‘Roberts’ tenants on how settlement, court win impacted them

Jennifer Kops, pictured with daughter Kiki at a Peter Stuyvesant Little League Parade in 2013, has moved within ST/PCV three times in four years. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Jennifer Kops, pictured with daughter Kiki at a Peter Stuyvesant Little League Parade in 2013, has moved within ST/PCV three times in four years. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot
Last week, residents and former residents of ST/PCV who were members of the “Roberts” class action finally received their long awaited damages checks.
As Town & Village first reported, over 5,000 of them received non-payment deductions and class members who were former residents were subject to retroactive MCI fees.
This week, T&V spoke with a few “Roberts” tenants to ask how the damages as well as the lawsuit itself, which led to lowered rents for many, changed their lives (or didn’t.)
Here’s what they had to say:

Jennifer Kops, a Stuyvesant Town mother of two who works as an administrative assistant, said she didn’t get anything in damages. She thought she’d be getting $434 but didn’t see a dime after legal fees, MCIs and nonpayment deductions. She grew up in Peter Cooper Village and after divorcing, returned over four years ago with children Jack and Kiki. In that time, she and her family have lived in two one-bedroom apartments in Peter Cooper and now a two-bedroom in Stuyvesant Town.
“We’re fine, but the suit didn’t do anything for me,” said Kops. She moved the last time since the upgrade to a two-bedroom was $3,350 a month, only $100 more than what she’d been paying at her last apartment. “Stuy Town is always a little cheaper,” she said.
Though making the rent has never been simple, “we wouldn’t want to leave,” Kops said.
Kops had been on the board of the Tenants Association for a few years, her kids are in the Peter Stuyvesant Little League and she is currently involved in the PTA at her daughter’s school, PS40. There she’s met other moms in similar situations to her own, tenants in Stuyvesant Town, who’ve turned living rooms into bedrooms with either pressurized walls or bookcases for their kids. This is what Kops had done in her last place, but found life in a one-bedroom too difficult.
“The kids are getting older and I needed more space myself. I don’t like sleeping in the living room.”
The new place is on the main floor and she often hears the conversations of the maintenance employees whose lounge is below her apartment, but that’s her only gripe.
“We hear their morning roll call and we can hear them yelling at each other,” said Kops, “but we overlook a garden area. It’s actually very quiet and peaceful.”

Maurice Owen-Michaane (right) and his husband Michael got a $13,000 payout.

Maurice Owen-Michaane (right) and his husband Michael got a $13,000 payout.

Former resident Maurice Owen-Michaane, who lived in Stuy Town for five years until September, 2012, said it wasn’t “Roberts” that changed things for him or his family, but other factors like constant construction that made him think the complex was going downhill and more importantly needing more space after having a baby.
So he moved to Washington Heights where he now lives with his husband and son, and apparently, many other families nearby.
“There are lots of families and kids and strollers,” he said. “It’s nice up here.”
This week, Owen-Michaane went straight to the bank after receiving his $13,000 in damages, which, he said, will be used to send his son to pre-school and pay some of the couple’s student loans, which total $200,000.
“We’re not going on some big vacation,” he said.
Additionally, out of the damages, $1,600 was taken out for retroactive MCI fees. Not having known about that, Owen-Michaane felt that a heads up from the attorneys or tenant leaders “would have been nice.”
Owen-Michaane, who works in real estate sales for the firm Maz Group NY, added, “No one told us anything.”
That said, overall, Owen-Michaane said the suit was definitely still a win for tenants.
“It was a victory for the little guy, the middle class, who usually get forgotten,” he said.

