Democrats vying for Kavanagh’s Assembly seat

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Harvey Epstein (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Sabina Mollot

Following Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh’s easy victory at the polls last week for the downtown Senate seat he wanted, two Democrat candidates have expressed interest in filling the now vacant 74th District Assembly seat.

One of them is Harvey Epstein, a tenant representative on the Rent Guidelines Board and the project director of the Community Development Project of the Urban Justice Center. The other is Mike Corbett, an aide to Queens-based City Council Member Costa Constantinides and a former teamster. Marie Ternes, a communications consultant who previously worked for then-Congress Member Anthony Weiner, said she is considering running.

Recently, outgoing City Council Member Rosie Mendez told Town & Village she was mulling a run for Assembly, but then later told the local blog Lo Down that she’d decided against it. Council Member Dan Garodnick has also previously said he has no plan to run.

Corbett, Epstein and Ternes spoke with a Town & Village reporter this week, although Ternes declined to be interviewed at this time since she hasn’t yet made a decision on running.

It’s expected that there will be a County Committee vote held by each party to determine who will get onto the ballot for a special election. However, it’s still unclear when the vote will be or when the election will be, since a special election must be called by the governor. Another possible, though unlikely, scenario is that there will be a primary in June when there’s a Congressional primary, or even later.

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Rent freeze stays

Tenants protest the lawsuit last September. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

On Tuesday, a judge ruled against a landlord group that had sued to undo the rent freeze for over a million stabilized tenants in New York City.

The fight might not be over though since the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents over 25,000 property owners in the city, later tweeted that it would review Judge Debra James’ decision and “seek grounds for appeal.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, cheered the news, and while discussing it on Tuesday, also brought up the mansion tax, saying this would create affordable housing for 25,000 more New Yorkers.

“Everyone who has struggled to pay the rent ― here’s the good news ― the people won and the landlords lost,” de Blasio said.

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Tenants protest landlord lawsuit aimed at undoing rent freeze

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Council Member Dan Garodnick outside the courthouse where arguments were being heard over the Rent Stabilization Association’s lawsuit (Photos by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

Lawyers for a landlord group were met by an angry crowd of protesters as they arrived in court to argue against a citywide rent freeze Tuesday.

Despite freezing temperatures and snow, the sign-waving group of renters, made up mostly of seniors, led chants that at times called for either a rent freeze or a rollback.

Among their supporters was Council Member Dan Garodnick, who said, “We have seen what happens year after year, even in years when costs went down. Rents only seemed to go in one direction and that was up. As a result, evictions go up. Homelessness goes up. The Rent Guidelines Board acted totally appropriately in making that determination.”

Judge Debra James was hearing arguments from the Rent Stabilization Association, the plaintiff, and those seeking to intervene in the lawsuit, including a coalition of tenant groups, legal service organizations and 18 City Council members.

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RGB gets new chair, owner rep

Mar31 Bill de Blasio

Mayor Bill de Blasio

By Sabina Mollot

Mayor de Blasio has appointed two new members to the nine-member Rent Guidelines Board, a new chair and a new owner’s representative.

The two appointments – new chair Kathleen Roberts, a former United States Magistrate Judge, and owner rep Mary Serafy – “have years of experience in both the public and private sectors,” the mayor said in a press release on Tuesday.

The Rent Guidelines Board is responsible for determining rent increases for around one million apartments in the city each year, last year issuing its first ever rent freeze for tenants signing one-year leases.

In an official statement, the mayor said, “Judge Kathleen Roberts has years of experience serving New Yorkers as a United States Magistrate Judge and Assistant United States Attorney in the Criminal and Civil Divisions. Likewise, Ms. Serafy is well-versed in the field of housing, planning and development in both the public and private sectors.

“I’m confident that their addition to the Rent Guidelines Board will serve New Yorkers well – tenants and landlords alike – in establishing rent adjustments that are fair and grounded in real-life conditions in our neighborhoods.”

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Tenants pack legal clinic

Council Member Dan Garodnick speaks to tenants at the legal clinic on nonrenewal notices and succession rights last Wednesday, as Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association President Susan Steinberg listens. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Council Member Dan Garodnick speaks to tenants at the legal clinic on nonrenewal notices and succession rights last Wednesday, as Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association President Susan Steinberg listens. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Over 250 people showed up last Wednesday to a legal clinic held by the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association, to have their questions answered about the recent round of golub notices and to learn about apartment succession rights. Aki Younge, a paralegal working on the community development project in the housing practice area for the Urban Justice Center, offered general information about the two complicated legal topics while four lawyers from the UJC were available for individual appointments to meet with tenants about their specific concerns.

The meeting, held in the auditorium at Simon Baruch Middle School, started at 6 p.m. and TA President Susan Steinberg said that they ended up having to schedule the appointments right at the beginning of the meeting because about 30 people had requested a slot with a lawyer.

“There are only four lawyers so we needed to have them meeting with people to whole time to get all of the appointments in,” she said. “Thirty was way more than we expected. We thought it would only be a handful of people but clearly we have hit a nerve.”

