A multibillion-dollar bank from out of state is trying to illegally evict eight poor tenants from a Washington Heights single-room occupancy this month. The rooming house, located at 517 West 158th Street, is a slouching, buttermilk-colored building where residents pay less than $500 a month in rent. The bank is North Carolina-based First Union National, which merged with the Wachovia Corporation last year to become the fourth largest bank holding company in the United States. They are conducting this shady operation in league with a bottom-feeding mortgage service company from Oregon, on behalf of a trust owned by private investors.
First Union took over the SRO in January, after foreclosing on a bad mortgage debt owed by the previous owner, Nowrang Ramlakhan. An official named David Ho immediately fired off a hostile letter to tenants, ordering them to clear out by March 21, or face retribution in court. First Union was listed in the letter as building owner and trustee for something called the Amortizing Residential Collateral Mortgage Trust. Ho was titled simply "Vice President."
But Ho is a VP not of First Union but of Wilshire, a Portland-based mortgage service company that was swept into a scandal in 1999 involving a series of inappropriate loans in union pension funds the company received from an investment adviser close to Wilshire's old boss. Although the company is now under new management, the case drew a flurry of federal investigations and lawsuits in the Pacific Northwest, and it's striking to see Wilshire conducting such a dubious maneuver here on the East Coast. For a time, a broker in the company's employ was also pushing tenants to leave.
"They said they'd give people $500 to move," says Carmen Sanchez, who lives on the SRO's third floor. "I work, but there are people on welfare here who've got no money to move. They can't just scare us and offer us $500 to move out."
In housing court, First Union's lawyers are arguing that the building was illegally converted into an SRO by Ramlakhan, who bought it for $245,000 in 1999, an incredible sum considering the rooming house's physical condition. But the city's departments of buildings and housing preservation and development both have the address registered as an SRO of 11 units, which means it's protected under rent stabilization. HPD records actually show that the building has been used as a rooming house since 1936, possibly since 1903.
In a phone conversation last week, Seth Levine, a lawyer for the bank, backpedaled, saying his firm recently heard of the SRO registration. "The goal is not to aggressively evict them," he says. "If they have the right to be there, they'll be covered by rent stabilization and we'll work it out. Otherwise, they can live there six months with free rent and then leave with dignity. We know the law and we'll do the right thing."
But if the tenants hadn't been referred by the city to the West Side SRO Law Project, which is moving to dismiss the cases when they return to court May 2, residents almost surely would have been turned out already. First Union has $320 billion in assets, $180 billion in deposits, and a Web site filled with noblesse oblige prattle about supporting communities and strengthening neighborhoods. Honestly, don't they have something better to do than badger poor people?
A First Union spokeswoman says the bank is only a trustee for investors who participate in the trust, and that Wilshire makes decisions regarding the property.
Tapping into the buried cultural meanings of what is now a puzzle of nondescript, late-modernist apartment towers in Crown Heights, two dozen tenants held a boisterous rally on April 15, demanding maintenance, security, and other services, and in a rare strategy, linking their housing problems to a baseball game held 55 years earlier.
The date was significant because the apartments are the Ebbets Field Apartments, built on the site of Ebbets Field, the nostalgia conduit for a significant portion of the population of Brooklyn, where 55 years ago, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson stepped up to the plate to become the first black player in major league baseball. The protesters, many of them members of the activist group ACORN, stressed the pointed injustice of black people facing hardship on a site so significant to black history. "This is the 55th anniversary of Jackie Robinson playing baseball," said Mark Thompson. "And we want respect on this day."
Building manager Zev Drizin countered, "If this turnout is all ACORN can pull out of 1318 units, the conditions in the building can't be as bad as they say they are."
When the complex opened in 1962 as the first state project built after the Mitchell-Lama law passed, the developer marketed the apartments as "bunts" and "doubles," and installed murals, now gone, depicting antic moments in Dodger history. Since not a trace remains of the stadium, traditional historic preservation has no role there. While the tenants are only asking for the basics, their protest strategy points to the site's enduring cultural resonance. With their mobilization and the creative thinking going on these days around the idea of cultural landmarking, one imagines an opportunity to bring not only vital services to these tenants, but also a piece of public art that would do justice to Ebbets's place in urban memory. Why not give them new murals, a Robinson museum, or even an outdoor Dodger installation on their windswept plaza?
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