Public Advocate Tish James’ 2016 Worst Landlord Watchlist: A Rally for Truly Affordable Housing

The sun was shining down brightly on Foley Square last Thursday, October 13th, 2016, as NYC Public Advocate Letitia “Tish” James presented the 2016 100 Worst Landlords Watchlist to a crowd of supporters. The rally included a wide range of speakers: community organizers and activists from across the city, city council members passionate about this issue, and tenant leaders speaking out about their living conditions and housing struggles. All were speaking about the desperate need for a continued fight to keep housing truly affordable in New York City.

The Watchlist shares the names of the 100 worst landlords in NYC, and two of them own buildings that house tenants UHAB organizes with. Efstathios Valiotis (Alma Reality) owns 8 buildings that appear on the list. These building have 237 units, and while there are 1,077 HPD violations recorded, this is likely far less than the actual number of violations. Nasir Sasouness had 60 of his units show up on the list, with 473 recorded HPD violations—also a low estimate.

Early on in the program, Tish James said, “We are putting bad landlords on notice that this has got to stop and that there is a team—that there is an army of individuals—who are going to stand up to bad landlords in the city of New York.” Throughout the event, chants of “Tenants, united, will never be defeated!” and “Fight, fight, fight! Housing is a right!” erupted and filled the square.

Towards the end of the program, Donna Mossman, a founding member of the Crown Heights Tenant Union, (which is supported by UHAB), spoke fervently about the Watchlist. Mossman said, “Usually when I have to speak, I do not smile. But today, I can smile. Thank you, Public Advocate, for releasing this list. The Public Advocate’s list of the 100 Worst Landlords is a reminder to landlords that you are not housing cattle, you are housing people.” At this moment, the audience cheered and applauded. Mossman continued, “The Crown Heights Tenant Union was formed in part to help tenants fight against landlords who do not provide adequate living accommodations for which we pay. The Public Advocate’s Worst Landlords List provides the Crown Heights Tenant Union, and all tenants, with a means to find their landlords and hold them accountable.”

nancys-photo-of-donna
Donna Mossman of Crown Heights Tenant Union addresses the crowd on October 13, 2016. Photo by Nancy Torres. 

Mossman went on to discuss the new documentary, America Divided, which includes a segment about housing inequality called A House Divided and features the Crown Heights Tenant Union. “America Divided is about our community. It is about us. It is about the struggle that happens everywhere. But understand this: Crown Heights is ground zero for gentrification. We have so many different fights on our hands. Yes, they have money, but we have people power.”

During the question and answer portion at end of the rally, a reporter asked Tish James if there was more the city and city agencies could be doing. James emphasized the points that had already been made, and she solidified some specific policy pleas. James said, “Particularly, I’m concerned about individuals who are accepting cash buyouts, that they know their rights. That needs to be in writing. We need to pass the law which would give every tenant the right to counsel in housing court, we need to make sure that that is passed in the city of New York. So I would urge the mayor to come out in support of that 214, which is sponsored by council member Rodriguez. All of these issues and more, we need to work with these wonderful advocacy groups, to preserve affordable housing and to build affordable housing….We need to really look at Area Median Incomes and make them subject to zip codes as opposed to geographic areas that include Suffolk County and Nassau County and parts of Westchester…..What we need is to have a sit-down with the administration, with HPD, with the Mayor himself, to advance a platform on affordable housing in this city.”

As the crowd dispersed and Foley Square emptied out, there was an energy of determination and steadfastness in the air. Tenants and tenants’ rights organizers, advocates, and activists are fighting for their homes, and they are here to stay.

Speculator today, slumlord… today?

broken stairs 10.7.13 now fixed

After two years of tenant organizing, not that much shocks me anymore.  I’ve seen holes in ceilings, mold covering bedroom walls, and families living without basic amenities like fridges or stoves.  But walking into 755 Jackson Avenue in the Bronx was a shock.

A quick rundown: The building has 11 units and 215 code violations. It’s in HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program, and on the Bill de Blasio’s Worst Landlord List.  The building has asbestos, lead paint, mold, leaks, and two tenants were injured on a collapsed staircase (pictured above).

And if that’s not enough, it’s owned by the one and only Stabilis Capital Management.  (In case you forgot, Stabilis is the lender on 836 Faile Street and six buildings in Ridgewood, all of which are in foreclosure and in deplorable condition.)

Wait! Stop the presses!  Stabilis owns buildings?  That was our question, too, given that we’ve only ever seen them acting as a mortgage holder interested in flipping debt.