“Roberts” tenant Jill Pratzon, who owns an art restoration business, said after getting her check, she felt misled about the entire lawsuit.
Pratzon, who moved into Stuy Town with her son and husband, a high school teacher, towards the end of the Met Life era, said due to “Roberts,” she got a $90 rent reduction. This brought down the rent for her one-bedroom apartment on Avenue C to just over $3,000. In damages, after deductions, she and her husband each got checks for $37.50.
“I feel like a fool for staying,” said Pratzon, who got a $500 increase at the time of their first renewal when Tishman Speyer took over the property. The couple’ son had just come home from brain surgery, and they asked management to consider not increasing their rent. In response, it was lowered to a $400 increase. Pratzon said she was told at the time that the owner was planting a lot of trees and that she’d love living there because it would be like the Garden of Eden.
“I come home after dark,” she said. “I don’t have time to enjoy the f—ing greenery.”
When Pratzon moved in it was because the building had an elevator and her son was in a wheelchair. “Then he was out and this lawsuit happened and I thought it was going to mean something,” said Pratzon.
Pratzon, who’s 52, said she’s recently begun taking on more clients, working longer hours, six days a week. Now she and her husband are the oldest people on their floor. People in two other apartments moved out this week.
“Everyone is young and coming and going,” she said. “We introduce ourselves and then a few months later, they’re moving out. They’re professionals or about to be young professionals. I’ve got no grievances with them. It’s management.”
Pratzon also pointed out that in order to afford the rent, her family has no savings.
“We’re hanging on with our fingernails. I felt for years that New York doesn’t want us, me with my small business and my husband who helps at-risk kids in Brooklyn.”

Jill Campbell at her new apartment in Williamsburg

Jill Campbell at her new apartment in Williamsburg

Jill Campbell, a documentary maker, moved into Stuyvesant Town in 2008. The following year, with the “Roberts” case being won by tenants, she was attending tenant meetings and hearing about how the apartments were re-regulated and later, about the Tenants Association’s hope of going condo. At one point, she recalled her rent going down slightly as a result of the case, but just last month, after the most recent increase, she felt she couldn’t afford it anymore. And this was after haggling and getting a significant amount shaved off the bill. Campbell asked that the amount of her rent and what she received in damages not be published. However, she noted that due to legal fees, the damages were less than what she thought she’d be getting.
Overall, Campbell, who now lives in Williamsburg, said she doesn’t feel like the lawsuit impacted her, other than if she hadn’t gotten her hopes up for lower rent similar to what those in unrenovated units were paying, she would have moved out sooner.
But that wasn’t the only reason for leaving.
“It felt like we were living in a dorm,” she said. “Especially on weekends when they would leave pizza boxes scattered on the hallway floors.  The door badge system particularly felt like an invasion of privacy as I had to register any guest that I wanted to provide a key for. The price tag was way to high to live in a dorm. All the ‘Roberts’ expectations and the town meetings surrounding the case did was to raise false expectations that my rent would be lower and that one day I might buy the place at an inside price. When both of those did not materialize we had no choice but to leave.”
While she doesn’t feel the suit did much for “Roberts” tenants, Campbell said she believes it did help the older residents in that it stopped the wave of primary residence challenges aimed at getting them out.
“I think it was good for the old-timers who now have peace of mind,” she said.

Software writer Nick Furness, a resident since 2001, said he first lived in Stuyvesant Town in a two-bedroom, then moved into a one-bedroom in 2003 when the rent got higher than he could afford. He and his wife, a handbag designer, were okay until the rent there got to be around $3500. They then started looking around at other places and though they found other places in the East Village that were slightly cheaper, “they were horrible.” Plus, Stuy Town rent at least included utilities and the large windows offered a lot of light.
After the market crashed, in 2008 or 2009, Furness said he was able to negotiate a significantly lower rent. He wasn’t aware of the “Roberts” litigation at the time and now wonders if it was the reason he was able to get Tishman Speyer to agree to reduce his rent to around $2600. Since then it’s been slowly “creeping back up,” said Furness and he now pays a little over $3,000.
“We’re happy to pay it because it’s the going rate for apartments in this neighborhood.”
In damages, the Furnesses were due $17,000. After fees, the amount was around $11,000. He was a bit surprised by the amount, admitting he hadn’t read all the fine print of the settlement. “It’s like how no one ever reads the iTunes contract.”
At the end of the day, while Furness said he wished attorneys had done more to protect tenants from high fees, he believes he’s better off with a rent regulated home.
“With the rules in place,” said Furness, “I feel happier staying here than I would being in the free market. When the market went up stupidly, our rent went up 30 to 40 percent. That would have been hard to bear.”

