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How many bad landlords are there in New York City? Who can count that high? But we can count to 10, so we assembled this group of really bad landlords—listed in no particular order—only after months of research. We combed through records of unresolved violations, lawsuits, eviction notices, and court documents. We spent thousands of hours in deeply depressing apartments and interviewed wave after wave of equally gloomy tenants. We also talked with scores of landlords, city bureaucrats, prosecutors, defense attorneys, housing advocates, and others. In the end, these are the 10 landlords we would want to rent from the least.
‘AIMING FOR A SPOT ON NEXT YEAR’S BEST-LANDLORDS LIST’
Landlord: Moishe Indig
A rabbi and developer in Williamsburg’s Satmar community, Indig is a board member of the powerful social services organization UJCare, is a strong Bloomberg supporter, has built a well-known synagogue on Hooper Street, and acts as something of a Hasidic community spokesman in the mainstream press.
Since Indig took control of 684 Flushing Avenue several years ago, it has been severely neglected and improperly subdivided. (According to the building’s official Certificate of Occupancy, there should be six apartments in the building when there are actually 16.) In November 2006, a court appointed an independent administrator to oversee the building. Indig regained control of the building the following year, when he took out a $1.2 million mortgage. But the building has further deteriorated.
Quotable: Landlord Indig: “By next year, we hope you will be able to put the building back on the best-landlords list, instead of the worst! We hope that all the problems will be resolved.”
Tenant Cruz Barreto, fearing that the rats currently crowded in the basement will invade his first-floor apartment: “I’m sleeping with the lights and the TV on—in case I need to get up and run.”
What it’s like to live there: With 132 violations (at last count) for a small four-story walk-up, 684 Flushing, in the East Williamsburg–Bushwick industrial region, is right up there on the city’s worst-violations list. Forty-five of those violations are immediately hazardous, according to city records, and include a chronically broken boiler and gas pipes, as well as water leaks that result in the kinds of floods that cause ceilings to collapse.
Apartment 4D is ridden with bedbugs and mice, and the wood floors sag dangerously. A woman and her children live in a first-floor apartment that’s missing a kitchen ceiling; it collapsed in a flood a few months ago.
The building has at least three abandoned apartments—their doors are boarded up with plywood and sprayed with graffiti. Two of those apartments, according to tenants, belonged to residents who fled because they couldn’t stand the deathly cold. Like everyone else in the building, they kept their oven doors open and the gas on in the winter months—if there was gas, that is. “We haven’t been able to cook for three months,” says Leo Smith, a 55-year-old carpenter.
Michael Juliano, a musician who lives on the third floor, pleaded with the landlord last year to put a padlock on the basement door to stop crack addicts from spending nights there. Management ignored him, so Juliano put his own lock on the door. The basement still smells like piss and is littered with cracked light bulbs, torn-apart furniture, and bits of plywood. Rodents have made fist-size holes in the walls and floor. The basement has been full of rats since at least 2008, when the city started slapping the landlord with rodent violations that remain open to this day. “Everything that could go wrong in this building has gone wrong,” Juliano says.
In early February, a water pipe in the wall broke, and Cruz Barreto’s first-floor apartment was flooded.
Indig freely admits to the Voice that the building has been neglected. He blames “family issues,” including a fatal illness in the building manager’s family, and, he says, he has recently changed his managerial team.
The building has a sorry history: By July 2007, Indig had stacked up 195 violations. The city sued, and in December 2008, a housing court judge demanded that the violations be taken care of immediately and that Indig pay the city almost $100,000 for all the emergency repairs. (Neither Indig nor his lawyers showed up in court to dispute the city.) In the year following the default judgment, records show, Indig didn’t do the repairs or pay the city a dime, and his bill grew by $20,000. Since the Voice talked with Indig in February, however, the landlord has paid the city about $90,000 of his tab, records show.
Mitigating factors: In early February, for the first time in three years, the building’s heat came on.