That probably was their plan here as well, but things went wrong: Stabilis bought the debt at 755 Jackson Ave while the building was in foreclosure.  When the building went to auction, we assume no one bid and Stabilis took the title by default. It seems like it was all a big mistake. With a lot of consequences.

While Stabilis became owner in June, they have done nothing to step forward and claim responsibility for the building.  This has left tenants in a position where they don’t know who to call in an emergency or who to pay rent to. It leaves the City responsible for repairs. The building is effectively abandoned.

We’re now organizing at Jackson Avenue and tenants are planning to push Stabilis out of their building. And now that we know how Stabilis treats the buildings they own, we’re doubly fired up to fight against them at Faile Street and in Ridgewood, Queens.

Tenants, elected officials, and advocates are demanding that Stabilis find a responsible way to dispose of this property, and the other distressed multifamily buildings in their portfolio.  Check out Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo’s letter to Stabilis Capital here, and stay tuned to our campaign!!

Bill de Blasio’s Worst Landlord List: A Resource with Room to Improve

This morning the Daily News reported on “nightmare Bronx landlord” Eli Abbott. Abbott owns at least 3 buildings that are so distressed he recently topped Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s Worst Landlord List. The list is meant to be an easily accessible database of bad landlords. It provides dual services of keeping New Yorkers informed and holding landlords accountable for their actions.

Having a list like this is a great resource for tenants. HPD’s website, though it has valuable information, is somewhat unwieldy. The Public Advocate’s list, on the other hand, is user-friendly. It is easily searchable, and you can filter it by borough. But perhaps most importantly, the website for the list is equipped with forums for tenants to tell their own stories, to reach out for advice about their bad landlord, and to request information on their rights. There is even a link for tenants to report violations online. This list is a great example of how evolving media can be used to increase civic engagement and awareness around local issues.

Beyond the great work that the Worst Landlord List does, we believe that there are some ways in which it falls short. The list names landlords through their limited liability companies, and landlords typically create new LLC’s for each building that they own. That means that Eli Abbott – who owns far more than 3 buildings in NYC – is only held accountable for the three buildings on College Avenue that topped this year’s list. While I can’t say for certain, I could make an educated guess that none of his buildings are in great shape (though these 3 may be the worst.) We’d love to see the list go more in-depth and warn tenants of all buildings connected to this slumlord, rather than just these three.

We also believe that the Public Advocate could further improve the list by more fully vetting the landlords that make the cut. Though many of the buildings are justifiably in terrible shape, at least several of the buildings are actively involved in preservation scenarios with trusted affordable housing developers. For example:

  • Number 4 on this year’s list – Kelly St. Restoration LLC – refers to buildings that are vacant and under construction as part of a city-financed preservation deal. Tenants have been relocated (to safe and affordable apartments) and when they return home their buildings will be fully restored. Buildings where management companies have entered into preservation agreements like this are supposedly exempt from the Public Advocate’s list. Mysteriously, Kelly St. Restoration (Workforce Housing Advisers) appears on both the exempt list and the Worst Landlord List.
  • Number 14 on the list – JMR 7A 4619 Park Avenue – is not a landlord at all, but a 7A administrator. Bronx Courts have removed the landlord, and in its place appointed Fordham Bedford Housing Corp to manage the building. 7A administrators are appointed by judges to stabilize some of the worst buildings in the city. The program puts pre-qualified agents in place of the management company with the intention of putting a bad building back on the right track. Fordham Bedford Housing Corp is a trusted housing advocacy and community group with deep ties to the Bronx neighborhood in which this building is located.
  •  Number 38 on the list – Far Out LLC – in a very high profile case entered into an agreement with tenants and with HPD to stabilize this building and the 9 others associated with it. Though this particular preservation deal was very controversial,  it was eventually supported by both tenants and by HPD and so far the landlord appears to be complying with reducing violations without passing costs onto tenants.

Now in its third year, the list has made some real improvements, including a new partnership with Craig’s List that allows apartment-seekers to have information about bad landlords close at hand while they search. We’re thrilled that the Public Advocate has taken this project on, and it has definitely encouraged and inspired some of the tenants we work with to fight for their buildings. However, there is room for growth. For example, we’d love to see the list note where buildings are in foreclosure, as it indicates that the building may actually be managed by a court-appointed receiver. We’d also love to see the list get behind the curtain of the LLC and really take slumlords to task for all their properties. We’re excited to watch this resource improve.