Tenant Davids Take on Goliath

Heather Haddon May 12, 2006

The movement against the Pinnacle Group started with a few dozen neighbors meeting over homemade lemon bars in February. It has grown quickly since. A few years ago, tenants on Riverside Drive in Manhattan began to see disturbing patterns – the removal of their supers, apartment warehousing,
lots of superficial improvements – after their buildings changed hands. When Pinnacle moved to covert two properties into co-ops, residents started sleuthing. They discovered Pinnacle had snapped up hundreds of properties citywide, and was using the same tactics elsewhere. “We’re checking how [he’s] been flouting the law,” said Kim Powell, a Riverside Drive resident and lawyer who has done much of the organizing.
Powell and other local residents formed Buyers and Renters United to Save Harlem (BRUSH), and began knocking on doors all over northern Manhattan. Each month, their meetings draw more residents expressing remarkably similar stories. A few local elected officials have started attending. The group is now fielding calls from Pinnacle residents all over the city, some of who have started organizing their own buildings.

Throughout the last few years, growing numbers of Hispanic supers sought help from the Mirabal Sisters,
a Harlem civic organization, after they were abruptly fired by Pinnacle. Mirabal organized a class action lawsuit against Pinnacle last year, and has joined BRUSH’s efforts. The groups held a joint protest outside Pinnacle’s plush office at 1 Penn Plaza in March.

Housing groups have started to take notice. The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, a veteran organizing group, is assessing the situation with Bronx tenants. Housing Here and Now, a city organization affiliated with ACORN, is looking into Praedium’s financing of the deals. While energy is high, the battle ahead is formidable. Unlike some landlords, Wiener hasn’t hidden from his critics, outspokenly defending his case at local forums. He’s also hammering against opposition. Powell says Wiener
barred an independent inspector hired by tenants from doing an assessment of their building.

Local officials have pledged their support, and helped tenants on an individual basis. The city housing department says it’s looking into Pinnacle. But it will take a Herculean effort to derail Wiener’s operation. “[They] have a tremendous amount of power,” said Paula Odellas, a resident.

The end of Governor George Pataki’s reign may offer a chance to strengthen state housing regulations, which he helped to weaken. “We need to have much tougher laws against landlords who abuse the system,” said Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Bronx Assemblyman. “It’s a real problem.”