Pushed Off the Pinnacle

Tenants accuse mega-landlord of forcing them out

Pedro Garcia got a registered letter from his landlord last August, a few months after his parents moved from the apartment where he grew up in Washington Heights. Garcia, 28, who runs a family-owned grocery store, had lived with them in their rent-stabilized place on Riverside Drive for 15 years. In 2003, the Pinnacle Group bought the building, at 610 Riverside. By the time the letter arrived, Garcia had gotten used to hearing horror stories from his neighbors who'd found similar surprises in their mail.

His showed up after his parents bought a house and moved into it, leaving Garcia and his two kids in the apartment. Under city rental law, he should be able to continue living in the apartment. But Pinnacle moved to evict him, claiming he wasn't the legal tenant. His mother had signed the original lease, and she had tried to renew it in her son's name last year. "He wouldn't accept the lease with my name on it," Garcia says, referring to the company's owner, Joel Wiener. Nor would the firm cash his $620 monthly rent checks, letting him accrue $4,000 in arrears instead.

So Garcia has had to appear at Manhattan Housing Court. Twice, he has produced his birth certificate, utility bills, and rent receipts. Twice, Pinnacle has refused to settle.

BRUSH tenants meet in Harlem: (from left) Marge Charron, Debbie Brown, Brenda Tyus Faust, and Kim Powell
photo: Stacy Kranitz
BRUSH tenants meet in Harlem: (from left) Marge Charron, Debbie Brown, Brenda Tyus Faust, and Kim Powell

"What he's doing to me he's doing to other people," says Garcia, his case still pending. "He wants to kick people out."

Over on West 150th Street, in Harlem, Ray Jones has also gotten a registered letter. His eviction notice from Pinnacle came last fall, after the company bought the 540-unit Dunbar Apartments, where he has lived with his family since 1967. Jones, 45, a retired corrections officer, has turned out to be one of hundreds of Dunbar tenants in jeopardy.

At first, Pinnacle took Jones to housing court for not paying rent. He was deliberately withholding his money to force the company to perform repairs on his rent- controlled apartment. In January, a judge ordered the landlord to fix eight code violations and compensated Jones, wiping away 30 percent of his $1,700 rent debt.

Next, the company challenged his legal tenancy. Over the past six months, he has appeared in housing court five times, armed with phone bills, old driver's licenses, and records dating back two decades to prove he has succession rights to his home. A judge ruled in his favor, yet Pinnacle still refused to give Jones new keys. To get a pair, he had to return to court—twice.

"I feel these are tactics," Jones says. "It's intentional harassment to try to get you out."

That sentiment came across only too clearly at a special May 15 hearing about Pinnacle, one of the city's largest owners of rent-regulated apartments. More than 200 residents from Upper Manhattan turned up for the forum convened by three community boards. There, for over two hours, politicians like Democratic U.S. representative Charles Rangel, of Harlem, and City Councilmember Robert Jackson listened to emotional testimonies from tenants. One of the renters called Pinnacle a "high-tech slumlord."

One by one, residents accused Pinnacle of aggressive court tactics—attempts to violate tenants' succession rights, for example, and to evict for bogus reasons. They complained that the company fails to make repairs, or delays repairs, or does shoddy improvements to raise rents beyond regulated limits. Mostly, they blasted the real estate giant for moving into their neighborhoods and moving them out.

Today, Pinnacle has come to epitomize the gentrification of northern Manhattan, where rents remain relatively low and apartments are large. The company has purchased dozens of buildings throughout Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood, quickly installing floodlights around the perimeters and posting trademark American flags out front. The effect is particularly pronounced at the now ultra- illuminated Dunbar complex, with its 40-odd buildings. "You probably can see the Dunbar from space now," says Michael Drake, who has lived there since 1967.

Nowhere is Pinnacle's stake in the area more apparent than along Riverside Drive, from West 135th north, where 12 or so properties shine brighter than the rest, their flags rustling in the wind. Wiener has owned some of these Riverside Drive properties since the 1990s. But he has quietly bought most of his 200-strong real estate portfolio in Manhattan more recently. A review of city records shows that he and his partnerships owned 19 buildings in 2003, and 37 a year later. Then, in August 2005, he purchased some 70 buildings in and around Harlem for more than $300 million in funding from the Praedium Group, a national private-equity firm. That doesn't take into account properties in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. Currently, city officials believe Pinnacle owns 420 buildings in all five boroughs, or 19,085 apartments.

Wiener declined an interview request from the Voice for this article. Instead, he issued a five-paragraph statement in which he insists his company's tactics are aboveboard. To hear him, the firm has never wrongly evicted a tenant. Nor has it done slipshod repairs or cosmetic improvements simply to hike up rent. Pinnacle, Wiener points out, has just done an independent survey of tenants and found that most are "satisfied."

"We work very hard to restore [buildings] into affordable, safe, attractive homes for our tenants," the statement reads. "We want them to be places we are proud of and places in which tenants are proud to live."

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