‘Roberts’ attorney responds to tenants’ concerns on checks

Alex Schmidt

Alex Schmidt

By Sabina Mollot

Many “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer” tenants, who received their payouts from the class action suit last week were unpleasantly surprised last week when they saw numbers that were smaller than what they were expecting, in some cases due to money CWCapital believed was owed in back rent. Then there were the legal fees and expenses (roughly 30-32 percent of the damages for current tenants). Former residents meanwhile also had money taken out for retroactive MCIs (major capital improvements). Attorneys have previously said that payments would be 100 percent of what tenants overpaid according to the complicated settlement formula that was recently finalized minus legal fees and expenses. They also warned about the possibility of non-payment deductions. However, some tenants told Town & Village they were still surprised, thinking that the figures they saw on the Berdon Claims Administration website as their payouts were what they’d end up with.

Alex Schmidt, the lead attorney representing tenants in “Roberts,” said the fact that the legal fees were 27.5 percent of the $68.5 million cash to be paid to tenants, and possibly up to $5 million in additional fees if there were sufficient unclaimed funds, was shared with tenants on the Berdon site as well as in court orders. Due to how many files were claimed, attorneys got paid an additional $3 million instead of $5 million. As for the money CW believes it is owed in back rent and has withheld as non-payment deductions, Schmidt said his firm has gotten some calls from people who want to file objections. The MCIs, however, Schmidt said, CW can legally charge to former tenants. The Roberts settlement permitted CW to add all MCIs that were approved by the Division of Housing and Community Renewal to the base rent covering periods before December 31, 2011.

“Thus, the MCI Orders that DHCR approved in late October or early November of 2013 covering improvements made in 2008-2009 are chargeable to all class members under the settlement,” Schmidt said.

Current tenants were covered by a settlement recently negotiated by the Tenants Association that either eliminated or reduced MCIs. However, Schmidt said it is possible that a “Roberts” class member could be paid from the current tenants’ “pool” but still be charged retroactive MCIs if they moved out between May 15, 2013 and the date the MCI settlement was finalized in early April, 2014.

As for why the former tenants stuck with MCIs hadn’t been warned about them, Schmidt pointed out that the five MCIs had only been issued last fall. “It was the timing; no one really foresaw that DHCR would grant in October 2013 MCIs for 2008 and 2009 and allow CW to recoup them retroactively,” the attorney said.

Despite the deductions, Schmidt noted that overall the suit still preserves significantly more affordability in ST/PCV than if there had been no legal challenge at all.

“All one has to do initially is to remember how Tishman Speyer was pushing people out before we filed suit and, had we not won, would likely have succeeded over the past six years to convert most of the 11,250 units into market apartments,” said Schmidt. “The 7,000 units that remained rent regulated are now part of the DeBlasio/Garodnick 6000-unit pledge from Fannie and Freddie to keep those units affordable, which I think would have been much harder if not impossible to obtain had we not won. Then, of course, there’s the $173 million in combined damages and past rent savings that the class realized, and the future rent savings many current tenants will continue to realize.” Schmidt noted that former tenants got 110 percent of their estimated damages (before MCIs or deductions). This, he explained, is because about 40 percent of the dollars from the former tenants “pool” was not claimed so those funds paid all the fees for that pool.

Attorneys also answered some of tenants’ questions via an email blast sent by the ST-PCV Tenants Association. In the email, attorneys reiterated that the one third in legal fees and expenses was due to how many class members filed for damages. If not too many people had filed, tenants could have gotten up to 100 percent or even up to 110 percent of their damages. However, following an outreach effort to class members a year ago, nearly 100 percent of eligible current tenants filed for damages, along with 64 percent of eligible former tenants.

