May 24, 2006
By Juan Gonzalez
NY Daily News
What kind of landlord tries to evict a 75-year-old woman from her rent-controlled apartment while quietly pocketing welfare rent checks in her disabled husband's name?
Welcome back to the world of the Pinnacle Group - the landlord that's filed an astonishing 5,000 eviction cases since January 2004 against its nearly 20,000 rent-regulated tenants. Many of them are seniors, disabled people or immigrants unaware of their legal rights.
Josephine Colon and her husband, Abdias Venegas, have been ensnared in the Pinnacle eviction mill for nearly two years.
In August 2004, a month after the firm bought a group of buildings on Morrison Ave. in the South Bronx, it sued to evict Colon. Since then, the firm has tried to oust nearly two-thirds of the 300 tenants in the complex.
At first, Pinnacle claimed Colon owed $1,290 in back rent on the two-bedroom apartment, where she has lived since 1983.
"I didn't owe them anything, and I have all my receipts to prove it," Colon said last week.
Her portion of the rent on the $439-a-month apartment is permanently frozen at $267.20. That's because the city's rental assistance program for impoverished senior citizens directly pays her landlord any increases above that amount.
Colon brought to Bronx Housing Court the postal money order receipts for her share of the rent. Yet Pinnacle's lawyers insisted they had no records of receiving four of those payments.
They demanded iron-clad proof: tracking reports from the post office for each money order in dispute - some dating back to August 2003.
In January 2005, after Colon found those tracking reports and brought them to court, Pinnacle credited her for all but $446 - meaning the eviction efforts would continue.
On March 29, 2005, a Pinnacle representative, as part of a motion for a final judgment to evict Colon, signed a sworn affidavit in court that she was still in arrears - now for $229.
It took until June 2005 before Pinnacle finally dropped its nonpayment case, even though they still claimed she owed $90.
But Colon's fight isn't over.
Even before the nonpayment case was settled, Pinnacle started a new Housing Court eviction action against her, this time claiming a horde of cats in her apartment had created such a foul odor that she was a nuisance to the entire building.
Colon and her family acknowledge she kept as many as 13 cats at one point. Such a brood, as you might imagine, left a strong odor. But the family says she has since given away all but three cats and cleaned up the apartment.
An assistant to Civil Court Judge Lydia Lai inspected Colon's apartment on Feb. 23, 2005, reporting there was "smell of urine in the apartment" but "no smell in hall outside."
The judge herself conducted two inspections, including one last December. She agreed with Pinnacle's attorney that the smell "seems to have seeped into the walls" and required professional fumigation.
Obviously reluctant to throw an old lady and her husband out, the judge urged Colon to do a thorough cleaning job.
Colon complied. On Dec. 29, a city health inspector who visited the apartment reported it was clean. There were "some odors," the inspector noted, but "no odor nuisance in hallway."
Pinnacle's lawyers won't give up. Yet another inspection by the judge and a final hearing is set for early June.
But the most amazing and bizarre part of this story is how Pinnacle, while fighting to evict Colon, had quietly cashed 27 rent checks for more than $2,000 from the city's Human Resources Administration for her pad.
The first check was mailed in March 2005, according to HRA records. It was earmarked as rental assistance for her husband, a Guatemalan immigrant partially paralyzed in an accident a few years ago.
The checks have been mailed by the city every two weeks since then, in varying amounts.
"They've never told me anything about that money and haven't given me any rent statements since they took me to court," Colon said yesterday.
Pinnacle also didn't tell the Housing Court about the HRA money. When I asked Pinnacle about those checks, a spokesman asserted last night that payments began in June 2005 and were being applied to Colon's rent. They actually said Colon now has a credit of $1,444.
Even here they were wrong. According to HRA records, Pinnacle started getting the checks in March 2005. By the end of April, the company had received more than $2,256 from the city.
Why would Pinnacle seek to evict Colon when she had a rent credit? And why would they keep Colon's rent surplus a secret from her? As it stands today, Pinnacle owes Colon more money than it demanded from her when they first put her on this eviction mill.