by Donal Griffin and Matthew Huisman with audio slideshow by Carmen Williams
Martha Castro cannot remember how many mousetraps and glueboards she has scattered around her two-bedroom apartment on East 172nd Street in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx. All she knows for sure is that four are in the bedroom where her granddaughter sleeps.
“We’re not really getting heat,” Castro said. “There’s something wrong with the pipeline so we don’t get no heat. The only place that gets warm in this apartment is the kitchen and the living-room.”
Her son wants her to move to Florida, away from the cold weather and her home of 21 years. But that would take Castro away from her case in Bronx Housing Court against Hunter Property Management, the company responsible for managing her building and five others throughout the borough.
On Hunter’s watch, the buildings have racked up thousands of housing violations. Residents have accused the company of not being able to afford the repairs. “I might just say ‘to hell with it’ and leave,” said Castro, who is 65. “But I hate to have started something and leave it half undone.”
Castro’s is the latest chapter of an all-too familiar story in the Bronx after the real estate crash in 2008, one that pits low-income tenants against their debt-laden landlords struggling with bank repayments.
On the side of the residents is an aggressive non-profit, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), which has helped Castro and other residents organize against Hunter. Based on Wall Street and led by a spiky activist named Dina Levy, UHAB began its campaign in September of this year with flyers accusing Hunter – which is associated with the buildings’ owners, BXP 1 LLC – of not having the funds to repair or even maintain the buildings.
The tenants and UHAB then held a protest meeting in the lobby of Martha Castro’s building in October, but a Hunter security official called the police, further antagonizing both sides. Hunter’s general counsel, Alice Belmonte, said that the tenants had every right to hold the meeting, but any UHAB activist would be considered a trespasser. “UHAB had already trespassed in the building,” Belmonte said, “by littering it with flyers.”
Conditions in the buildings continued to worsen in November as city housing inspectors noted that the property manager had failed to make even basic repairs to broken smoke detectors and bathroom faucets. UHAB and the residents then decided to march into the Bruckner Boulevard branch of the Dime Bank and Savings, the bank that has backed two sales of the buildings in less than three years. Security officers escorted the protesters off the premises and they then picketed outside, attracting some unwanted publicity for Dime.
The tenants had contacted bank officials before about the buildings’ worsening conditions, but got little in response, according to the advocacy group. “The message at the time was that it’s not our problem,” said Dina Levy. “We got a bullshit letter back (and) this blow-off phone call.” Indeed, the Dime’s chief lending officer, Dan Harris, had previously stated to Bronxink.org that the bank could do little to help the situation as it was “just the lender.”
Andreas Rios, a 13-year resident at 1585 East 172nd Street, said he wrote to Dime Bank personally when his request for repairs to his apartment went unheeded by the building’s super. “They explained that if that’s the situation, ‘We can’t get involved,’” Rios said. “That’s your problem.”
But three days after the protest, on Nov. 23, Harris met with the residents and the non-profit. “I think we got their attention,” said Rios.
Getting the bank to the table was crucial to putting pressure on Hunter, according to UHAB, and the militant strategy appears to have worked. “We are optimistic that tenant representatives, the owners, UHAB and the bank will have a follow up meeting soon,” said Harris, “where we can air all the issues and find practical solutions which benefit all parties.”
But Harris has more to worry about than just negative publicity. Dime Bank had backed the $13.2 million purchase of the six buildings in May 2009 to a company called BXP 1 LLC. This is managed by the same property developer who owns Hunter: Sam Suzuki. This “over-leveraged” position is now a critical problem, according to Levy, while residents like Castro have also stopped paying rent in protest, further weakening the buildings’ financial position. “But (even) if everybody were paying their rent,” Levy said, “the buildings would still have negative cash flow.”
Dime Savings Bank backed the original $16.6 million sale of the six buildings to the Ocelot group in July 2007. Ocelot had built up a portfolio of almost 30 buildings in Bronx, all of which were backed by Fannie Mae – with the exception of the six Dime-backed buildings. Ocelot’s principals then pulled their investment in late 2008 and sought to sell the entire portfolio to Sam Suzuki. But that deal collapsed earlier this year and Fannie Mae was forced to put its buildings into foreclosure.
While the clamor surrounding the condition of the Ocelot buildings grew in the Bronx over the summer–even attracting the attention of U.S. Senator, Charles Schumer–Suzuki bought six of the buildings in May. The debt on the other Ocelot buildings has since been sold to another developer in a deal praised by UHAB and the city. But Suzuki’s buildings remain out of the spotlight, despite their decrepit state.
The six buildings have 2,519 open violations with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development as of Dec. 6. The worst conditions are in Castro’s building on East 172nd Street, which has 528 violations. Two of the Highbridge buildings are now listed amongst the 200 most distressed buildings in the city. The violations include everything from the infestation of rats, roaches and mice to lead-based paint peeling from the walls.
“The supers used to paint before and they don’t even do that now,” Rios said. “There’s graffiti all over the place. You can even see the lead from the paint chipping out.”
The buildings have the potential for even more violations, but many go unreported. A lot of the residents receive a rent subsidy from the city, said Emmanuel Attram, a Ghanaian resident of another Hunter-managed property on nearby 1268 Stratford Avenue, and don’t protest their conditions for fear of losing it.
This isn’t the only reason. “There are a lot of illegal immigrants in this building,” said Walter H. Clark, another Stratford Avenue resident. “A lot of them won’t complain.”
Castro’s court complaint against Hunter has already resulted in a court order from the Bronx Housing Court requiring Hunter to make various repairs to her building. “Some repairs have been made and some have not,” said Steven Di Cesare, Castro’s lawyer. “We can talk to the landlord more or go back to the courts – they’re the options.”
Hunter’s Alice Belmonte did not respond to questions from Bronxink.org about the company, the court case or about Sam Suzuki, as she said the company had an exclusive deal in place with another media outlet, which she would not name.
Suzuki’s profile on Linkedin.com describes him as the principal in Hunter, which was registered with New York State’s Division of Corporations in November 2008. The profile also states that he was a principal until last year in another company called Vintage Group LLC, which was “responsible for the acquisition and development of over $500 million in real estate developments.”
In 2008, Hudson Valley Bank foreclosed on one of his properties in Sands Point, Long Island, NY, in order to secure a $2.7 million debt. ChinaTrust Bank recently secured a $3.3 million judgment against the same property.
“The Daily News” reported last month that yet another entity linked to Suzuki called Venator Capital LLC had purchased the RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing, Queens, for $20 million. Suzuki more recently told “The New York Times” that he has yet to close the deal. The New York City property registry does not list any purchases by Venator Capital, however, while the Division of Corporations has no record of the company. According to Suzuki’s profile, Venator Capital invests in distressed properties and its expertise is “the acquisition of troubled assets.”
Martha Castro said she cannot afford to make the repairs to her apartment on her own. Parts of the linoleum floor in her kitchen and bathroom caved in after a fire seven years ago damaged the structural integrity of the building. Earlier this month, Castro paid for a handyman to plaster the walls and paint, yet cracks and discoloration caused by leaky pipes still persist. “The things that have improved here,” Castro said, “they’ve come out of my pocket.” But having invested money and time in her home, she is hesitant to change. “You get settled in a place and you don’t want to move.”