Christine Quinn and Rafael Cestero Vow to Save Crumbling Bronx Buildings

Today, City Council speaker Christine Quinn and Housing Commissioner Rafael Cestero vowed to make sure that conditions won't worsen at 10 crumbling Bronx buildings that have fallen into foreclosure.

Back in March, we named the prior owners of the buildings, Los Angeles real estate developers Aaron and Solyman Yashouafar (Milbank Real Estate), in our series, the Ten Worst Landlords in New York.

Cestero said he visited the buildings for the first time on Monday night. In more than two decades working as a housing professional, he said, he had never been more "angered, shocked, or frustrated."

Cestero said that his team wrote 173 violations on Monday night alone, and that the city was about to embark upon a roof-to-cellar assessment of the conditions, which would include an inspection of every apartment. When asked how this new approach would be different than the city's approach over the past year -- the problems in the buildings have not been a secret -- Cestero said the city was going to be more "proactive" than in the past. (Read: Instead of responding to 3-1-1 calls, the city would go in on its own).

Speaker Quinn said the current owner, LNR Properties, "has stepped away from any responsibility to keep the buildings livable." She and Cestero are currently pressuring LNR to reduce the $35 million mortgage, in hopes that a new buyer who isn't struggling with unmanageable debt will be better able to service and operate the buildings responsibly. But in a city like New York, there are still many buyers and speculators that are willing to put up $35 million, says Dina Levy, who directs the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.

Last month, the city and advocates put together an independent assessment of the buildings' needs. The assessment claimed the buildings would need between $17.5 and $26.6 million worth of work - new roofs and boilers and gut renovations. LNR seems uninterested in the city's assessment, and had proposed that the buildings needed only five to seven million dollars worth of work, an amount Quinn said was not acceptable. Quinn vowed to talk to as many prospective buyers as possible about the actual conditions in the buildings.

There is another option. The city will now be embarking upon what will probably amount to hundreds of emergency repairs. Since the foreclosures, the city has done about $80,000 worth of repairs on the properties, Cestero said. But with a roof-to-cellar assessment about to be conducted, the number of violations will likely skyrocket. Considering that currently about 20 percent of the violations are considered emergencies, the city could end up being liable for millions of dollars in repairs. All those repairs will be considered liens on the property that a new buyer, or LNR, would be obligated to pay for. If the city does them quickly enough, those outstanding liens and taxes will make the properties less attractive to a new buyer. It will be harder to ignore the violations, because the costs for repairing them will have already been charged.

But LNR may find a new buyer before the repairs are complete. Cestero told the Voice he wouldn't say how much he planned to spend on repairs before the roof-to-cellar assessment was completed.

For tenants, much of this wrangling may not make a difference. Many tenants were unaware when their building went into foreclosure -- Milbank had been starving the buildings of repairs for about a year before that happened. And since the buildings have been in foreclosure, LNR, tenants say, has not been providing the building with enough money to cover the operating costs, causing them to go into further decline. A recent court case upheld the tenants view, but LNR is appealing the decision.

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