How a New York real estate deal went bad, causing a housing crisis for hundreds of low-income families
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Additional reporting by Matthew Huisman, Wanda Hellmund, Sarah Wali, Connor Boals and Yoav Sivan
LOUISE ALVAREZ cannot remember who used to live in the abandoned apartment in the building next to hers on Manida Street in Hunts Point. The mother of four pushed open its unlocked door one morning in October to find cooking pots caked with old food strewn among sneakers, used hoodies and open bags of trash. The stench of stale urine wafted out into the hallway.
Nearly half of the apartments in the four decrepit buildings at 621-627 Manida St in the Bronx are empty. Like Alvarez, the remaining residents live with dangerous mold, vermin and only occasional heat in apartments that suffer from varying stages of decay. Most said their apartments began crumbling around them soon after the last owner vanished nearly one year ago.
Many like Alvarez cannot afford to leave. She is asthmatic, and has arthritis in parts of her hands and hips. “I ain’t moving,” she said, “let me tell you.”
A similar tale can be told by the tenants in 24 other buildings throughout the Bronx. The aging apartment blocks have become known as “the Ocelot buildings,” named after the defunct real estate investment company that bought them between 2006 and 2007 at the peak of the housing bubble, only to abandon them in late 2008, as the market collapsed.
Some news outlets have called Ocelot a “phantom” and, indeed, the company’s president could not be contacted for this article. But the consequences of a bitter row between Ocelot’s principals are very real for hundreds of families across the Bronx.
VETERAN real estate dealer Michael Edery was part of a group in early 2005 that bought 1744 Clay Avenue and 1633 Eastburn Avenue, two low-income buildings in East Tremont. His group paid five times the rent roll for the pair of buildings, and sold them nearly two years later for $6 million, seven and a half times what the rents would yield.
“The market was insane,” said Edery. “If it would have been marketed properly at the height of the market, we would have gotten eight times, eight and a half.”
Various entities surrounded the purchase, but Edery knew the buyer simply as Ocelot Capital Group.
Ocelot appeared to have endless capital, and an endless appetite for apartment buildings in the Bronx. Backed by a $29 million loan from Deutsche Bank (a debt it later sold to Fannie Mae), the company bought the Manida Street buildings for $7.2 million, Edery’s two buildings for $6 million and 15 more low-income properties in Morrisania, Pelham Parkway and Crotona for nearly $23 million. The Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn then financed six more buildings in Highbridge and Soundview for $16.6 million. In less than two years, Ocelot had bought up nearly 800 apartments all over the Bronx.
OCELOT’S president was a respected New York attorney named Rachel Arfa, a graduate of Brooklyn Law School and a member of the New York State Bar since 1979. Arfa is a former partner of an international law firm called Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and a businesswoman whose strength is her legal expertise.
Arfa’s father was a Hebrew scholar called Milton Arfa, who lectured in Yeshiva University and established the Israel Matz Fund to distribute grants to indigent Hebrew authors. Rachel Arfa, who lived on Riverside Boulevard in lower Manhattan during the Ocelot episode, is now a trustee of the charity along with Shlomo Sharan, an Israeli academic based in Tel Aviv.
While Arfa managed the buildings in the Bronx, the cash for this costly venture came almost entirely from an obscure Israeli company called Eldan Tech. According to its annual report, this Tel Aviv-based investment group controlled 80 percent of Ocelot.
From Tel Aviv to The Bronx
Arfa had close links to the Tel Aviv business world through her husband, Alex Shpigel. In 2002, the couple had raised $40 million from a group of Israeli investors for a major purchase in Harlem and the Bronx. Shpigel provided the financial fulcrum for the deal with his network of family and personal relationships in Israel, while Arfa used her legal know-how to set up its complex structure of real estate entities.
But in 2007, some of the Israeli investors filed a civil suit in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court alleging that the couple covertly siphoned off $5 million in “secret commissions” from the sellers of the properties. These commissions were then loaded onto the purchase price. According to the same court filing, Shpigel threatened to kill an associate who found out.
Arfa and Shpigel have denied all the allegations, and no criminal charges have been filed against either of them. The couple filed a counter suit in the same court against a former associate, whom they blame for the much of the mess. These tangled cases provide an unfortunate warning for disasters to come.
BACK in the Bronx, the trouble began almost as soon as the couple sealed the deal on the Ocelot buildings. Many of their new tenants qualified for city and federal rent subsidies. This meant rent revenue alone would be too meagre to support the maintenance needs in these aging buildings. Money would have to come from elsewhere.
According to the Department of Housing and Development, it never did. Basic repairs – the responsibility of Arfa and Shpigel – ceased to take place. Thousands of official complaints flooded the city’s housing files listing everything from rat infestations to collapsing ceilings.
Residents who had options began to abandon their apartments. Those who did not, endured a year and more of living in degrading conditions. The buildings racked up “immediately hazardous” violations. Six Ocelot buildings in particular ended the year on the city’s list of “most distressed.” By the end of 2008, nearly every one of the Ocelot buildings was in a state of serious decay.
