By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Typical is the tale of Lauro Guaman, who lives with his sister on 45th Street in Woodside. Vantage didn't cash his rent checks, he says, and then sued him in 2007 to evict him—on the grounds that he didn't pay rent. (According to court documents, the suit was dropped after Guaman showed proof that he had, in fact, paid.)
In a 2008 case, a state housing official specifically warned Vantage not to bring an eviction lawsuit based on non-payment of rent unless it had actual proof that the tenant—a doorman in Queens—didn't pay. In meetings with Vantage managers, subsequent court documents showed, the doorman had already demonstrated proof that he had sent payments, but that they had been mailed back to him. Nevertheless, Vantage sued the doorman for non-payment.
When Rubler took over, dozens of other Vantage tenants, many of whom live along the 7 train line in Queens, began to complain about the same thing: rent checks not being cashed, followed by a refusal to renew leases on non-payment grounds and lawsuits alleging they didn't really live in their apartments. "My building became a ghost town," says Lauren Springer, a lawyer who lives in a rent-controlled apartment in a Vantage building in Sunnyside. "The new people that moved in were young professionals." In a group of 2,124 apartments in Queens, Vantage filed almost 1,000 cases in housing court between October 2006 and May 2008. The prior landlord—Nicholas Haros, who had been heavily criticized by tenant activists—had filed about 350 a year.
"When you try to pay your rent, they don't accept the check," says Teresa Perez, a Corona resident who is president of the Queens Vantage Tenants Council, a group of tenants from a handful of Vantage's 150-odd buildings, 80 of which are in Queens. "Then you get a letter saying that if you don't pay your rent, you'll get taken to court."
Or your residency in the buildings is challenged. Denhise Oliveira, a Brazilian immigrant who works for DHL, has lived with her husband in a rent-controlled apartment at 37-37 88th Street in Jackson Heights since 1992. After Vantage took over the building in October 2006, she was formally notified that her lease would not be renewed because her primary residence was in nearby Woodside. Oliveira's husband's name is Marcos, and he drives a bakery delivery truck. Apparently, Oliveira's new landlords had found another Marcos Oliveira who lived in Woodside. After providing various proofs of residence to no avail—the company insisted that she and her husband lived in Woodside—Oliveira took matters into her own hands. She showed up at the house of the other Marcos Oliveira, who also turned out to be a Brazilian. The Woodside Oliveira agreed to accompany the Jackson Heights Oliveiras to Vantage's office, where they showed their IDs. Eventually, Oliveira and her husband obtained the renewal of their lease.
In October 2008, Queens tenants, saying that their demands for a meeting with Vantage executives had been brushed off, staged what the Daily News termed "a boisterous protest . . . outside the Manhattan office of Vantage's main financial backer, Apollo Real Estate Advisors." The paper noted that "Vantage, which is backed by private financiers, has drawn the attention of housing advocates because its success appears to hinge on a high turnover of rent-stabilized apartments into market-rate units."
Apollo Managing Partner Richard Mack was quoted as calling the protest "a publicity stunt," but he also said at the time that his company hadn't been told by Vantage about the tenants' request for a meeting with Vantage officials.
Apollo execs met with the tenant leaders after the protest, the Daily News reported, and Vantage's Rubler said in a statement that he welcomed a "mutually beneficial dialogue."
Kursh Mian, a state police officer who has lived for 20 years in a building that was taken over by Vantage, explains his reasons for protesting Vantage's practices: "I'm a police officer. I make a decent salary. I don't have many luxuries, but I have a reasonable rent. I don't know what I'd do without my housing. . . . That's what makes it affordable for me to live in this city, and that's what they are taking away."
Complaints against Vantage's harassment tactics continued steadily throughout 2009, say officials in the Attorney General's Office. After Cuomo trumpeted his settlement in early February with Vantage, the A.G. Office was swamped with calls from tenants who said they had been harassed by Vantage.
Mitigating factors: Vantage spokesman Davidson Goldin tells the Voice that "Vantage's agreement with the Attorney General's Office on affordable housing represents a milestone in Vantage's continuing goal to help set new standards." He also says that any harassment was unintentional.
"To the extent that mistakes were made," he says, "Vantage looks forward to setting best practices that other companies can look to." He claims that Vantage has reduced open violations by 90 percent.
In defending Vantage, Goldin sent the Voice a copy of a letter from the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) that, he says, "specifically praises Vantage's record." The May 2009 letter from HPD Commissioner Rafael Cestero to City Councilman Eric Gioia notes that, in November 2008, Vantage sought permission from HPD to remove building superintendents from 14 of its smaller properties. (The normal rule is that supers must live within two miles of a building.) In lieu of live-in supers, the company created a 24-hour telephone hotline service and provided a janitorial service.