Councilmember Dan Garodnick, who was also in attendance, recalled that this kind of meeting was a much more common occurrence during the days of Tishman Speyer.

“We had a lot of these meetings in those days when Tishman Speyer was using aggressive acts, trying to find ways to get people out,” he said. “We’ve had years of calm but (CWCapital) has said that they felt they had let the question lapse, but they have also said that this is a one-time push on the issue, when you’ll see this level of notices.”

Despite the frequency of building owners using specific legal issues against tenants, Younge explained that the rules are not intended to be malicious.

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Legal clinic to be held on nonrenewal notices, succession

Council Member Dan Garodnick (pictured at a meeting in July)

Council Member Dan Garodnick (pictured at a meeting in July)

By Sabina Mollot

Following a spate of residents being faced with primary residence challenges while some others have recently been denied succession, local elected officials and the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Tenants Association have announced they would be hosting a legal clinic on both issues.

The event will take place on Wednesday, August 19 from 6-7:30 p.m. at MS 104 at 330 East 21st Street and will be co-hosted by Council Member Dan Garodnick, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh. Attorneys from the Urban Justice Center will also be present.

As Town & Village reported in late July, the Tenants Association had noticed an uptick in Golub notices or notices of nonrenewal being issued due to primary residence challenges. As of July 30, TA President Susan Steinberg said she knew of seven new Golubs being issued.

However, she noted, this was nowhere near as many as had been sent out at one time during the Tishman Speyer era of Stuyvesant Town. The former owner eventually managed to serve over 1,000 tenants with Golub notices.

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Pols name and shame ‘predatory’ landlords

Council Members Dan Garodnick and Jumaane Williams with tenants at a press conference at City Hall (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Council Members Dan Garodnick and Jumaane Williams with tenants at a press conference at City Hall (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Tenant advocate groups have a message for landlord who harass tenants: You’re being watched.

At a press conference last Thursday, the advocates and elected officials said that they have identified predatory equity landlords who tenants say have been mistreating them and forcing them to live in hazardous conditions. Councilmembers Dan Garodnick and Jumaane Williams, who formed the Coalition Against Predatory Equity last year with Councilmember Ritchie Torres from the Bronx, were at the event.

“We now have names attached to these situations so they know we’re going after them,” Williams, chair of the Council’s Housing Committee, said.

The landlords that have been singled out are Alma Realty Corp., Benedict Realty Group, Coltown Properties, Icon, SMRC Management, Steve Croman and Ved Parkash. Various tenants from buildings owned by these landlords were at the event, including residents of 444 East 13th Street, who recently filed a lawsuit against their new management company with the help of the Urban Justice Center because they have no gas or hot water and the management company has been doing construction despite a stop work order from the Department of Buildings.

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Garodnick says city needs to crack down on predatory equity

At City Hall, Councilman Garodnick cited Stuyvesant Town as a prime example of predatory equity, a practice that has continued throughout the city. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

At City Hall, Councilman Garodnick cited Stuyvesant Town as a prime example of predatory equity, a practice that has continued throughout the city. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

With Mayor de Blasio expected to unveil a housing plan soon that’s supposed to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, Council Member Dan Garodnick has released a report that’s determined a part of the plan to maintain the city’s stock of affordable housing needs to be a crackdown on predatory equity.

Garodnick discussed the issue in front of City Hall on Tuesday, saying that even after the market crashed, landlords have continued to accrue excessive debt in building purchases and then attempt to either pass the costs on to tenants in ways that are sometimes illegal or become slumlords.

“Tenants are being forced out because rents are jacked up on their apartments or because the apartments are becoming uninhabitable,” he said. Garodnick, while joined by other elected officials, housing advocates and a handful of tenants of distressed buildings, said it’s up to the city to step in with policy to break the cycle of buildings becoming distressed and tenants getting gouged or harassed. Naturally, Garodnick gave the example of the now infamous $5.4 billion Stuyvesant Town deal, in which owner Tishman Speyer lost all of its investors’ money following a failed attempt to turn the mostly rent-regulated complex market rate. Calling it the poster child for predatory equity, Garodnick recalled how “their entire business plan was to evict as many rent-stabilized tenants as quickly as they could.”

Meanwhile, since then, there have been similar deals that have been even worse in terms of those properties being allowed to deteriorate. Such blighted properties, noted Garodnick, are a burden on the city. He also referred to the refinancing last week of the 1,600-unit Three Borough Pool, which was $133 million in debt. After being refinanced, the property’s debt has swelled to $146 million, which Garodnick said makes no sense.

“They avoided foreclosure by refinancing with even more debt. How is that even possible?”

In his report, titled “Ghosts of the Housing Bubble; How Debt, Deterioration and Foreclosure Continue to Haunt New York After the Crash,” Garodnick suggested a few policy changes to deal with properties that are overleveraged. One is to have the city invest much more in Alternative Enforcement Program, which allows the city to repair violations and bill the owner. The city currently only spends $50,000 on the program, relying on federal grants to make up the rest of the $7.6 million budget.