Future: With the water leaks, the broken gas pipes, the sagging floors, plus the mice, bedbugs, and rats, the tenants say there’s no reason to pay rent—and they’ve been withholding it since 2008. They are putting the money in an escrow account until the landlord takes care of the building. Meanwhile, Indig is suing most of the tenants to get them to pay. On February 16, a housing court judge again ordered Indig’s company to fix the violations.
Landlord: Humphrey Stephenson
Not exactly a real estate magnate, Stephenson claims to own only one building, 141 West 119th Street in Harlem, and he lives on the first floor of the four-story, 19th-century ex-mansion. He shares the building with his wife and daughter (who live on another floor) and an ever-revolving handful of tenants.
Stephenson makes this list not because he fails to provide heat, or because he has evicted hundreds of people. It’s because some of his tenants and ex-tenants say he’s a really, really angry guy who freaks them out with fits of crazy temper, maniacal rage, and unfair and unsettling behavior.
In an interview with the Voice, Stephenson angrily says, “They can’t get me angry! I just take it!”
Quotable: “He cursed at me every single night and day,” says one former tenant. “Sometimes you wonder if he don’t sleep.”
What it’s like to live there: This is one of those beautiful Harlem mansions built more than a century ago and slowly going to seed. Inside, say tenants, the vibe is Dickensian. The dimly lit house is shabby, and it’s decorated with posters and iconography of Stephenson’s native Jamaica, including plentiful images of the late Ethiopian king Haile Selassie, who is worshipped by Rastafarians. A colorful cloth crest announces the British Jamaican Benevolent Association, which owned the building from 1949 until Stephenson took it over four decades later.
Current and former tenants tell similar stories of Stephenson’s rages and alleged acts of downright cruelty. All but one requested anonymity because they say they fear retribution.
Two female tenants—one former, one current—say that as they headed off to work every day, Stephenson would trail them out the door and down the block, cursing them and calling them prostitutes, worthless sluts, and thieves.
The former female tenant, a Jamaican immigrant who says she fled the building with her two children in October, recalls that if she or her 21-year-old son came home after 7 p.m., Stephenson would lock them out. “It was like living in prison,” she says. “We couldn’t talk, in the hallways or on the steps. I cried all the time because of the whole thing. I even developed high blood pressure—I never had that before.”
As a recent immigrant without papers, the woman was afraid to bring a lawsuit against Stephenson. She and her kids are now crashing on the living-room floor of a friend’s home in Manhattan.
Neighbors, too, are familiar with Stephenson’s temper, as is tenant advocate Yarrow Willman-Cole, who says she got a mouthful of nasty curse words on her voicemail recently from Stephenson.
Tenants say Stephenson routinely denies them use of the bathroom at night. The Jamaican immigrant says she had to urinate and defecate in a pail, which she would dump into the upstairs toilet in the morning before leaving the house. This situation is especially dehumanizing, tenants say, for a sick, elderly tenant who has trouble walking up the stairs on her own and struggles with the bucket. (The woman, a longtime tenant, declined to comment.) Another current tenant says that, for the better part of 2009, he had to take showers at a friend’s house across the street because Stephenson locks the bathroom.
The creep show has other acts: Stephenson broke the lock on the bedroom door of a current female tenant and wouldn’t replace it until a housing court judge ordered him to do so last month. A new lock is finally on the door, but the tenant is staying with relatives, afraid to come back.
One former tenant, Nakeeta Wills, was in her mid-twenties and had just moved to the city from Rochester when she made her way to Stephenson’s house, which she had learned about through a family friend. She says she paid Stephenson about $130 a week while working as a receptionist. The building was dirty and in disrepair, she recalls, but she was so enthralled with living in New York City that she didn’t really mind. Stephenson was kind to her when she first moved in, she says, but after a short time, he descended into seemingly uncontrollable fits of rage. He took to prowling around her door at night, and opened her door and left beer cans in her room, she says, and would also accuse her—while her fiancé was visiting the building—of soliciting sex from him.
Wills moved out for a short time, but says Stephenson convinced her to come back. The day she was to move back in, though, he changed his mind and refused her entry, she says, and her moving van was left to circle the block and sit idle for hours with her boxes inside it.
“I feel like this experience was my crazy New York story,” says Wills, who finally left the mansion in 2005 for a more peaceful place in Harlem.
