Saturday, June 03, 2006

Battle Against Pinnacle Group Resembles '78 Riverdale Row

Norwood News
Vol. 19, No. 10
May 18 - 31, 2006

Deirdre Burke and Laura Spalter thought something was fishy when their rent checks went uncashed and new leases weren’t issued after their Riverdale complex was sold. Those warning signs led to a protracted legal battle waged by tenants of the Vinmont Houses against their new landlord, Joel Wiener. That was 28 years ago. But today, Wiener and his current company, the Pinnacle Group, has been using many of the same tactics to push out long-term tenants, as the Norwood News has reported in a series of articles. In 1978, Wiener bought Vinmont, a small complex of 1- and 2-family homes along Mosholu Avenue and West 255th Street. The 30 units were the brainchild of Robert Weinberg, a prominent city preservationist and architect. He nestled Vinmont into a wooded area, constructing a series of affordable rental homes where residents did much of the maintenance work themselves. The charming houses, with front and back yards, are attached with shared utilities. They were a renter’s dream.“People loved them,” said Burke, the principal of PS 340 in North Fordham, who moved into the complex in 1975. “I paid $194 a month for … an apartment with a fireplace, with trees around it.”Wiener purchased Vinmont, and two neighboring complexes, after Weinberg’s death. The two did not share the same vision. Wiener’s goal was to sell off the homes for about $100,000 each within roughly six months, according to tenants. The ensuing battle lasted for over three years.(Wiener did not respond to questions for this story, but a spokesman for his company issued a statement. “It is absolutely ridiculous and unfair to ask Pinnacle about something from more than a quarter-century ago,” said the statement, released by the Marino Organization, a public relations firm retained by Pinnacle.) After the deal, tenants noticed that they stopped receiving rent increases, and rent checks weren’t even cashed. “At the time, we thought it was cool,” said Spalter, a longtime MS 80 teacher, who was then in her late 20s. Tenants eventually grew suspect, and started talking and meeting together. They were alarmed when Wiener fired the property’s longtime caretaker. And they were further angered when they realized Wiener intended to separate the houses into individual properties, sell them and evict those who couldn’t pay. His attitude was, “I’m an owner. I can do it and I will do it,” as Spalter put it. That didn’t sit well with tenants, even among wealthy residents who could have bought the complex outright. They stuck together and formed an association, first successfully moving to get Vinmont recognized as a rent stabilized property. Wiener brought in bulldozers to begin separating the connected sewer and water lines. Tenants went to court and got a restraining order to stop the work.The cat and mouse game cycled on. Wiener filed paperwork to carve out the different parcels later in 1978. Residents would sneak out in the middle of the night and dig up the pipes being installed. And in one of the most important victories, not one resident would let Wiener into their homes to shut off their water connection.“He intimidated the 80-year-old senior citizens, but they still said no,” Spalter said.The war escalated. Residents hired Sheldon Lobel, a lawyer specializing in zoning issues, and Spalter began a letter writing campaign. Burke mastered the pipe blueprints, and searched for permit irregularities at the Buildings Department. Wiener sent eviction notices, but never acted on them.Residents were relentless. “He was so afraid of us,” said Spalter, a lifelong Bronxite who has fought many civic battles. “One day he came to my door and [my husband] yelled out, ‘If he’s bothering you, I’ll go get the gun.’” The firearm was fictitious, but the tenants’ unified resistance was a real source of consternation for Wiener. Franklin Illfelder, a resident who was a teenager at the time, refused to let Wiener inspect his family’s garage. Illfelder, 50, who still lives at Vinmont, says Wiener shoved him in response.Finally, Wiener offered the 1- and 2-family homes to tenants for $50,000 and $60,000, respectively. With $20,000 in fees and a difficult legal road ahead, residents went for the offer, but not before making sure all tenants had a route to ownership. In 1981, Wiener sold them the properties. It was a huge, hard-fought and immensely satisfying victory. “This was the whole basis of our being,” Burke said. The fight was chronicled in a New York legal journal, according to Spalter, but tenants shied away from local reporters’ inquiries for fear it would distract them from their objective. As some of the original residents died or moved away, the story went untold. While the Vinmont battle is long over, thousands of other tenants in buildings bought by Wiener’s current company, the Pinnacle Group, are now facing an uphill contest against him. A growing number of tenants citywide are complaining about the same issues — harassment, eviction notices, the removal of existing building staff — since Pinnacle purchased over 400 rent stabilized buildings beginning in 2002. They fear that Wiener plans to convert their homes into condos. Burke’s and Spalter’s advice to these tenants is to stick together and fight hard. “If you are unlucky enough to live in a Wiener building, form a tenants association and get a lawyer right away,” Spalter said.

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