Landlord's battle illustrates trend of buying deteriorating buildings for big profits
By Jen Benepe
706 Riverside Drive In today's tight rental market, any New York City landlord should be sitting pretty.Unless of course, he happens to be Joel Weiner, owner of the Pinnacle Group.Weiner and his company have come under increasing criticism as they have bought up an estimated $1 billion in distressed buildings in Upper Manhattan and parts of the Bronx over a two-year period.The complaints have come from tenants' groups, legal aid lawyers and elected officials who say the company has been overly aggressive in raising rents through false major capital improvements (MCIs) and by trying to remove rent-stabilized tenants.The allegations have spurred recent investigations by both the state attorney general and the Manhattan district attorney.If anything, the public tempest about Weiner and the Pinnacle Group (which is backed by the real estate investment fund Praedium) reflects changing times.Deteriorated housing stock, once the bane of a landlord's portfolio, is now a primary source of double-digit growth.Reversing the status quoThe company's business model is a factor: Praedium seeks to invest its money in large numbers of deteriorated properties, make repairs and create a healthy rent roll that will yield a profit within one to two years.But most tenants in the new Pinnacle acquisitions, observers say, are more familiar with the old "slumlord" model, where the landlord lets the building go and the tenants stop paying the rent because they're living in a slum; a downward spiral where no one wins.Most of the 104 properties that Pinnacle purchased from landlord Baruch Singer in 2005 for over $500 million were in severe disrepair, and a number of tenants had stopped paying rent years earlier, said Ken Fisher, a former Brooklyn member of the City Council and Pinnacle's legal representative.It's a situation that can lead to clashes with the tenants as they scramble to pay unpaid rent, or balk at new charges that come with building improvements, Fisher noted.These factors have figured significantly in the negative backlash in part because Pinnacle is the only landlord to undertake such a massive buy-out in the areas, or even in the city, some observers said.Condo conversionsComplicating the picture, some of the properties might be converted to condos: Pinnacle has asked the attorney general's office to approve seven non-eviction plans, most of them on Riverside Drive. One has already been approved.Although Weiner has owned property in New York for 30 years, public opposition to him crystallized when residents of Pinnacle's prime Riverside Drive properties learned of his intent to take their buildings condo. This created fear that they might lose their rent-stabilized apartments, said Kim Powell, a resident in a Pinnacle building who started BRUSH, or Buyers and Renters United to Save Harlem.Another group attacking Pinnacle, the Mirabel Sisters, is run by Luis Tejada, a superintendent at 619 West 140th Street who was fired when Weiner took over, Fisher said."They want to throw out people with rent-controlled apartments, but people here can't pay more rent," said Tejada.Pinnacle has also come repeatedly under the sting of the New York Daily News' reporter Juan Gonzalez, who discovered that Pinnacle has sent out 5,000 dispossess notices for the 21,000 units the company owns, a figure the company has not denied, according to press reports.Gonzalez also provided powerful accounts of tenants -- including a 78-year-old woman and her nine cats -- being forced out of their apartments.A recent account of Pinnacle's actions by the New York Times detailed alleged cases of fraud -- including false billings and cost of renovations that were exaggerated -- that are being examined by the district attorney and the state attorney general's office.In one instance, Pinnacle allegedly recorded using 160 light bulbs, 75 pounds of grout, and 130 gallons of paint for the renovation of a single two-bedroom apartment in Harlem in order to justify raising that unit's rent to $1,900.Pinnacle lawyers acknowledge they made mistakes in the case, according to the Times, and the couple occupying the apartment was awarded $10,000 in rent credits, though they claim they are owed $15,000 more.Pinnacle's lawyers also continue to legally challenge some of their claims, the Times reported.Uphill public relations battleThe company has been engaged in an uphill public relations battle ever since.While not disputing the figure of 5,000 dispossess notices, Fisher pointed out that the number is misleading, because multiple notices can be sent to the same apartment, or an apartment could have changed hands during the two and half years the notices were sent out.The number of apartments targeted for eviction is closer to 2,500, or 12 percent of Pinnacle's total portfolio, he said. That is less than the city average of 15 percent, or 320,000 dispossess actions out of 2.1 million units citywide, he claimed."In the first year that Pinnacle owns a building, there is usually a higher number of dispossess cases because there are a large number of tenants who haven't been paying rent," Fisher explained.He said when Pinnacle bought