TA tells tenants: Ignore CWCapital’s reduction offer,
CW says: We’re trying to avoid conflict
By Sabina Mollot
After residents were hit with five MCIs (major capital increases) in October for upgrade projects in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, management firm CompassRock made an offer to try and reduce the retroactive portions of those increases — an offer that the Tenants Association swiftly responded to, to suggest that neighbors ignore it.
The MCIs were discussed by the Tenants Association’s attorney Tim Collins at a meeting held on Saturday at the Simon Baruch Middle School auditorium.
This meeting, which was attended by around 500 people, took place a day after tenants received a letter from CompassRock, which mentioned that management hoped to work with tenants to lower the amount of retroactive charges in the MCIs “in order to mitigate the impact of this component for our longer term residents.” It also mentioned that some residents — those whose legal rent is higher than their preferential rent (what they actually pay) — shouldn’t see any increases at all.
However, the letter, which was unsigned, then went on to warn tenants that though they have a right to challenge the MCIs, if they did, they could forget management’s offer to try and reduce the retroactive portion, and that even if tenants did appeal, the MCIs would still likely be approved.
“It is our belief based upon legal advice received that at the end of any appeal process, we will obtain all or almost all of the amounts reflected in the orders,” the note read. CompassRock then went on to say management hoped to address the issue with tenants over the next few weeks so the proper amount of rent could be issued in the December bills.
“We hope that our residents take this letter as it was intended — not as a formal legal offer, but as a gesture of our good faith and a commitment from us to mitigate the effect of these orders,” said the note.
A few residents told Town & Village they thought the letter had a threatening tone, and later, Brian Moriarty, a spokesperson for management and special servicer CWCapital issued a statement, explaining that the offer was made to avoid any conflict with the tenants.
“We intend to make public final settlement terms by the beginning of next week,” said Moriarty. “In doing so, we are seeking to mitigate the effect of the MCIs and provide residents with clarity regarding their ongoing rents. As we stated in the letter, we have received legal advice to the effect that all, or almost all, of the MCIs that have now been lawfully approved by DHCR will ultimately be granted, but perhaps after some lengthy and contentious delay. This does not seem good for the community overall, or for individual residents, and therefore we will seek to waive a meaningful amount of the retroactive charges for residents. We are confident that this gesture of good faith will be positively received by our residents. Obviously, we respect that all residents will need to see the details in order to make their judgment. We assume that the vast majority of residents understand that it is not possible to compromise while simultaneously contesting the compromise. Unfortunately, the way the rent stabilization system works, it seems that appeals from a small minority of residents could disrupt a settlement of which a significant majority of the property is in favor. We feel that it is important people know and understand this.”
But at the meeting, Council Member Dan Garodnick commented on the letter to say that he thought the offer to reduce the retroactive amounts — but not the monthly increase that would be charged in perpetuity — was only made because the monthly increase is added to tenants’ base rents. This would bulk up the property’s rent roll, which would be attractive to a potential buyer, noted Garodnick, while the retroactive charges “do nothing for that.
“While we appreciate the gesture, we may have to challenge them in any event,” Garodnick added. “CW is well aware that we have the ability (through a challenge) to tie the system up for quite some time.”
Collins also spoke about the offer to say he was confident that the MCIs would be rescinded if appealed due to the fact that his arguments on behalf of the TA on why they shouldn’t be implemented, which were made last year, weren’t even acknowledged in the responses. Previously, he referred to this as a “reversible” error.
“You should ignore that letter,” he said at the meeting, then addressing any CW employees who might be in the audience to add, “That doesn’t mean we’re ignoring it.”
He added that complaints include the TA’s belief that since some of the work benefits ST/PCV’s commercial tenants, they too should share in the cost and that in some buildings, there were “class C” violations found, which would make the owner ineligible for an MCI. There was also the issue that some apartments were being used for student housing. Another argument, specifically against the resurfacing MCI was due to the quality of the work.
“We have 40 to 50 pictures showing what a mess it was,” Collins said. “The workmanship was horrendous. So we were really surprised when these things (MCI notices) started pouring out.”
Decisions on whether to grant MCIs are made by the state housing agency, the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) of New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR). The applications for the MCIs were made in 2009 by then-owner Tishman Speyer for security upgrades, including a now destroyed command center and video intercoms in Stuyvesant Town as well as (for Peter Cooper residents) work on water valves and tanks and (for Stuyvesant Town residents) resurfacing work which was bundled with charges for doors and water tanks and valves. Costs of the different MCIs vary per tenant, but all include retroactive portions to account for the time from when the work was done to when the decision to authorize the MCI was granted.
Only half jokingly, when Collins took the podium, he slammed down a pile of paperwork that was about six inches thick. Collins then told the audience that if he wasn’t confident about getting results from the HCR, he wouldn’t have shown up at the meeting. “I would not have canceled my proctologist appointment,” he said.
