Above a slightly tattered and worn sign in the lobby reading, "Elevators Out of Order," hung another which read, "Any Tenant Who Improperly Withholds Rent Will Be Subject to Eviction." The scare tactic was one of the final blows that led the Park West Village tenants association to declare a rent strike against PWV Acquisitions in April, after years of demands for better services.
Tenants of the rent-stabilized Upper West Side complex, which includes three buildings along Columbus Avenue in the Nineties, have simple enough demands: Fix the chronically crippled elevators, replace decaying mailboxes, clean the buildings' water tanks, and renovate the laundry rooms. Tenants say there were times last summer when they had to trudge up and down as many as 16 flights in these buildings for days on end.
But the anger runs deeper than murky tap water. The buildings' problems, residents say, are indicative of negligent new landlords who are discreetly chipping away at the last bastion of government-designated moderate-income housing in Manhattan. Management's goal, residents say, is to dump longtime tenants, invest in individual apartments to raise the rent, and pull these buildings out of rent stabilization, as has happened at Stuyvesant Town and Westgate.
"They see this as a luxury property. The tenants are just obstacles to them," says Vivian Dee, president of the tenants association, who has been living in the complex for 28 years.
Attorneys for PWV Acquisitions, a joint venture by two real estate developers who each own massive commercial Manhattan holdings, claim the company has no such intentions. Attorney Michael K. Brown says PWV is going out of its way to meet the demands of the tenants association. "I feel bad about this rent strike. I thought we were on the same page," he says.
Joseph Chetrit of the Chetrit Group and Laurence Gluck of Stellar Management bought this complex for $122 million from Helmsley-Spear in 2000, just as the property was freed of a mandate limiting landowners to a 6 percent profit cap. Park West Village, which opened in 1961, was built on land the federal government sold to developers to promote affordable housing. When rent-stabilization laws passed in 1974, the apartments immediately qualified. Now tenants say owners are investing enough in individual apartments to raise the rent to $2000 a month, which permanently frees the units from stabilization. In the '80s Helmsley did its part to erode middle-class housing in the complex by converting four buildings facing Central Park West into condominiums. Those apartments are now marketed as Central Park Towers and go for as much as $500,000 for two-bedrooms.
When PWV first took over, tenants were hoping it would improve on Helmsley's careless management. The tenants association, a group with knitting club charm on appearance, is a scrappy organization that has been through vicious court battles over the years to maintain reasonable standards for the complex.
Immediately after the acquisitions, a bizarre set of what tenants call "fascist" rules gave them their first glimpse of trouble. Residents were required to show identification cards to renew leases or pick up deliverieseven from building staff they had known for decades. "They would take our IDs and make copies for their records," says Dee. In one case, management delayed re-signing the lease of an 85-year-old couple who couldn't find their marriage license. In other cases, management began charging tenants with violating rent-stabilization rules because they had made changes in their apartments years before.
"This was a routine sweep," an attempt to get out as many old tenants as possible, says Samuel Himmelstein, the attorney for the tenants association. As part of that sweep, the company began proceedings on more than 120 evictions. Though most were for deadbeat tenants who owed back rent, there were a smattering of cases that chased residents who held businesses in their apartments or other violations.
Things got really bizarre when a new property manager began picking fights with tenants and in two instances turned off residents' electricity out of spite. The employee, who has since been fired, simply wanted to prove to her bosses that she "had total control over her tenants," says Brown. However, he says, that doesn't represent the company or its intentions.
His clients, he says, are "charitable and good people" who have never made a "deliberate attempt" to undermine the buildings' rent-stabilization status. In fact, Chetrit and Gluck don't have as nasty a trail of anti-tenant cases in housing court as some of their counterparts. But how charitable they are is another issue. Gluck, whose company owns the old Daily News building, among other mega-properties, went from being a small-time real estate attorney to controlling some of the hottest Manhattan properties by buying out mortgages headed for foreclosure after the market slump in the '80s. Chetrit also owns quite a few residential and commercial properties. He is a partner in Westgate Apartments, which is the first Mitchell-Lama complex to opt out of the program and begin jacking up rents double and triple fold. Those apartments are now marketed as luxury properties. His foray into the Philadelphia market led him to serve eviction notices to an entire building of artists to revamp the property into luxury apartments, according to a local paper.
As for Park West Village, the company is already facing eight to 10 overcharge complaints with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), in which tenants say it reported inflated renovation costs to hike the rent. Three of the complainants have already won their cases because PWV failed to respond to their claims, and their rents will be lowered. Brown says management invested heavily in newer apartments, and with so few complaints among so many apartments, "the numbers aren't that bad."
As one of the not-so-bad numbers, Linda Anderson, whose case with DHCR is still open, is paying more than $2000 a month for a one-bedroom and was appalled to find out that the tenant before her was paying $900. She found the apartment through a broker, and it cost her more than $11,000 in fees and deposits to move ina far cry from middle-income affordability. Anderson says PWV claims to have invested more than $60,000 in her apartment to bring it to market rate, yet most of her new appliances are just "cheap stuff," she says.
In the meantime, management and the tenants association continue to haggle over the terms of the rent strike. Brown says PWV has met with the group repeatedly and has hired companies to fix the elevators and deal with the water, but the repair process is lengthy. The sticking point for now is how quickly repairs will be made. Tenants also asked for a one-month rent abatement in exchange for the reduction in services. Management refuses the rent break, and its best effort so far has been to offer a lump sum of $20,000 that it would invest in the property for community interest, like a park.
"That's a joke," says Dee. "Why would we invest in their property?"
So, in fact, as the signs in the lobby warned, eviction papers were served last week. Dee says she knows the rent strike will not halt the process of transition to luxury housing for this complex. It will, however, make life more comfortable for those still holding on.
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