the Dunbar Building, a landmark structure that takes up an entire block in Harlem, the arrears were $4 million on a $1.3 million annual rent roll.He also said that BRUSH and several of the tenants at 706 Riverside Drive were using their stance against Pinnacle as a way to negotiate a lower asking price for their apartments, many of them two- and three-bedroom apartments with sweeping river views and original prewar detailing -- worth an average of $1 million, out of reach for most people living in the building.Currently, most of the rent-stabilized, two- to three-bedroom apartments in the building average just $1,100 a month in rent, confirmed Powell.Fisher said BRUSH and Powell were disingenuous because, although claiming to represent all tenants in Harlem, they had only expressed dissatisfaction with Pinnacle.As to former super and current Pinnacle opponent Tejada, he was fired for incompetence, said Fisher, who showed a reporter pictures of the building he was supposed to care for, 619 West 140th Street, surrounded by garbage.Finally, Fisher noted that the rent payments made by the woman with nine cats had not been properly accounted for by the previous landlord, and that her case had since been resolved.It's also about the system"Many of the cases that Pinnacle brings are not legitimate," said Ken Rosenfeld, director of legal services of the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp., a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to tenants in the area. "They just sue."But while tenants' rights advocates, elected officials and lawyers interviewed for this article stated repeatedly that they loathed Pinnacle's tactics, sources noted that the state Legislature created the platform for a company to bring action against tenants who know little about how to navigate landlord-tenant court.A lack of public funding for court representation means that many low-income tenants will lose their homes, said Susan Russell, chief of staff for City Council member Robert Jackson, a Democrat whose district includes many of the up-and-coming Riverside Drive addresses."This is a capitalist society -- what are we supposed to say, that residential property should not be profitable?" she asked. Because 92 percent of landlords have lawyers in housing court, while only 8 to 10 percent of tenants are represented, Jackson's office contributed $50,000 toward tenant court representation, "to level the playing field."Observers also agreed that the law governing the state Department of Housing and Community Renewal should enable the agency to do an accounting of charges related to rent increases, and not expect the tenant to do an after-the-fact investigation on a rent number that he or she may not even suspect is inaccurate.Rosenfeld said the blame also lay in the "extreme" lack of affordable housing in the city, and the inability by government to deliver alternatives.Pinnacle responded that, when it buys a property, it must take legal action if a tenant owes rent. Many of the rental records that Pinnacle inherits are a mess, said Fisher, and have created unnecessary dispossess notices."The real problem comes with relatives of people who have lived in these apartments for years," said Russell, who said many find themselves out of a home if they don't have a solid contract with the previous landlord."There are a lot of concerns about gentrification, but it is not being created by Pinnacle," added Fisher.Powell said that Pinnacle sued practically everyone when they bought a building, but that the majority of the tenants didn't qualify for legal aid. "All of them won, but they didn't get their money back," money that could have been spent toward buying their own apartments, she said.Making good on a bad startStill, Pinnacle says it's not only different from many landlords, but that it also provides fair, affordable housing while government has long ago stopped trying to house middle- and lower-class New Yorkers.Fisher said that Pinnacle's intent is to upgrade a property once it has been purchased."In 2005, Pinnacle purchased 6,006 units and we spent $11.5 million on building renovations and $9.7 million on renovation of apartments," he said. Since then, 416 units have turned over to other tenants, but only $4.4 million was allocated to rent-increase calculations, he added.When Pinnacle purchased the Dunbar, there was "broken furniture, a loan shark ring, a brothel, and drug gangs operating out of some of the apartments," said Fisher. "But if you go today the graffiti is gone, the place is spotless."Reporter Wayne Barrett decided against putting Pinnacle on his "10 Worst Landlords" list in the Village Voice because their record was unclear, he wrote.Rosenfeld, who has represented some tenants in court against other big owners in the area like Prana (see below), agreed that Pinnacle had received more attention than other landlords who engaged in the same, or even worse, practices in the area."But when you enter into New York City real estate in such a big fashion and make so many purchases, you unite tenants against you because you are so big," Rosenfeld said.In Pinnacle's favor, Weiner had attended public meetings and made himself accessible, noted Russell.Fisher acknowledged