In Columbia Apartments Battle, It’s The Long-Term Renters Who Pay

How hidden cameras and housing court are used by one West Side landlord to force out rent-stabilized tenants. This story was first published Oct. 9, 2014 in the West Side Spirit.

Gloria Mejia’s son took a long look at the smoke detector in the hallway outside his apartment and knew something was amiss.

Smoke detectors run on a battery, he told himself, so why does this one look like it’s plugged into the wall?

He and his sister took the detector apart. Inside: a tiny camera, apparently installed by the family’s landlord.

“The next day the landlord came with a picture of my sister’s face and said if the camera was damaged we’d have to pay to replace it,” he said.

Mejia and her two kids live on W. 109 St. in a five-story apartment building between Broadway and Amsterdam. She’s lived in the building since 1968 and pays $664 for her three bedroom, rent-stabilized apartment.

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Gloria Mejia lives in a rent-stabilized apartment on West 109th Street and says that her landlord has been trying to oust her, claiming that the apartment is not her primary residence. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

The building is owned by the Orbach Group, and is part of a portfolio of 23 buildings on the street that were acquired by the company in 2009 for $45 million. The properties are part of a larger portfolio of more than 70 buildings that Orbach has amassed in the past five years, all of which are located between West End Avenue and Central Park West from 101st Street to 115th Street.

Orbach markets apartments in these buildings through a website called CoSo Apartments, targeted at students at nearby Columbia University (CoSo stands for Columbia South). Many of the existing tenants in the CoSo buildings are in rent-stabilized apartments, and many — like the Mejias — complain that Orbach is pressuring them to leave the units so they can be marketed to Columbia students at market rates.

Mejia told The West Side Spirit that this summer, the landlord refused to renew her lease, and sent her a 30-day vacate notice in July. When she didn’t budge, the landlord used images from the hidden camera as the basis of an eviction suit that was launched against her in housing court. She often leaves the apartment to visit her elderly mother, who lives next door, and if the landlord could convince the court she wasn’t using her rent-stabilized apartment as a primary residence, Mejia could be evicted.

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The video camera that tenants discovered hidden in a hallway smoke detector in one Upper West Side building with rent-stabilized units owned by the Orbach Group.

She hired a lawyer for about $1,500 and the case was dropped, she said. A few weeks later a new lease arrived in the mail. Then in September a man dropped by the apartment and offered to pay her $75,000 to move out. She didn’t bite.

“I’ve been living here in this building since 1968, I got married while I was living here, I raised my kids here, I’m not leaving,” said Mejia, 61.

A months-long investigation by the Spirit has found that of the 1,450 apartment units Orbach has acquired since 2009, which are spread out over 73 buildings on the Upper West Side, 66 percent are rent stabilized. Thirty-two of the properties are entirely or almost entirely rent stabilized; of the 654 units in these 32 buildings, 578 are rent stabilized.

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All told, the Orbach Group has 958 rent stabilized units under its control, according to records with the Office of the City Register, Dept. of Finance and the Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development.

Visitors to the CoSo Apartments website immediately see an interactive color-coded map of the Upper West Side and Columbia University, with icons denoting where each of Orbach’s 73 buildings are in relation to the campus. Clicking on a building icon will tell a visitor how far from Columbia University the building is using public transportation or walking.

Luz Garcia pays $872 a month for her Orbach-owned rent stabilized apartment at 120 West 109th Street. She’s lived in the apartment for 23 years and said recently she’s been approached with buyout offers after successfully fending off a non-primary residence suit brought by Orbach, which was dismissed in June.

“I’ve had two calls from the negotiators trying to get me out of my apartment,” said Garcia. “They want me to give them a number and I said I’m not even considering it.”

Negotiators came to her apartment when she wasn’t there, she said, and told her legally blind mother that Garcia owes $11,000 in back rent. Both Mejia and Garcia’s buildings are listed on the CoSo Apartments website but are shown as having “no availability at this time.”