Mitigating factors: While amicably showing a Voice reporter around the house, Stephenson denies ever having cursed at anyone (“I don’t curse out nobody”). But when he starts talking about his tenants, he starts cursing.
As to the specific horror stories by tenants, Stephenson doesn’t deny locking the bathroom on the tenants but says he did so because the toilets needed repairs. As far as locking the female tenant out of her room, he says he did so because the woman was living in filth and he needed to make repairs in the room. (He then shows the room, which was, in fact, very dirty and had a single wooden slab instead of a bed.) He also shows that he had a police restraining order against the woman’s boyfriend, which he says he obtained after the two men fought over Stephenson’s breaking the lock on the door.
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.
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.
Cestero says in the letter that Vantage’s “properties overall were well maintained” and that tests indicated that Vantage’s hotline-complaint system was “operational as outlined in the plan.”
The letter notes that HPD approved the plan in December 2008. On February 11, 2009, Vantage asked that 21 more buildings be included in the plan to use a hotline and janitorial service in lieu of on-site supers. “HPD’s written response on February 12,” Cestero wrote, “indicated that further evaluation was necessary and that a response from HPD would be provided within 4-6 months.” He added: “HPD has since determined that further testing of the system is warranted, given concerns being raised by advocacy groups indicating that the system was not performing as outlined by Vantage. Further testing has been ongoing.”
In September, the city rescinded its approval of the hotline and demanded that Vantage put supers back in the buildings.
Future: The settlement with Vantage aims “to ensure proper protections to tenants in the future,” says the Attorney General’s Office’s lengthy statement on the matter. “Vantage is also required to implement new policies related to processing complaints, initiating legal proceedings, collecting rent, and establishing succession rights. All residents will receive a notice informing them of the policy changes. These new reforms will set a new best-practices standard in the industry.”
Beyond these words, Vantage is also required to, among other things, specifically “reform its policies” and procedures before trying to evict tenants; hire an independent monitor and independent auditor (both of them subject to the A.G.’s approval); file regular reports to the A.G.; and provide translators for tenants who need them.
Vantage’s Goldin isn’t the only one who thinks the settlement is a milestone. Tenant activist Benjamin Dulchin was quoted as saying, “This agreement is simply groundbreaking. Not only does this agreement provide meaningful monetary relief to tenants who were harassed, but it requires the implementation of clear and sound policies and procedures that will protect the rights of tenants. The Attorney General’s agreement with Vantage puts Wall Street investors and landlords that do their bidding on notice that tenant harassment is against the law and violators will be sought out and brought to justice.”
LANDLORDS ARE EVICTED BEFORE THEY CAN DO IT TO TENANTS
Landlord: Aaron and Solyman Yashouafar (Milbank Real Estate)
In November 2006, the Yashouafar brothers—two Los Angeles real estate developers better known for signature luxury high-rises in Las Vegas and the redevelopment of historic commercial buildings in downtown L.A., Oklahoma City, and other Western venues—ventured into the Bronx.
They were used to far-flung adventures. Solyman, the elder, fled the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and landed in Southern California. Younger brother Aaron had come to the U.S. in 1977 and attended Beverly Hills High School; he entered the family’s real estate business when he was 16.
Their high-flying portfolio is based in the Sun Belt, but the brothers, who control a family-owned company called Milbank Real Estate, got a $35 million loan from Deutsche Bank and used it and subsequent loans from other banks to buy about 20 Bronx buildings containing about 1,000 apartments. Many of the buildings, like 1576 Taylor Avenue in Parkchester, are in rough-hewn parts of the borough. And the buildings themselves already suffered from blight, safety violations, and both abandonment as well as squatters. Far from trains and even, in some cases, from bodegas, they were nevertheless billed by the Yashouafar brothers as “positioned for significant gentrification.”
The brothers’ pitch to investors was to call these buildings “Bronx Collections I & II” and refer to them as “multi-family assets” that had “poor prior ownership with a history of neglect.”