Another question was why former and current tenants were in different pools, which meant they could only collect damages from their own pool, even if there was more money remaining in another pool. This one didn’t get an answer with attorneys citing a confidentiality agreement.

“The attorneys cannot comment on them except to say that the issue of dividing the damages from the Tishman Speyer/CWCapital period of ownership into two pools was one of many involved in the give-and-take of the settlement negotiations,” the firm, Wolf Haldenstein, said. Meanwhile, in the end it wouldn’t have made a difference if the rules were different, because all the money in the former tenants’ pool already went to claimants or attorneys.

Many ‘Roberts’ tenants getting less money than expected

Alex Schmidt

Alex Schmidt

By Sabina Mollot
Many current and former residents of Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village who are members of the “Roberts v. Tishman Speyer” class action are getting less in damages than they were expecting.
Specifically, over 5,000 of them have had non-payment deductions taken out of their damages, as well as close to a third taken out for legal fees and expenses, and in some cases, with money also taken out for retroactive MCIs.

On Thursday, June 12, the overcharge payments from CWCapital were sent out, and those who received non-payment deductions will have 45 days to dispute those charges.
Tenants’ “Roberts” attorney Alex Schmidt said he plans to challenge the “NPD” claims for tenants who don’t think they’re accurate.
As for the reasons tenants got the non-payment deductions, he said he didn’t know since CW wouldn’t provide that information.
“We don’t have access to underlying evidence, so people who believe they’re wrong have to contact us,” said Schmidt.

However, out of the 5,000 non-payment deductions, more than half are for amounts under $100. Those cases may have been attributed to things like late fees or lost key charges, Schmidt guessed. “Collectively those things add up,” he said. “It’s up to the tenant if they feel $25, $50 or $100 is worth fighting for.”
A spokesperson for CWCapital declined to comment on the deductions.As for the major capital improvements (MCIs), it was former tenants who’ve been hit with those since the recent MCI settlement between CWCapital and the Tenants Association only includes reductions or eliminations of fees for current tenants.
“It doesn’t do anything for the former tenants,” noted Schmidt.

One former resident, Steven Zecca, commented on the Town & Village Blog about how he received a rather hefty MCI deduction.
“I received my check on Saturday, June 14th,” he said, “along with a third cut from the original damages amount, a non-payment deduction for back rent of $118 and over $1500 for retroactive MCIs…Stuytown resident from May 2010 through August 2013… Anyone have any idea how these retroactive MCIs work and what I was charged for?”

Schmidt said that attorneys investigated and learned that the law does permit CW to charge retroactive MCIs to former tenants.

Out of a $173 million settlement for tenants in apartments that were illegally deregulated by former owners Met Life and Tishman Speyer, $68.75 million is being paid out to tenants. The rest of the money is in the form of rent savings. “Roberts” tenants and former tenants who were owed money from when Met Life was the owner of Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village were paid at the end of 2013.
Damages range per person with some getting a minimal payout of $150 and others getting thousands.
The payments are being made from different pools out of the $68.75 million, with the pool of former tenants owed money by CW being the biggest. Schmidt has said tenants could expect to see 100 percent of what they overpaid as calculated by the settlement formula minus legal fees (around 30 percent).

In response to receiving a number of complaints from confused tenants, Council Member Dan Garodnick said he’d asked Schmidt’s firm, Wolf Haldenstein, to send tenants “a complete explanation to address these issues” and soon. And, he added, the firm has agreed.
“It’s apparent that a significant number of people got a deduction that didn’t expect it,” said Garodnick, “and they deserve clarification on what’s going on.”

Correction: The article was changed to reflect the fact that the pool of former tenants is the biggest, not the current tenants, and current tenants could see up to 100 percent of their damages.