The Orbach Group denied through a spokesperson that the company harasses its rent-stabilized tenants. The spokesperson also denied the CoSo Apartments website specifically caters to Columbia University students – despite its name, its logo that features an open book, its interactive map geared around the university, its brochure that touts the university’s history and CoSo’s shuttle service that runs through Columbia’s campus, and the website’s tagline that says, “Apartments at the heart of your education.”

A screenshot from the CoSo Apartments website shows the buildings with available rental units, in blue. Buildings with all rent-stabilized tenants currently occupying the units are shown as “no availability at this time.”

A screenshot from the CoSo Apartments website shows where Orbach’s buildings are in relation to Columbia University.

He likened the name “CoSo” to more of a moniker that denotes a specific neighborhood, similar to SoHo in Lower Manhattan, which stands for South of Houston Street.

“Virtually every apartment is rented through third party brokers, not through the website,” said the spokesperson. “The brokers neither have special instructions about Columbia students, nor do they care as long as the tenant is qualified and can pay the rent.”

Columbia University did not respond to a request for comment about the CoSo Apartments.

The Garcia case was brought, Orbach said, after she told an employee of the management company used by CoSo Apartments that she lives in Arizona for seven months out of the year. Garcia told the Spirit she left New York for a time due to a domestic violence situation, but always maintained the unit as a primary residence.

Orbach said Garcia’s case was dismissed purely on procedural grounds. A reading of the court’s decision said Garcia submitted “three affirmative defenses and a counterclaim,” and indicated the case was dismissed because Orbach could not ascertain and file in court papers where Garcia was living in Arizona.

As for Mejia, Orbach said there’s still a question of which apartment she uses as her primary residence, and that by law she cannot claim two rent-stabilized units as her primary residence. Mejia told the Spirit her mother has lived in the building since 1968 and her apartment is rent controlled as well as rent stabilized, and that she secured her own rent-stabilized apartment in the building after living with her mother for some years.

The spokesperson said he didn’t know how Mejia became a target for eviction proceedings in the first place, but that Orbach’s management style is “very hands on.”

“When there’s reason to believe that a tenant is violating the law, then they’ll cause an investigation to be made, which can include the use of surveillance videos,” said the spokesperson when asked about the hidden camera facing Mejia’s door. “They have a pretty good sense of who comes and who goes and where people are living, and when their suspicions are aroused they conduct an investigation.”

As for the nine buildings on the CoSo website that are entirely rent stabilized, the spokesperson characterized them as an investment and said the annual turnover rate for rental housing in New York is around 10 percent.

CoSo Apartments logo and tagline.

The CoSo Apartments logo and tagline.

However, according to the most recent Housing and Vacancy Survey commissioned three years ago by the Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development, the city’s “vacancy rate for rent stabilized units as a whole was 2.63 in 2011.”As for how suspicions are initially aroused and how these investigations are carried out, the spokesperson said, “there are various public databases, [Orbach] will interview the building staff, it’ll depend on what the circumstances of the particular case are. But in every instance before they go to court [Orbach] sends a tenant a notice that they have these concerns, and if the tenant isn’t able to satisfy them, then it’s up to the courts to sort it out.”

That same report noted that the city has about 987,000 rent stabilized units, and that the overall citywide rental vacancy rate is less than five percent, which meets the legal definition of a housing emergency “as defined by New York State and City rent-regulation laws, requiring a continuation of both rent control and rent stabilization in the city.”

The Orbach Group, which holds property in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, first garnered attention for alleged tenant harassment four years ago in a New York Times article about investors that acquire distressed properties. The article from August 2010 quotes a tenant activist at Housing Conservation Coordinators as saying Orbach engages in vacancy decontrol, a process whereby a landlord raises rent on a stabilized unit to the point where it exits rent stabilization, and that the company is part of a wave of predatory investors that buy buildings and seek to evict certain tenants at the expense of affordable housing. The Times article said city officials, including then-city council speaker Christine Quinn, were “keeping an eye on Mr. Orbach’s buildings.”