Another plan is to give good-acting landlords the first chance to buy foreclosed mortgages after the city buys them. He also said he would look into the possibility of “creative solutions” where long-suffering tenants being able to get a crack at buying. He noted how this was currently a goal in ST/PCV, though in that case, the proposal to buy was not organized with assistance from the city. Another of his recommended changes is to create new standards for receivers or debt servicers to make sure they are protecting the health and safety of residents. Currently, receivers can’t be sued in Housing Court without approval of the Supreme Court judge who appointed them. Finally, Garodnick also recommended creating new state guidelines around the existing federal Community Reinvestment Act, which pushes banks to lend in low-income areas. The idea there is to focus on the quality of loans, not just the quantity.

Along with those proposals, Garodnick also discussed new legislation that would make the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) create a watch list of owners who engage in predatory equity. The bill was authored by Council Member Ritchie Torres, who represents a district in the Bronx where the practice has become increasingly common.

Harvey Epstein of the Urban Justice Center recalled the predatory equity in Stuyvesant Town. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Harvey Epstein of the Urban Justice Center recalled the predatory equity in Stuyvesant Town. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

While at City Hall, Torres said that at this time, “There are no consequences” for owners who engage in “intentionally harassing, defrauding and displacing tenants from their homes.” He, along with State Senator Brad Hoylman, said he supported Garodnick’s proposals, and Hoylman said he would address them at the state level. A couple of tenants then shared tales of living in buildings that were so poorly maintained, the only ones who seemed to be in control were the rats and drug dealers.

The issue of Stuyvesant Town was also revisited by Harvey Epstein, director of the Urban Justice Center’s Community Development Project. Epstein recalled when Garodnick, then a new member of the City Council, contacted him in 2006 about Tishman Speyer. At that time, stabilized tenants had started receiving, en masse, primary residence challenges from the owner. “Over 3,000 tenants were subject to potential eviction in Stuyvesant Town,” said Epstein. “That’s what predatory equity is. When you take tenants who’ve lived in a building 20, 30, 40 years and you find ways to get them out.”

Mayor picks 5 members of Rent Guidelines Board

Tenant rep Harvey Epstein has been reappointed.

Tenant rep Harvey Epstein has been reappointed.

By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Only a few hours before it was scheduled to meet last Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed four new members to the Rent Guidelines Board, which is responsible for setting the rent on about one million rent-regulated apartments throughout the city.
Mayor de Blasio appointed two public members, a tenant representative and an owner representative. He also reappointed tenant representative Harvey Epstein. The chair’s seat has not yet been appointed and four other seats on the board will open up at the end of this year.
The board is comprised of nine members, all of whom are appointed by the mayor, making it one of the few tools he has to directly influence the cost of housing. There are two landlord representatives, two tenant representatives and five public members, one of which includes the chair.
Cecilia Joza and Steven Flax were appointed as the two new public members. Joza is currently the housing counseling program director at Mutual Housing Association of New York, a not-for-profit housing organization that owns and manages over 1,200 affordable rental apartments in New York. She facilitates and conducts home purchases for first-time homeowners and offers foreclosure and predatory lending prevention counseling.
Flax has been involved in promoting community-based housing and development for the last few decades. He is currently a vice president of community reinvestment at M&T Bank and oversees community development lending.
De Blasio also appointed Sheila Garcia as a tenant representative. Garcia is currently the community organizer at CASA New Settlement, a not-for-profit, mixed-income housing and community-service organization the Bronx, where she works with community residents to improve living conditions and maintain affordable housing.
Sara Williams Willard, who works at Hudson Companies as a senior project manager running the company’s activities on Roosevelt Island, was appointed as an owner representative, replacing Steven Schleider, who often appeared unfazed by the booing at public meetings that would drown out his calls for maximum rent increases.
The mayor also reappointed Harvey Epstein, who has been on the board since last April and called for a rent freeze before the board’s vote last June. Epstein is project director of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center and represents member organizations in litigating housing, health and consumer matters. Several years ago he ran a hotline for tenants that was mostly called by Stuyvesant Town residents who were facing primary residence challenges.
Tenant advocates have responded positively to the new appointments, hoping that the new members will help sway the vote towards a rent freeze, which was also a campaign promise of then-public advocate de Blasio.
“These appointments can be the first step for the mayor to give some relief to tenants, who got pummeled by big increases last year,” Garodnick said. “I hope this board will deliver that relief.”
Michael McKee, the treasurer of TenantsPAC, said that he thought that de Blasio’s appointments were “excellent.”
“He’s chosen new people who seem to understand, based on their performance at the meeting last week, that the job of the board is to keep rent affordable,” McKee said. “Under Bloomberg, they seemed to think that their job was to protect landlords’ profits. We’re waiting to see who he’ll appoint as chair, but so far the appointments are good. It was like a new board and a new day.”
Susan Steinberg, chair of the ST-PCV Tenants Association, indicated that she was cautiously optimistic.
“While the devil is in the details and I would prefer to reserve my judgment for the actual vote on rent increases this summer, I am encouraged by the fact that the new appointees for the most part seem to have solid background in community development and affordable housing and would, presumably, understand the challenges faced by rent-burdened tenants of moderate means,” said Steinberg.
“I am keeping my fingers crossed for a very modest increase in June.”