that the company had made some mistakes and had since hired two community outreach staffers, met with more than a dozen elected officials and community leaders, and joined organizations that reach out to tenants.Necessary improvements?Part of the brouhaha is that one person's justifiable building improvement is another person's gingerbread. When MCIs are made, the major capital improvements can be used as a way to increase rent-stabilized rents."Our allegations have been overcharging in rent and capital improvements," said Powell, whose tenants' group raised $6,500 for an independent engineer's assessment of 706 Riverside Drive, which they determined will require an additional $2.8 million dollars worth of work."Flags, gold paint and security cameras," she noted, "are not for the benefit of the tenants."But one man's unneeded gold paint is another's sorely needed paint. Fisher tells the story that someone was complaining that the elevator in 706 Riverside Drive needed to be replaced, and Joel turned to Kim Powell and said, "You told me not to do that because you didn't want an MCI.""That is an example of the level of complexity and acrimony that you might not see in other cities," Fisher said.Funds find profitability, controversy as landlordsThe prospects for growth in changing areas like Washington Heights and the Bronx have attracted large investment funds looking for big profits.Although tenants are quick to attack the Pinnacle Group as making cosmetic improvements to attract higher rents and then passing the charges along to existing tenants, other landlords in the area with a similar financial model have operated quietly out of the limelight.New York City property records show that Prana Growth Fund owns more than 42 properties in the area, most of them in the heavily Dominican areas of Washington Heights, where tenants are less likely to wage public battles because they don't speak English. Prana quickly sold 600 West 161st Street when news of their lawsuits with tenants started becoming public, according to sources.Extell Development recently bought up five buildings from Broadway to Riverside Drive on 137th Street, but tenants say they received notices of the new ownership in their rent slips, and the office number they were given always goes to an answering machine. A spokesman for Extell, George Arzt, said that the company had no intention, so far, of turning those buildings into condos, and would make itself more accessible to tenants in the future.Operated by Kurt McCracken, Richard Esposito and Peter Larsen, Prana, which is based in San Francisco, is described by investment adviser Kochis Fitz in their newsletter as a company that "looks for opportunistic investments in inefficient markets that are generally characterized by unsophisticated, capital-constrained buyers and sellers, significant government regulation (primarily rent control), and a large variance in rents for similar units."The newsletter notes that Prana seeks such investments in urban areas and "once purchased, the objective is to achieve positive cash flow within 12 months." Their long-term goal says Kochis Fitz is "significantly increasing rent rolls," while managing tenant turnover, focusing on tenant relations, and making "cosmetic improvements."Yet tenant groups, local representatives and even legal aid lawyers for the most part were unaware that the company is operating in Upper Manhattan or that many of its tenants have experienced such aggressive tactics when Prana bought out their buildings.Attorneys Robert Sokolski and Daphna Zekaria successfully represented tenants in actions against Prana in 2004 and 2005. Ana Ingersoll, president of a tenants' group at 600 West 161st Street, said the building had 1,023 code violations."Many [of the apartments] are in obvious disrepair: Faucets leak, paint is peeling, bathrooms are moldy, and some stoves have been without gas for months," reported the Gotham Gazette in 2005; the newspaper noted that Prana had not returned its phone calls. In San Francisco, Prana has gained a reputation for "systematic evictions" of tenants of buildings it acquired, according to tenants and lawyers who represented them.Praedium Group, the big backer behind Pinnacle's two-year buying spree, has an investment strategy that reads like a carbon copy of Prana's:"Our strategy," the company wrote on its Web site, is "centered on pursuing middle-market assets with a total cost of less than $75 million each, and focusing on "value enhancement" opportunities, which includes "deterioration of the asset's physical condition; inadequate repairs and maintenance, an ownership that has failed to aggressively manage the current tenant/leasing base," and several other criteria that define distressed properties.Both Prana's and Praedium/Pinnacle's business models seek to upgrade the properties well beyond the level at which they had been operating. But while Pinnacle owner Joel Weiner has appeared publicly to address tenant issues and responded positively to pressure from the media, Prana has made itself completely inaccessible to the public; every single one of their publicly listed numbers is a fax machine. Repeated calls to their offices in San Francisco went unanswered.