In response, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) took Ocelot to Bronx Housing Court in June 2008. It secured consent orders compelling the company to repair nearly 3,000 violations in six buildings and pay approximately $60,000 in fines. HPD officials claim that Ocelot never addressed the violations—the kind of negligence that could result in a contempt of court ruling, i.e. jail time.
Meanwhile, in October of 2008, Eldan Tech directors decided enough was enough. They voted to bail out. By then, the property market was collapsing on a global scale. The Ocelot costs had stung the company’s bottom line. In 2008, Eldan Tech reported “heavy losses of about 53 million shekels ($14.4 million) due to its real estate activities in the Bronx.”
The cost for the Ocelot residents, however, was of a different nature. Broken front doors meant drug addicts could freely roam the halls. In one building, pigeons took up residence on an abandoned baby’s crib.
Louise Alvarez and her children – and many Ocelot tenants all over the Bronx – lost their heat and hot water for the winter of 2008.
Who’s to Blame?
Arfa and Shpigel and their Israeli business partners are now locked in a vicious legal dispute to determine who is more culpable for this human and financial catastrophe.
The Tel Aviv investors claim in their civil suit that Arfa lied about the buildings’ physical condition and financial performance and “incessantly demanded” more cash.
Arfa’s lawyer, David Katz, countered that Eldan Tech failed to supply her with “millions of dollars” of needed maintenance money. Katz also charged the Israeli company with bribing a senior Ocelot employee for confidential information about Arfa’s and Shpigel’s businesses elsewhere. The couple is now suing that ex-employee for $1 million in New York State Supreme Court. The employee has denied the charges.
“They’re vindictive,” said Katz of Schlam, Stone & Dolan, referring to Eldan Tech principals. “They’re trying to avoid their responsibilities.”
Enter Sam Suzuki
While the legal squabble continued, Arfa began looking for a way out. Sam Suzuki, a long time property dealer based in the wealthy town of Port Washington, Long Island, emerged as a potential buyer. His company signed a no-cash deal in November 2008 and took on Ocelot’s debt with Fannie Mae.
But Suzuki’s company never made any bank repayments and a lawyer for Suzuki would not explain why. This caused the deal to collapse in early 2009 and Fannie Mae foreclosed on the loans. Court-appointed receivers took over, putting most of the buildings – and their tenants – into a legal no-man’s land, where they remain today.
A Fannie Mae spokesperson, Jon Searles, said that the bank is now “joining the receivers on inspections of the properties and funding much-needed safety repairs.” Such promises don’t wash with the tiny maintenance budgets that the receivers are currently struggling with. One receiver recently sought a court order to secure more cash from the bank for repairs.
Searles also said that Fannie Mae is looking to sell the loan notes on the buildings to “responsible new ownership.” Who that “responsible” new owner might be, remains to be seen. Katz said that Arfa now wants the buildings sold to a non-profit, because the only parties hanging on for a for-profit deal are Eldan Tech and Fannie Mae. One of the interested parties, as it turns out, is Sam Suzuki.
In 1998, a legal firm tried to force Suzuki to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy over a disputed $77,000 debt, a debt that was settled in 2001. Other trade creditors have also been forced to take Suzuki to court to get paid and one creditor even secured a judgment against him for over $2 million in the New York City Supreme Court in 2004. Suzuki paid the judgment off two years later.
Suzuki has still managed to find the cash to donate thousands of dollars to Democratic politicians around New York over the last eight years, including $6,200 to former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, $7,450 to U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman and $9,000 to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.
And despite the earlier deal collapsing, a company linked to Suzuki did manage to buy six of the Ocelot buildings in May of this year, including three in Soundview that were not part of the Fannie Mae foreclosure buildings. Conditions in many of them remain appalling.
Residents recently gathered in the lobby of 1585 E. 172nd St, to protest its dilapidated conditions but their meeting was interrupted by police, who were called by an employee of Suzuki’s. A lawyer for Suzuki said that her client had no problem with the tenants organizing but that the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board members at the meeting were not invited and thus trespassing.
In another Suzuki-owned apartment building on Stratford Avenue, a family of 10 lived without heat for a year before it was only recently restored. The superintendent at 1636 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. has filed 20 complaints since September of this year, spotlighting everything from water leaks and holes in the ceiling to faulty electrical wiring.
One mother in an Ocelot building at 1585 E.172 St. has to keep her infant son out of her kitchen because of rodents. “No puedo vivir con las ratas,” said Ana Almonte. “I can’t live with the rats.”
On Manida Street, Louise Alvarez stays put, waiting for a new landlord and hoping the nightmare may soon be over. She sleeps in her living room so her children can share the bedrooms. “We’re here struggling,” she said. “I guess I’m going to be struggling until God answers my prayers.”