Under Milbank, the plan was that “revitalization would occur by infusing the capital necessary to improve the condition of the buildings, as well as aggressively pursuing the collection of past-due rents—allowing for an improved tenant base and increased income from the properties.” Milbank further assured investors that it “provides full-service management” that covers, among other things, “evictions, collections, and other legal general matters.”
Things appeared to have fallen apart even before the company could put into place its publicized eviction strategy. The company still claims (online, at least) to own 18 properties in the Bronx, but at least 13 of its original 20 are actually in foreclosure proceedings, according to court papers. Milbank’s top execs couldn’t be reached for comment.
Quotable: Milbank CEO Aaron Yashouafar, recalling for another publication his romance with property: “I loved it. When the other kids were going to McDonald’s and Burger King after school to have fun and drink milkshakes, I’d drive to our office and take care of business.”
What it’s like to live there: On a recent frigid day in the Parkchester neighborhood, a giant boiler-services truck is parked outside 1576 Taylor Avenue, pumping emergency heat into the building. It’s too late to pump financial life back into the place; the bank foreclosed on the Milbank building in 2009.
Right down the block, Milbank’s building at 1535 Taylor Avenue is not in foreclosure, but it’s in constant hot water—if only figuratively: The 41-unit building (formerly controlled by notorious landlord Frank Palazzollo) has 251 unresolved violations at last count. That number doesn’t quite capture the ambience of the place: When it rains, the leaky roof discharges water onto the top-floor apartments. Luis Delatores and his wife, Erica LaGuerre, recently moved with their newborn son from their decrepit fifth-floor apartment down to the second floor after she fell down soggy stairs and badly bruised her back.
During their first four months in the building, their shower didn’t work, so they had to take the subway to Erica’s mom’s apartment on Mosholu Parkway to bathe. Delatores estimates that the building has had heat this winter for about 20 days.
Tenants at 2427 Webster Avenue, near Fordham, say they endured six consecutive months last year without heat or hot water before rebelling in late November. In a protest preserved on YouTube, tenants rallied in front of the building, carrying “No Hot Water! No Heat!” signs and displaying rats they’d caught in their apartments. As the melodrama continued, Milbank’s field manager, Ray Radpadvar, showed up at the protest and, while ripping down the protest signs, told State Assemblyman Nelson Castro, who had joined the protesters, “Tell the fucking tenants to pay their fucking rent.” The heat and hot water weren’t restored until after Fannie Mae started foreclosure proceedings on the building in January.
The day of the Voice‘s visit to 1535 Taylor Avenue, Radpadvar, the field manager who co-starred in the Webster Avenue protest video, is in the building to oversee the repainting of a stairwell. He says he’s doing his best to take care of the countless repairs, but that funding is tight—in short, the banks and the company aren’t giving him enough money to do his job. The Bronx portfolio was a stupid deal, in his opinion. When the California owners came to New York for a few days before purchasing the buildings, he says, they were shown only the best properties. “We were lied to,” he says. “Some of the apartments looked vacant on paper, but they were really full of squatters!”
Listening to Radpadvar is tenant Delatores, who later says, “I can’t feel sorry for that man. How can you buy a building and not know who lives there and who doesn’t? He’s seen what goes on.”
If life weren’t tough enough in Milbank’s Bronx buildings, busted elevators are a theme: Tenants at 2427 Webster say they recently went through a whole year without a working elevator—elderly fifth-floor tenant Leonides Correa says she suffered asthma attacks from trudging up the stairs in the chronically underheated building.
The only elevator in Milbank’s six-story building at 780 Garden Street (which has a startling total of 584 unresolved violations) was broken for at least six consecutive months last year; its tenants include the elderly and at least one disabled veteran of the Gulf War who can negotiate stairs only with great difficulty. The tenants were so desperate that they contacted “Help Me Howard” at WPIX. He couldn’t get through to Milbank’s executives, either. In December 2009, the bank initiated foreclosure proceedings on the building.
Mitigating factors: Of the five Milbank buildings that the banks haven’t seized, two have front-door locks.