The hidden camera outside Gloria Mejia's door that monitors her comings and goings. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

The hidden camera outside Gloria Mejia’s door that monitors her comings and goings. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

The Orbach Group first arrived on Marti Weithman’s radar in 2009, soon after the company acquired the 23 buildings on West 109th Street.

Weithman is the president of the Goddard Riverside SRO Law Project, an organization that provides free legal support in housing court to low-income tenants on Manhattan’s West Side. The organization represented Garcia in her eviction case that was dismissed.

“As soon as they bought the buildings on 109th Street, tenants started coming into our office about a ‘private investigator’ who was coming around, snooping into their apartments, muscling his way into their apartments, and trying to gather information,” said Weithman. “That eventually become the basis for many [eviction cases].”

Weithman is referring to a man named Anthony Falconite, who was the target of a cease and desist order this past summer from State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who said the ex-cop forces his way into rent stabilized apartments to gather information and threatens tenants with eviction through harassment and intimidation.

That story broke in the Daily News, and Mejia said she recognized Falconite from pictures in the paper as the man who offered her $75,000 to vacate the apartment soon after Orbach renewed her lease.

Falconite could not be reached for comment.

“Falconite doesn’t work for the company and hasn’t for some time,” said the Orbach Group’s spokesperson. He later said in an email that Falconite actually worked for a management subcontractor used by CoSo Apartments, and that he left that company 18 months ago.

As for why Orbach stopped employing Falconite, the spokesperson said, “They just agreed to part company.”

The spokesperson maintained that Orbach and its CoSo Apartments subsidiary is a conscientious landlord to all of its tenants.

“Orbach has cleared thousands of violations from the [CoSo portfolio]; crime in and around the buildings has dropped dramatically,” said the spokesperson. “Many, if not most, of the buildings have zero violations on them, and there has not been one adjudicated case of harassment.”

An Orbach-owned building on the Upper West Side. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

An Orbach-owned building on the Upper West Side. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.

But Weithman estimates since 2009 the SRO Law Project has been in contact with more than 200 rent-stabilized tenants that have alleged harassment at the hands of Orbach.

“The harassment and deterioration of conditions that we hear about from long-term rent stabilized tenants living in buildings owned by Orbach are common tactics of predatory equity investors,” said Weithman. “Predatory investors purchase building portfolios with a business plan to evict rent stabilized tenants and use vacancy decontrol to remove the units from rent regulation.”

Weithman said for every tenant experiencing harassment that reaches out to her organization and others like it, there are those who lack the knowledge or wherewithal to tap into resources designed to help them stay in their homes. These people, she said, simply take buyouts or succumb to other forms of pressure to leave their rent stabilized apartments.

“We do our best to do outreach in the buildings so that tenants not only know what their rights are but know that our office is here to help them and assist them with their housing issues,” said Weithman. “But throughout the city, people fall through the cracks.”

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Naming the wrong names

Scrolling through my Twitter feed today I saw a tweet from Public Advocate Letitia James touting her new NYC Landlords Watchlist, which names the 100 worst landlords in the city.

The list is compiled using building violation data from the Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development. James’ methodology seems to involve finding the buildings with the highest number of HPD violations and breaking them down by class and year. In certain cases the site lists how many buildings and the aggregate number of units/violations the corporation that owns those buildings has. It also names the person that heads each corporation that’s registered as owning the building(s).

Good work and useful information to be sure. It comes with a great looking interactive map, similar the city’s 311 map.

What the 100 worst landlords in NYC list does not do is list the 100 worst landlords in NYC. According to the criteria used to build the list, “if a corporate entity is identified as the landlord of a particular property, we list the named officer as the ‘landlord’ of that entity.”

I love mining public databases and data journalism. I like getting in the nitty gritty and taking a lot of seemingly disparate information and turning it into a coherent picture. As such, I’m always poking around HPD’s building violation database as well as a half-dozen other city databases.

And here’s the thing: virtually every building is owned by an LLC that’s set up by a larger entity to own a single building or series of buildings. Whether the larger entity does this for tax reasons, legal reasons or to create a degree of separation, that’s just how it’s done.

Upon acquiring a new building or portfolio, often the larger entity will simply take the new building’s address and set it up as a free-standing LLC, which now “owns” the property or properties.

HPD only requires that LLC and its head officer to register with the department. And that’s the information you see – which again, is still useful – in HPD’s database.

But that person is not the landlord. They don’t own the building. Legalese aside, the landlord is the larger entity that actually owns the building or property in question.

And that larger entity often owns a ton of property in the city under dozens of different LLCs. And the head officer of a single LLC can also be the head officer of as many other LLCs as his bosses at the larger entity want.

The larger entity, and those that control it, are ultimately responsible for the building and the policies/funds that are used to mitigate violations in them.

I tried explaining all of this to the Public Advocate’s office on Twitter using one of the list’s worst offenders in Manhattan by showing them who the actual owner is. It didn’t go so well, but I think it’s an important subject to tackle for those who are interested.

2461 Amsterdam Avenue is owned by 2461 Amsterdam Avenue I, LLC, and has 447 HPD violations in a single building at that address. The head officer is listed as Robert Klehammer. But, as I’ve outlined above, Klehammer does not own the building and is not the landlord.

Initially I tweeted that the Parkoff Group owns 2461 Amsterdam Avenue, but they actually sold the building to Yeshiva University in 2007, according to public documents found online with the City Register’s Office. Therefore, Yeshiva University, and those that oversee the school’s property holdings, is the landlord.

My hunch is that were you to list the city’s actual worst landlords – the people, companies, and institutions – that actually own these buildings and dictate policy, the list would be a bit more embarrassing, and perhaps a lot smaller.

My intention with this post is not to disparage the Public Advocate’s work. It’s to demonstrate that the real landlords are insulated by layers of legal and corporate cover.

Despite my initial mistake, it isn’t hard to find these real landlords. And they should be the ones to find their names on the list of the 100 worst landlords in NYC.

Tish James

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Thoughts on oligarchy

Is it disingenuous to not think of the United States as an oligarchy when the brother of a former president (their dad was also a former president) has a decent chance of being our next president, as does the wife of a former president? This is all in the last three decades over four administrations.

From Wikipedia: “Oligarchy, meaning ‘few,’ and ‘to rule or to command,’ is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who typically pass their influence from one generation to the next…”

I draw no grand conclusions from this, but it’s worth considering.

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Landlord vs. Tenant, This Time On The U.W.S.

Did Lynda Engstrom’s apartment really need an electrical upgrade? This story was originally published May 28, 2014, in the West Side Spirit.


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Linda Engstrom with a photo of what her living room used to look like.

Lynda Engstrom is 73, a widowed daughter of Holocaust survivors who lives in a prewar building at 89th Street and West End Avenue.

Right now, her rent-regulated apartment looks as if a hazmat team gave it the quarantine treatment. The living room furniture — all of it -– is jumbled together in a hulking, shrink-wrapped mass in the middle of her living room; in her painting studio, plastic sheeting covers a wall of old photos and mementos. The guest bedroom in the back of her apartment is similarly shrouded in plastic sheeting.

“I just got my own bedroom in order,” said Engstrom.

Engstrom blames her plight on a campaign by her landlord to force her out — and replace her with tenants paying higher rents. Such stories have become increasingly common throughout the city, as rents have continued to soar. “They’re waiting for us to die,” said Engstrom of rent-regulated tenants, eight of which she said have left her building since 2004 due to harassment.

She believes once her apartment is vacated, and its rent-regulated status discontinued, it will be converted into a co-op and sold at a premium.

The problems for her started in 2011, she said, when one morning she awoke to the sound of incessant and loud banging on her apartment door. Peering through the eyehole, she saw six men who claimed to be from the building’s management company, who told her they needed to upgrade her unit’s electrical system. Instead of opening the door, she called the police, and later hired a lawyer to defend herself against what she is convinced are attempts by her landlord, Samson Management, to illegally evict her through intimidation. Lawsuits were filed on both sides.

“[They] decided to harass me through this electrical upgrade that I did not need,” said Engstrom.

Last year, a State Supreme Court judge granted Samson Management access to the apartment, but said before any work could be done the two sides would have to come to a legally binding and detailed agreement on what work would be performed. It took another year to draw up those plans up, and on April 27, Engstrom vacated the apartment for a week so workers could get the job done, as per the agreement. Before she left, and also in accordance with the agreement, a moving company came in and shrink-wrapped everything to protect it from dust.

Engstrom said she came back to find both her apartment and her belongings damaged. A ceiling fan was removed and sitting on the floor, she said. Built in window-seats that look out onto West 89th Street had cracks in them. As for the work that was done, the only evidence that remained was some dust and a strip of wall in the foyer that had been patched and sanded, and just needed a coat of paint.

Samson Management bought 317 West 89th Street in 2004, and began converting many of the building’s 20 units into co-op apartments.

Since 2011, Engstrom alleges that Samson Management’s superintendent, Gregory Haye, directed service workers in the building to deny her services like trash removal. She said Haye has been in her apartment two dozen times without notifying her. Engstrom said building workers used to be friendly towards her, “and now they treat me like a pariah.” All of these tactics have been employed, she believes, in an effort to make her continued presence in the building not worth the hassle.

But right now, she’s focused on getting her apartment back in order and resurrecting her stock-trading business, which she said was put on hold during her legal troubles. Engstrom said she lives on Social Security and what money she makes selling the odd painting, but needs to make more to cover rent, which she said is between $2,000 and $3,000 per month.

Haye didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Samson Management, through a spokesperson, said the company is not at fault in the case. “The real travesty of this entire incident is that Ms. Engstrom effectively and selfishly delayed Samson for three years from making these legally necessary repairs and upgrades, to the detriment of the safety of the building’s residents,” Samson said.

Engstrom said she’s open to a buyout but isn’t going down without a fight. “The big fear is that people have the authority now to walk into an apartment and do whatever they want.”

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Remembering that day

Impressions from first responders seeing the 9/11 Memorial Museum for the first time. This story was originally published May 22, 2014, in Our Town Downtown.

Retired NYPD detective Rose Colon hasn’t been back to Ground Zero since September 11, 2001.

She was in Brooklyn when the first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. She responded to the scene, and was injured after falling into a manhole while performing search and rescue operations with other first responders. Colon was evacuated before the first tower fell, and hasn’t felt the need to come back.

“We actually retired after Sept. 11,” said Colon, who returned to Ground Zero last week for the first time, to visit the newly opened 9/11 Memorial Museum with a friend, NYPD Sergeant Amy Loretoni, who also retired soon after the attacks.

Before opening to the public, the museum was open for a week to first responders and relatives of those who lost their lives. Downtown visited Ground Zero to speak with those who were granted advance access about their impressions of the museum and their recollections of that day.

Colon and Loretoni said for them, the most emotional exhibit was the Wall of Faces, which features photographs of the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives that day and is meant to convey the scale of human loss. An adjoining chamber shows photographs, biographical information and audio recordings of individual victims from the day of the attack.

“It was very nice except that they didn’t have a lot of information on the police,” said Colon. “I mean we did lose a lot of cops and Port Authority police.” Twenty-three NYPD officers and 37 Port Authority officers lost their lives on Sept. 11.

“If you were working that day and you were a cop, you can actually hear the cops dying. Everyone died equally, there was no color, there was no race, there was no religion in there,” said Loretoni.

One of Colon’s tasks in the aftermath of the attacks was to listen to and transcribe the 911 tapes of police officers who were trapped, and later died, after the towers fell. The officers, who knew all 911 calls are recorded, were saying farewell to their loved ones on the tapes.

As a result of her injury, Colon now lives with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a disease causing chronic pain in the ankle she broke, as well as PTSD. Loretoni said she also suffers from PTSD as a result of being a first responder to the scene.

“It’s not going to trigger in there,” said Loretoni, gesturing to the museum. “Sometimes things don’t trigger until later. You might be sitting at home and maybe they play one of those 9/11 songs they played during that period, and that will trigger the PTSD.”