The attorney also asked residents to sign a pledge, which would allow the TA to represent them in a joint petition for administrative review (PAR). Collins has asked that tenants not file their own PARs, unless they have “unique circumstances,” since the TA believes a joint argument will have more strength. The TA is also preparing another document called a request for reconsideration.
On CW’s current offer to tenants, Collins said it could later cause increases for tenants whose preferential rents are lower than the legal rents, which are the maximum amounts an owner can charge.
“You have to understand how preferential rents work,” he said. “Preferential rents can be changed upon a renewal. They might say, ‘Right now you see no change, but next time we’re going to raise it.’”
He added, “I think we’re prepared to ask for more. A lot of the work was shoddy. A lot of the work was redundant.”
SCRIE, DRIE and MCI legislation
Along with Collins, other speakers at the event, which was emceed by TA Chair Susan Steinberg, included local elected officials such as Garodnick, Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, Congress Member Carolyn Maloney, Borough President Scott Stringer and State Senator Brad Hoylman.
While at the microphone, Hoylman mentioned that there is currently some relief from MCIs for tenants who are eligible for SCRIE (Senior Citizens Rent Increase Exemption) and DRIE (Disability Rent Increase Exemption). Through those programs, tenants would be locked into the rent they paid when they first signed their lease except under extreme circumstances. To make sure an MCI would be covered, tenants would have to apply to the program within 90 days of it being issued. “But,” noted Hoylman, “it must be completed for each MCI separately.”
Kavanagh, who then discussed the state of the housing law that determines MCI policy, got some chuckles out of the audience when he mentioned that, “The MCI system is part of a larger system that was intended to protect tenants.”
However, legislation authored by Kavanagh, which seeks to end MCI payments once the cost of the improvement would be recouped by owners, has been collecting dust in Albany. He noted that the housing laws are up for expiration again in 2015 and he hoped to get the bill passed then, which would also add more oversight to the application process. At this time, the HCR has a limited ability to verify “what costs for improvements really are.”
Tenants argue against the MCIs
Following statements from local elected officials, tenants then lined up to ask questions about the MCIs, the overall theme of which seemed to be: What can be done to stop them and why is CWCapital entitled to money for work that was paid for by Tishman Speyer?
“CW is nobody who actually spent money on the major capital extortion, I mean improvement,” griped one tenant.
In response to the latter question, Collins said that it was standard that a new owner step into the shoes of the old owner.
As for the former question, Kavanagh responded to say the answer was in restoring home rule from the state to the city, because in the state legislature, many of the politicians making decisions on city housing law live outside the city with few rent-regulated renters as constituents.
Another resident then suggested that the Tenants Association purchase shares of Walker & Dunlop, the parent company of CWCapital, so tenants could be at company board meetings. This got the attention of Garodnick, who responded, “How much are shares? I say we do it.”
When another resident asked if tenants could be socked with yet another MCI for the ongoing renovation of the storefronts on First Avenue, the answer was no, because it doesn’t benefit all tenants.
Another resident, introducing herself as Emily Juno, said she’d lived in the community for 18 months and was never notified about a pending MCI. She added that she had neighbors who’d told her the same. In response, Collins said she wouldn’t have to pay it in that case, but also cautioned her to check her lease and any riders to make sure there was no reference to an MCI.
A resident named Liza Sabater, who said she’s raising two children in Stuyvesant Town, said she had a “mundane” question, which was that she didn’t even know the amount to put on her rent check. The wording in the MCI documents made her wonder if her rent had been increased by over $1,000, but Collins said no one’s rent had gone up that high, because the monthly MCI payments are capped at six percent of whatever each tenant’s rent was in 2009.
A longtime resident, Tom Hickey, said he didn’t believe the resurfacing MCI was valid because he recalled similar work being done at the turn of the millennium. (Later, he said he filed his own objection in 2009 to the housing agency since the last resurfacing was actually done in 2003 or 2004 by Met Life.) Didn’t this, Hickey asked, mean the 2009 project occurred before the prior resurfacing had completed its useful life? Collins said he’d check to see if that information was included in his objections.
Another resident wanted to know why there was a retroactive portion if MCIs get paid on a monthly basis, anyway, to which Collins replied that, “It doesn’t make sense to me if it’s in perpetuity, but that’s the way the law works.”
Following the meeting, Steinberg said that the TA had collected around 750 signatures on its pledge for a joint challenge of the MCIs, but said the association was still looking for more and would be putting the pledge online on the TA website (stpcvta.org).
In related news, Hoylman, Garodnick and Kavanagh wrote a joint letter to HCR Commissioner Darryl Towns, expressing their concern over the recent flood of MCIs, asking that they be reviewed.