Future: Now it’s up to court-appointed receivers, for the buildings that are in foreclosure proceedings, to try to pry money from the banks for repairs.”It’s triage, you know? I almost feel like I’m on a battlefield with the wounded coming in,” says Joe Cicciu, the court-appointed receiver for 10 of the Milbank buildings that have gone into foreclosure proceedings. “Not everyone is shot up. Sometimes these are only flesh wounds. So we go to some of those apartments and try to fix things, patch things up, to give people a chance to live in decent apartments. But for people with the collapsing ceilings, we are trying to relocate them into vacant units. The problem is, most of the vacant units need a gut renovation! And we don’t have the dollars for that anymore.”
HALLS OF SHAME
Landlord: Bahram “Danny” Hakakian
Openly branded a “slumlord” by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Hakakian owns at least five buildings in Washington Heights. His 34-unit building at 206 Audubon Avenue has 338 code violations at last count, and 76 are classified as “immediately hazardous”—no fire alarms, exposed wires in apartments, no locks on front doors.
In 2006, and again in 2008, the city sued Hakakian, demanding that he make hundreds of repairs. The city has been awarded $382,730 in civil cases against him. He has repaid $159,000, records show, meaning that he still owes the city nearly a third of a million dollars. The tenants at Audubon just ended a four-year rent strike.
Hakakian’s buildings have more than 5,000 total violations. One Hakakian building, 1534 St. Nicholas Avenue, is on the city’s worst-violations list, which is weighted by the seriousness of the violations and the number of violations per unit. The 28-unit building has 399 violations. A nearby 14-unit building has 290 violations (That’s an average of 20 violations per unit. To give a sense of scale, landlords who average only three violations per unit qualify for de Blasio’s Slumlord Watch List.)
Hakakian didn’t return numerous phone calls from the Voice. During last year’s election campaign, de Blasio (then a City Councilmember) used Hakakian as his whipping boy. Showing up at one of Hakakian’s Washington Heights buildings in early September—with other public officials and a gaggle of media in tow—in an attempt to shame Hakakian, de Blasio told reporters: “It makes a lot of sense in a case like this to lower the boom to make an example of a landlord who would do something like this.”
Tenants have said that when they complain to Hakakian, he tells them that he has no money. Reacting to news reports at the time that Hakakian lives in a $5.9 million estate in Kings Point, Long Island, de Blasio lashed out like a cobra: “When I hear a story like that, it makes me sick. How could someone benefiting on that level not worry about how his tenants are living?”
Quotable: Pausing in front of a dark, dirty area beneath the first-floor stairwell at 511 West 160th Street that is a local prostitute’s place of business, normally cheerful tenant Marta Diaz says, “It’s been like this for so many years. Completely disgusting.”
What it’s like to live there: “For more than four years, we called the police every single day,” says Elsa Espinal, recalling the young men who sold drugs every day from the second-floor common area. “We still can’t get them to put a lock on the door.”
Her husband, Ramon Espinal, is a retired NYU janitor. Since 1974, the Dominican couple has lived and raised their children at 206 Audubon Avenue, where they pay $618 for a spacious and neat two-bedroom apartment. They keep a bucket beside a radiator that has been leaking for more than a year. In the middle of the night, from time to time, when they aren’t awake to catch the spillage, the leak floods their living-room floor. “I was a janitor,” Espinal says. “I know what it means to keep things clean. It feels like he’s just abandoned the building.”
So much so that tenants have to occasionally abandon their apartments. One tenant sent her three young children to stay with their grandmother in the Dominican Republic because their bedroom was covered in mold. The kids stayed in the D.R. for three months, missing the beginning of school while they waited until the mold was removed.
Hakakian buildings visited by the Voice exhibit the tell-tale signs of a slumlord: They are covered by graffiti and have no locks on their doors. In one building, the windows in the main stairwells are broken, and the place is freezing cold. In one filthy apartment, mold blankets the walls. There was so much mold that a small plant was actually growing out of the mold on a windowsill.
Mitigating factors: None that we’re aware of. And Hakakian won’t return calls.
Future: De Blasio made big promises last year, telling Manhattan Times reporter Daniel P. Bader: “We want to shame these landlords into action. If they don’t, we will stay after them every week and help the tenants organize.”