Four brothers

Bill Amaniera was an EMS technician and a first responder to Ground Zero on Sept. 11. He has three brothers in the NYPD, all of whom responded soon after him to the scene.

“I was the first one here, and they got here right after me. I was here before the towers actually came down,” said Amaniera, whose one brother was in an NYPD marine unit driving police boats up and down the Hudson River. The Amaniera brothers all survived 9/11, though Amaniera’s parents, as well as his two now-adult sons, waited hours to hear news from them.

“It brought back some rough times, but it also brought back some positive memories of buddies of mine that I lost,” he said, of the museum. “I thought it was very respectful and tasteful.”

In a notebook at the museum, where first responders could jot down thoughts as they toured the exhibits, Amaniera wrote that he, like many others, will never forget. “You know, they say ‘Never forget,’” said Amaniera. “But the reality is, I will never forget.”

Confusion, and concern for the future

Jim Larsen worked for the Port Authority on the 65th floor of the North Tower.

“I compacted the whole day into confusion, from the time I left to the time I started walking down the stairs, until I got home. I just kept moving, no panic,” said Larsen, who lives about an hour north of Manhattan.

“Really the first time I noticed the smoke was at City Hall when we stopped, and that was when the second tower collapsed,” said Larsen. “Another moment of confusion, the dust cloud was coming up Broadway.”

Was it hard walking around the museum? “It was, in a way, but I get the impression that you have to have had some direct connection to the objects that are in the museum, otherwise I don’t know if people would appreciate it as much.”

Although Larsen was in the literal epicenter of the attacks, looking back he feels as though he was merely on the fringes.

“For me, I would say maybe I always felt guilty after that. I got home and I didn’t have a spot of dust on me. I got wet, but that was from coming down the stairs when the sprinklers were on, but by the time I got home I was dry,” he said. “I didn’t see any blood, I didn’t see anybody like what I saw in the pictures, walking through all covered in dust. Like I said, in a way I felt guilty about it. I dodged the grim reaper.”

Larsen said his career has taken him all over the world, putting him in contact with many different cultures and perspectives. He remembers worrying how the United States would respond in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

“I was concerned with how the United States would react,” he said. “I knew many Muslims, and they were good people. I was just concerned that a lot of good and innocent people would be hurt.”

Utter disorientation

Pete Begley was a battalion commander in the FDNY and watched from home as the first plane slammed into the North Tower. He knew immediately that he had to get to Lower Manhattan. “I was off that day,” he said, “but then again everybody came to work.”

Begley said the scene was so disorienting that he couldn’t even tell where the West Side Highway was located, or where the firehouse on Liberty Street was, a building that was very familiar to him.

“I worked in that place. And when I showed up down here in the rubble, after the towers fell, I couldn’t get my bearings,” he said. “I didn’t know where I was because of the mounds, the steel, everything.”

Begley, toured the museum with his wife, Gloria, and said portions of the museum were hard for him to take in.

“The thing of it was, the TV didn’t do it justice. I saw the plane hit the tower at home, so I saw some devastation on TV, but by the time I got down here it was a whole different world. I couldn’t describe it. You’re like this small,” he said, pinching his pointer finger and thumb to within an inch of each other. “You experienced a lot more devastation right here in the area, and I wish everybody could see that, but [the museum] is good enough.”

Begley retired from the FDNY in 2002. “I was thinking about retiring but they asked people to stay so I stayed another year. I did 32 years, that was enough,” he said.

The Begleys walked over to the reflecting pool, where tourists were pushing strollers and taking smiling photos in front of the names of the dead, 2,753 of which ring both pools where the towers once stood. Nearby, first responders trickled out of the museum in twos and threes, occasionally greeting an old face but mostly walking in silence.

Det. Rose Colon and Sgt. Amy Loretoni said they’d visit the museum again, perhaps bringing friends and loved ones next time. There’s more to see, said Loretoni, but for today they’d had enough.

“In the museum, it’s like you’re trying to absorb as much information as you can and look at everything. I don’t think we took enough time,” she said.

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