By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Getting angrier and angrier during the interview, Stephenson admits that he is trying to get everyone out of the building: "Every day, every day, I lose money!" he said. "I got to pay my mortgage, my fees. There's too much problems in this building."
Future: Stephenson says he's planning to convert the building into a two-family apartment. But he adds that if that doesn't work out, he'll sell the decrepit mansion as soon as he possibly can.
'AN INDUSTRY LEADER'
Landlord: Neil Rubler (Vantage Properties)
Neil Rubler married into the Olnick real estate family and was a top official of the Olnick Organization, which, in a heavily criticized sweetheart deal, leased to Congressman Charlie Rangel four rent-controlled apartments in Harlem's Lenox Terrace. Another instance of Rubler's charitable behavior toward Rangel: As a board member and "corporate chair" of the major domestic-violence nonprofit Safe Horizon, Rubler had the pleasure of introducing Rangel as "honorary chair" at the charity's 13th Annual Champion Awards Luncheon in May 2008. Only two months later, coincidentally, The New York Times broke the story of Rangel's sweet deal.
The Times pointed out that Rangel was "hoarding" rent-controlled apartments—and even using one of them as an office when it was supposed to be used only as a primary residence—while "the Olnick Organization and other real estate firms have been accused of overzealous tactics as they move to evict tenants from their rent-stabilized apartments and convert the units into market-rate housing."
That, in fact, was the avowed strategy of Vantage Properties, which Rubler began in 2005, when it scooped up about 9,000 mostly rent-controlled apartments in more than 130 buildings around the city, many in Queens. At the time, Rubler called his aggressive approach "innovative," saying he intended to be to the real estate market what Wal-Mart is to the retail industry. That approach led Vantage to promise its private equity investors a 20 percent turnover rate in its buildings. (The New York City Rent Guidelines Board says the typical vacancy or turnover rate for a rent-controlled apartment building is 5.6 percent. Through turnover, landlords can hike rents up to 20 percent.)
In April 2008, 10 tenants sued Vantage, Rubler, and another company officer: Seven claimed that Vantage refused to cash their rent checks and then tried to evict them for not paying rent. Others alleged that the company tried to evict them by accusing them of not really living in their apartments. That case is still moving through court; there are now 21 plaintiffs.
During a spate of bad press in mid-2008, Vantage's publicists met with politicians from Queens, and the company also tried to smooth over its relationship with tenants. In 2009, the number of evictions dropped, says Robert McCreanor, a lawyer who represents Vantage tenants in Queens. And in a November 2, 2009, letter to tenants—with "Listening, Learning, Responding" atop the letterhead—the company announced that it was adding multilingual support services,
closing the hotline (the letter did not announce a closing of the hotline, which is still in operation -- ed.), and extending office hours. "We aim to earn your loyalty," the letter said. But tenants say that even as evictions have slowed, they continue to be billed bogus fees for unwanted capital improvements.
Vantage's various strategies didn't pass muster with state officials. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, in a blunt letter this past January 28 to Rubler, threatened to sue the company to stop it from harassing rent-regulated tenants and forcing them from their homes. "The Attorney General found evidence that Vantage engaged in unlawful business practices," Cuomo wrote.
Two weeks later, on February 11, Cuomo announced a settlement with Vantage "that will stop the company from serving tenants with baseless legal notices and will stop it from commencing frivolous Housing Court eviction proceedings."
Cuomo's office said that "the Attorney General's investigation into Vantage had revealed that the landlord was attempting to force long-term, rent-regulated tenants to move out of their homes in order to impose significant rent increases on new tenants and increase profits."
Under the agreement, Vantage is required to institute several reform steps and pay a total of $1 million—not only in damages to tenants, but also "to not-for-profit organizations that provide free legal and educational services to tenants."
"These reforms will put in place, for the first time, new rules of the road governing the landlord-tenant relationship in New York," Cuomo said. "If there are other landlords who are not living up to these standards, they should."
Cuomo's announcement was blistering: "Landlords who harass tenants harm all New York City residents by displacing longtime tenants from stable neighborhoods and exacerbating the affordable-housing shortage. In these tough economic times, the preservation of affordable housing is of the utmost importance. Today's agreement with Vantage not only preserves the rent-regulated apartments owned by them, but also sends a strong message that my office will continue to protect tenants and bring unscrupulous landlords to justice."
Quotable: Vantage lawyer Orin Snyder calls the settlement "a great result" and "a landmark collaboration between public and private sectors," adding, "By embracing historic reform, Vantage has agreed to be the industry leader."
What it's like to live there: The biggest problems haven't been rats or leaky ceilings.