Stop and Frisk policy.  David Galarza, an activist (also in Sunset Park), captured a horrific scene of a police officer body slamming Sean Pagan, 19, on video during a Stop and Frisk.   An article in the NYTimes states that:

Mr. Pagan, who is Hispanic, said the officers at the precinct house where he was taken joked and laughed about his body-slamming.

Without the video, he said, he would not have known how to draw attention to his arrest. Even his mother did not believe his story until she saw the video, he said.

“It would’ve been his word over mine,” he said. “He would’ve said I was resisting and going crazy. It would’ve been brushed under the rug.”

We hope that these courageous acts throughout Brooklyn inspire you to have a direct-action filled weekend!

“Sen. Schumer, Christine Quinn Push Feds To Pressure Bank That Owns Shoddy Housing”: The Village Voice

As published in the The Village Voice by Elizabeth Dwoskin

Image courtesy of The Village Voice

A consequence of our sucky economy: The city estimates that around 125,000 housing units will go into foreclosure over the next two years.

In many cases, owners (including banks) are trying to unload these buildings, and while they wait, living conditions deteriorate drastically for tenants, with landlords racking up housing code violations for lack of heat and hot water, for toxic mold outbreaks, leaky roofs, and rodent infestations.

Conditions have gotten so bad, in some cases, that city officials have taken a lot of flak from advocates (and from journalists), and these buildings have become PR problems for the city. And so, over the past year, officials have been playing a bigger role, by being a middleman between tenants, banks, older landlords and prospective ones.

Today, city and state officials, and Senator Chuck Schumer, took things a step further by asking the federal government to force a big bank that owns many foreclosed and distressed properties to come clean about their finances and sell the properties to a responsible buyer.

New York Community Bank is one of the most active providers of loans to landlords that buy multi-family dwellings in the city. According to the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, the bank controls the mortgages on 34 foreclosed buildings, which are home to 800 families. 328 buildings that are owned by the bank and home to 6,000 families are in very shaky condition: they have more than three hazardous health and safety violations per apartment. Until recently, the bank owned five properties that were on the city’s worst buildings list.

Last month, Mutual Housing Association of New York, a real estate company that has the support of the city’s housing agency and tenant advocates made a bid to buy the 34 foreclosed properties. According to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, New York Community Bank turned the company down, saying the offer was too low.

Schumer, along with Quinn and Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, say that the FDIC — the federal agency that supervises financial institutions — should force New York Community Bank to come clean to buyers about the actual state of the finances, living conditions, and repairs needs of the buildings. Though no one has said it outright, the implication here is that the bank is fudging the numbers to make the distressed buildings more attractive to a higher bidder. The other implication is that the city has not had the pull with the bank that it would have wished.

The New York pols say that what they are asking for is well within the power of the federal agency. Because many of these mortgages were securitized by Wall Street, and are therefore implicated in the wider economic crisis, Schumer and Velazquez had inserted a section into the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill — passed by Congress last summer — that makes the federal government take some responsibility for the problem of distressed mortgages on multi-family dwellings, which afflict big cites like New York.

Schumer said today in a press release: “Here is a perfect example for the FDIC to take into consideration as they help build a framework for this program. The message here should be clear: residents of affordable buildings throughout the City should not be the victims of never-ending cycles of overleveraged gambling by predatory equity investors.”

“Group asks FDIC to help 34 Bronx buildings”: Crain’s New York Business

As published in Crain’s New York Business by Daniel Massey

Housing advocates, tenants and some of New York’s most powerful elected officials Thursday called on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to force New York Community Bank to evaluate the finances and living conditions at 34 rundown Bronx buildings in foreclosure, and then disclose information on building repairs that are needed.

The move to pressure the FDIC to get involved is the latest salvo in a three-year campaign by officials and advocates to hold banks responsible for loans they made on multi-family properties that ended up falling into a state of disrepair. An amendment inserted into last year’s Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act by two New York politicians, Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Nydia Velazquez, gives the FDIC the power to intervene.

“We’re asking the FDIC to investigate the practices and actions of NYCB and force NYCB to make documents public so we can actually see whether there is enough money at the table to make these buildings livable,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. “There are 800 units and 800 families at risk.”

An FDIC spokesman did not immediately have a response to the statement from the officials and advocates, made at a press conference Thursday at a Bronx building that was recently sold. Tenants in the Bryant Avenue building, where the morning event was held, are contending with dangerous conditions, officials said. Problems include a broken elevator, toxic mold and a carbon monoxide leak from the boiler.

New York Community Bank officials did not respond to a call seeking comment.

The bank last month sold the debt on eight dilapidated Bronx buildings to Bronx 8 LLC, a joint venture led by Townhouse Management Co., at what is believed to be a small discount on the mortgage’s $16 million face value. The city had backed a nonprofit developer, the Mutual Housing Association, and had been working on putting a financing package together for the group, which had offered $8 million.

Townhouse President Mitchel Maidman said the receiver on the buildings has been working diligently to make repairs and remove violations. “I don’t get this question of whether we paid the right price or the wrong price,” he said, declining to provide the specific figure, but saying it was less than a rumored $14 million. “We paid a fair price and if we get title, we will preserve the assets and make them very nice housing and an asset to the community.”

NYCB has a large portfolio of distressed multi-family loans. Those include mortgages on 328 buildings—housing more than 6,000 families—with more than three outstanding code violations per unit that pose serious health and safety risks. Of those buildings, 34 are in foreclosure, with a total of 800 apartments. Advocates worry they will be sold to the highest bidder without vetting the buyers’ ability or willingness to rehabilitate the deteriorating properties.

“NYCB’s irresponsible lending practices helped to create one of the most distressed housing portfolios in New York City,” said Dina Levy, organizing and policy director for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. “Their response has been to dump troubled loans for maximum profit, leaving tenants living in squalor and taxpayers to clean up their mess.”

Mr. Schumer, Ms. Quinn, Rep. Jose Serrano and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. were among the officials who called on the FDIC to compel New York Community Bank to examine the conditions at the 34 buildings.

In addition, a half-dozen housing groups have written to the FDIC asking the agency to consider the physical distress of the housing that is in the bank’s portfolio, as well as the bank’s practices related to disposition of troubled loans as part of its ongoing Community Reinvestment Act evaluation.

By pressuring the bank to disclose financial and living conditions, officials and advocates hope to create a level of transparency so potential buyers will understand the true value of the buildings and the amount of money needed to make repairs.

“New York Community Bank is currently the most active provider of multi-family loans in New York City, and this makes their actions important to the health of our city’s housing stock,” said Benjamin Dulchin, executive director at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development.