Sunday, April 23, 2006

Full Court Press - Pinnacle Sues Hundreds Of Bronx Tenants

Full Court Press - Pinnacle Sues Hundreds Of Bronx Tenants

A controversial management company has taken hundreds of tenants to housing court at an extraordinary pace since purchasing dozens of Bronx buildings last year, according to court records.
The Pinnacle Group has initiated over 1,509 cases against Bronx residents in 31 buildings since early last year, with many of the lawsuits filed just weeks after the company purchased the properties. Bronx housing court records are kept on an outdated computer that is difficult to navigate, but two searches by the Norwood News found that the vast majority of cases are unique actions against individual tenants. The properties included 1,929 units, meaning that Pinnacle has sued as many as three-quarters of these tenants.“It’s very suspicious,” said Louise Seeley, director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a city advocacy group. The majority of cases are for back rents ranging from several hundred dollars to $3,000. Residents paid up in some incidences, but other cases were dismissed or never resolved.“Either there are lots of really bad tenants, or the landlord is really aggressive and wants to get people out,” said Joe Lamport, another Task Force staffer.Tenants insist it’s the latter.
The company, which is run by investor Joel Wiener, has scooped up hundreds of buildings in low-income areas citywide. Many of the deals were financed by Praedium Group, a real estate investment fund whose goal is to capitalize on properties through “strategic capital improvements and proactive leasing,” according to the company’s Web site. Pinnacle makes certain infrastructure improvements on the buildings after purchasing them, and Wiener says they are working to bring back neglected properties. But tenants charge they are being slapped with fabricated fees and trumped-up Major Capital Improvement costs to increase the rent rolls and drive them out. Tenants in Bronx and Manhattan Pinnacle buildings report these trends, as the Norwood News has documented in three previous articles. Taking tenants to court is expensive — costing anywhere from a couple of hundred to thousands of dollars a case — but the volume of litigation suggests that Pinnacle is making the investment in hopes of future return. Serving court papers can be a way for landlords to usher out tenants, legal advocates say.“A lot of people get scared and simply leave their apartments,” Lamport said. That’s exactly Wiener’s goal, according to a person close to the situation. “He did not care about the legal fees,” said the source, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution. “His thought was ‘If I fish enough, I’ll get enough people out. In the long run, my rent roll will go up.’”
Residents of Botanical Square, one of the eight local buildings purchased by Pinnacle, haven’t fled yet, according to Elio Pichardo, a tenant. But threatening letters about nonpayments have been taped on many people’s doors, according to a resident who didn’t want her name used. Over at 66 St. Nicholas Pl., which is part of a Harlem Pinnacle package bought in the fall, a resident said that dispossess notices were served to a third of the units. Tenants also received threatening letters about removing their door mats and satellite dishes.“Everything is do it immediately, or else,” said the tenant, who asked for anonymity.Pinnacle has also gone after tenants in the Dunbar Apartments, a large Harlem complex. Residents and a staffer for Council Member Bill Perkins brought up the issue with management during a meeting last month, according to a tenant newsletter. Wiener denied he is pushing out tenants. “We’re trying to have a stable tenancy in each building,” he said in an interview last month.In addition to back rent, records show that Pinnacle has disputed tenants’ residency rights in court. Some of these cases pertain to tenants housed through social services programs, like homelessness prevention. Wiener said that he is in negotiations with the sponsoring agencies, but does not support the practice. “We don’t want to make the building into a Motel 8,” he said.The company is also very aggressive about suing residents who it claims are living in their apartments without a proper lease, even in incidences when there is a familial connection to the unit. “Their succession rights were violated,” said Hazel Miura, a housing specialist working with Bronx Pinnacle tenants.Other cases seem to have even less merit. Tenants report that the company is contesting rightful residency for technicalities like rent checks with married surnames instead of a maiden one. “They are saying that I’m not the person who owns the apartment,” said Debbie Brown, a resident of 700 Riverside Dr., a Pinnacle building, for the past 40 years. Brown says she made two court trips to prove her identity. “Other tenants have had to do the same. They like to harass people,” she said.Seeley said that taking people to court over name discrepancies was “the most bogus claim I’ve ever heard.”
Building staff turnover
Landlords often rely on building staff to assess which tenants aren’t leaseholders or owe rent. But Pinnacle is wiping that history clean by terminating the previous staff —who could potentially vouch for legitimate tenants — and hiring new people.Wiener bought seven former Mitchell-Lamas in the Bronx in 2002, and promptly fired the buildings’ staff and evicted them, according to a Daily News story. The source familiar with Pinnacle’s practices said the workers were aggressively forced out. “He told everyone they have half an hour to get out … and changed all the locks,” he said. “His intent was to put his own people in there.” The move was so egregious that the city passed a law barring new landlords from firing exiting staff within 90 days. Some in the real estate industry refer to it as the “Wiener Law.”But Pinnacle appears to be flouting the new law. Gladys Criswell has been the superintendent of 87 Ellwood St. in Inwood for the past 27 years. Pinnacle purchased the building in October. Within three weeks, Criswell received a letter stating she had not performed her duties satisfactorily and was terminated. “It’s very shady,” said Fred Criswell, her son. “They basically didn’t want to work with her from the beginning.”The younger Criswell said that their Pinnacle property managers never communicated with his mother about the situation. A superintendent from a neighboring Pinnacle building was tapped for maintenance and renovation work. Criswell is disputing the decision in court with assistance from her union, and is still performing her duties.Carol Abrams, a spokesperson for the city Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD), said they are investigating Pinnacle’s practices. “They seem to be firing superintendents in every building and are assuming management control,” Abrams said. HPD has also filed at least three cases against Pinnacle for serious code violations. Once installed, the company superintendents perform everything from custodial duties to major renovations that require a contractor’s license. “They do electrical work, plumbing work,” said Kim Powell, a resident of a Pinnacle building on 706 Riverside Dr. “They set up a whole laundry room without a permit. It’s substandard work.”Ernestine Temple, who lives in the same building, said their efforts were shoddy and potentially dangerous. “They ran new pipes in five apartments without treating the asbestos in the walls,” said Temple, who alleges that tenants were never told why the work was necessary.The source called the company’s tactics an “atrocity.”“I never saw a [licensed] contractor there,” he said. “This makes a mockery of the system.”

No comments: