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Tenant Groups Pressure Banks to Enforce Repairs

Bennett Baumer Feb 7, 2006

No hot water? Having trouble getting your landlord to make repairs? Housing groups from around the city are addressing these questions by pressuring the New York Community Bank (NYCB) to do a better job of monitoring the c
onditions in the buildings where it holds mortgages.

Housing advocates are taking it to the bank at the right time. NYCB needs government approval to acquire Atlantic Bank of New York, in a deal that would increase NYCB’s share of the “multi-family building” market from $9.8 billion to $12.25 billion. Housing groups hope that NYCB will intervene with the worst landlords so that the buildings do not lose value.

NYCB is a major player in offering loans to landlords with rent-regulated buildings and there are clauses in the mortgages that require the properties be kept in good repair.

“I have repairs that have not been made. I got a window that is coming out of its frame,” said tenant Yvonne White of 2239 Creston Ave. in the Bronx. “The bank that is holding the mortgage on my building needs to do something.” Victor Fein, the landlord, has a mortgage with NYCB, and the building has 324 outstanding violations, an average of 12 violations per apartment.

According to “Banking on Despair,” a report by the Housing Here and Now coalition, an umbrella group that includes Met Council on Housing [where the author is employed], “At least 231 buildings mortgaged by NYCB counted 3.0 or more Department of Housing and Preservation Development (HPD) violations per unit. At least 12 landlords named on HPD’s 2003 Major Problem Owner list were NYCB borrowers.”

Housing Here and Now recommends that government regulators deny NYCB’s bid to buy Atlantic Bank of New York if it cannot enforce its good-repair clauses. In 1977, Congress passed the Community Reinvestment Act to curtail discriminatory banking practices – known as “redlining,” after the practice of drawing red lines around low income neighborhoods on a map and denying loans on buildings inside that line.

The act requires borrowers to maintain their collateral by keeping up the buildings’ infrastructure. As part of enforcing the act and the good-repair clause in mortgages, tenants want NYCB to conduct more inspections and oblige landlords to remedy violations.

“Over the past five years, we have financed well over $10 billion of loans to local real estate markets, primarily for the renovation and upgrade of properties,” NYCB responded in an unsigned statement. “We have been recognized for our service to New York with an ‘Outstanding’ Community Reinvestment Act designation, the highest level of ranking.”

GOING AFTER THE LANDLORDS

Tenants often must go to extreme measures to force landlords to make even the simplest repairs. When calling the city’s 311 hotline to request an HPD inspection or applying for a rent reduction from the state is unsuccessful, tenants have resorted to more direct tactics.

This past September, a couple busloads of mostly Black and Latino tenants from Bronx buildings owned by Moshe “Morris” Piller took a trip to the landlord’s plush home in the Hasidic enclave of Borough Park, Brooklyn.

Piller has been on HPD’s Major Problem Owner list, and some of his buildings average more than 10 violations per apartment. Piller is also an NYCB borrower.

“When we first got there, we started attracting attention,” said Jackie Del Valle of CASA, a project of New Settlement, a Bronx-based organization that participates in Fix It Now, a campaign to draw attention to slum conditions.

“We marched to his [Piller’s] house and a lot of people in the neighborhood gathered around across the street.”

As tenants ended their action in front of the landlord’s house and headed back to the buses, some of the spectators began throwing eggs at them.

Met Council executive director Jenny Laurie recalls tangling with Piller while working with tenants in some of his buildings in Brooklyn. “Instead of agreeing to make repairs in court, they stonewalled the tenants for six months, making life as difficult as possible,” she says.

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