Wall Street Takes Dead Aim at Affordable Housing in New York City

A new investment scheme is turning bankers into your ugly landlord

Dhenise Oliveira was 20 years old when she and her husband, Marcos, moved into a one-bedroom apartment on 88th Street off of rumbling Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens. That was 1992. The six-story apartment house "wasn't the greatest," she says. But the rent was reasonable, and the landlord largely complied with the law, providing the basics of heat and hot water, while collecting his annual rent hikes.

This kind of affordable housing is the city's rarest and most precious commodity. The way it works is that people like the Oliveiras pay a rent they can afford while working productively at their jobs. In Dhenise Oliveira's case, she works for the Customs Department. Her husband drives a bakery delivery truck. They paid the rent—$630 a month—while the landlord made a decent profit and paid his taxes. This is how a city functions.

To help meet the crisis in low-cost housing, Mayor Bloomberg has pledged to spend $7.5 billion. So far, he says, he has helped build or save some 71,000 units.

That's good, because the math here is clearly against us. Some 30,000 rent-regulated apartments are lost yearly due to rising rents. Now, Wall Street investors have devised a strategy poised to take an even bigger bite.

Under this approach, private investment firms, backed by large banks, purchase buildings in working-class neighborhoods and then aggressively challenge the identity of as many tenants as possible. The apparent aim here is to replace as many people as possible with higher-paying residents, while taking advantage of the lax enforcement of rental-housing laws.

So far, it appears to be working. The Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development reports that the turnover in many buildings purchased by these private-equity firms has been as high as 25 percent. Conveniently, this is the same vacancy goal cited in financing documents filed by one of the new firms, Vantage Properties, a company that has bought more than 9,200 units in the city in the last two years.

Once, the biggest fear on this terrain was slumlords whose conduct was so atrocious they won monickers like the "Devil Landlord" or "Vampire Landlord" in homage to their devious and vicious ways. But the new landlords are proving that you can drive more tenants away with lawyers and court papers than with baseball bats.

"They have created an eviction mill," says Robert McCreanor, an attorney for the Catholic Migration Office in Queens, who is battling Vantage in court on behalf of scores of tenants.

For their part, the new owners insist that they are improving long-neglected properties, while protecting their rights as owners by simply checking the legal status of questionable occupants. But consider the saga of Dhenise and Marcos Oliveira, who had lived happily in their little apartment for 16 years until Vantage purchased their building in October 2006.

That fall, Dhenise Oliveira gave birth to a baby girl. She got out of the hospital in early December and came home to a legal notice from the new landlord stating that her lease would not be renewed because she didn't really live there.

"The Premises are not being used as Tenants' primary residence," the notice stated. She and her husband really lived in another apartment in Woodside, Queens, on 32nd Avenue, it said.

Oliveira assumed this was a mistake. "I told them I lived nowhere else but this place since I am married. I said, 'Please double-check your information before accusing anybody.' "

In response to the new managers' demands, she presented her bills for telephone, gas, and electric, each showing her address at 37-37 88th Street. She also offered her lease from 2006, and her driver's license. The managers remained unmoved. I asked them, 'What makes you think we live in Woodside?' " Because that's where Marcos Oliveira lives, she was told.

"I told them, 'You know, guys, how many Marcoses are there in the world? It is ridiculous.' They just say, 'Ma'am, I am sorry.' "

Oliveira filed a complaint with the state's Division of Housing and Community Renewal that her landlord had improperly refused her a renewal lease. The landlord wasn't impressed. They still had to go, she was told.

"So, in frustration, what I decided to do was go and find this address where they said we really lived," said Oliveira. She knocked on the door at the apartment in Woodside and found a tall man whose name was also Marcos Oliveira. "He was Brazilian, like us," she said. "He had the same last name and first name."

The other Marcos Oliveira agreed to accompany the Oliveiras to the Vantage management office. There, the two Marcos Oliveiras presented themselves. One was about five feet, 11 inches. The other Marcos was over six feet, seven inches. "The manager asked, 'Who are you?' And the other Marcos says, 'I'm Marcos Oliveira.' They both showed their ID's. They said, 'See, we are different guys—different birth dates, different people.' "

The Oliveiras ultimately got their lease. But McCreanor, the housing attorney, has filed a lawsuit that is filled with similar instances of apparently over-eager accusations. One plaintiff is Nelis Fuentes, 75, who has lived in the 88th Street building for 21 years. Vantage has told her that it knows her real residence is in Miami, where another man with her ex-husband's name—Jose Fuentes—lives.

"How many Jose Fuentes are there in the country?" asked McCreanor. His lawsuit claims that such deceptive practices have become a Vantage trademark and should be barred under consumer-protection statutes.

Vantage's CEO, a real-estate veteran named Neil Rubler, didn't return calls. But the company has gone top-shelf in search of spokesmen and lobbyists, and Rubler's office directed callers to Bud Perrone, of Howard Rubenstein Associates. "The suggestion that Vantage brings baseless legal cases is 100 percent false," said Perrone in a statement.

On the political front, the company also recently engaged the city's top lobbyist, Suri Kasirer. It has done so, Perrone stated, because "at present, there is a great deal of misinformation going around about our business practices, and it is important that we seek every opportunity to set the record straight."

Most alarmingly, some of that alleged misinformation is being repeated by local elected officials who have condemned the company and its practices. "This is an outrage," says State Senator John Sabini, who joined a recent demonstration outside one of Vantage's banks, Credit Suisse. "They're just taking people with foreign-sounding names and claiming their leases are somehow wrong, hoping they'll leave." In recent days, Kasirer's office has contacted other politicians who have criticized the company, including Assemblyman Jose Peralta and City Councilman Eric Gioia.

Gioia has pledged to hold hearings on the impact of the new investment firms on the affordable-housing stock.

"When I look at their business plan and I see it is predicated on a 20 percent turnover, the only way you can do that is to have an orchestrated plan to force people out," said Gioia. "There's no other way to figure it."

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