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Pols Join Forces To Protect Rents at Foreclosed Manhattan Apartments

By Jesse Lent | October 23, 2012 11:05am

FORT GEORGE — A group of 10 Washington Heights and Inwood buildings for sale as part of a foreclosure deal are in need of major repairs and overpriced by $6 million — jeopardizing future affordability for tenants, politicians and residents warned Monday.

More than 50 demonstrators joined City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, council members Ydanis Rodriguez and Robert Jackson, and Assemblywoman-elect Gabriella Rosa outside 570 West 190th St., near St. Nicholas Avenue, to demand that owners sell the "at-risk" buildings at a fair price.

The building at 190th Street is owned by Vantage Properties and private-equity investment group Lone Star Funds. It's among a group of 10 buildings that are in foreclosure and are being packaged by Lone Star as a bundled deal. Lone Star has set the bundled price at $50.75 million, $6 million more than the existing mortgage debt, according to the City Council.

Residents fear that any new owner paying the jacked-up price will be unable to make badly needed repairs — there are 1,281 outstanding violations at the 10 properties involved — and will be forced to raise the rents.

“It’s outrageous that Vantage and Lone Star would jeopardize the stable housing of hundreds of New Yorkers to turn a quick buck,” Quinn said. “If these buildings are sold with millions of dollars more in unsustainable debt, tenants will be the ones who pay the price when the new owners can’t make mortgage payments or repairs.”

Kenny Ramkisson, a 32-year resident of 570 West 190th St., said he is concerned about the future of his home.

“If a new landlord takes over, most likely they will jack up the rent,” Ramkisson, 71, said as he held a sign that read "Keep Washington Heights Affordable."

"This is an underprivileged neighborhood. People will be out on the street.”

Daniel Anisfeld, housing-unit director at Manhattan Legal Services — the group that would spearhead any potential legal action against Vantage or Lone Star — said the complicated ownership status has left the tenants in an even more precarious position.

“What is unique about the situation is we don’t have a typical landlord,” Anisfeld said. “It is a scenario where you have a mortgage holding company [Lone Star] that is treating the building like any other asset that can be bought and sold and not factoring in that there are human beings living inside those walls who deserve to live in safe and sanitary conditions.”

To complicate matters further, real estate company Brookfield Financial is currently marketing the uptown properties as an affordable alternative for Manhattanites.

“Washington Heights and Inwood have quickly become gentrified as an increasing number of professionals with higher incomes have sought more affordable housing in less centralized areas of Manhattan,” reads a document distributed last month about the 10-building bundle.

Vantage, Lone Star and Brookfield Financial did not respond to requests for comment.

"These tenants deserve to be able to stay in safe, healthy and affordable housing," said Matthew Wambua, commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

His agency has placed the buildings under the protection of the Proactive Preservation Initiative, a program that aims to ensure the safety of residents.

"I cannot express more strongly our desire to see these buildings sold to a responsible owner for a reasonable price, not one that reflects pure real estate speculation," Wambua said Monday. "The tenants deserve to be safe in their homes."

Rodriguez, who represents northern Manhattan in the City Council, warned Lone Star "that we mean business."

“We are looking to continue working with our elected officials and HPD to be sure that we keep the more than 700 apartments in preservation,” Rodriguez said.

It’s an effort that 65-year-old retiree Mina Daza, who spoke at Monday’s event, desperately hopes will work.

“Please don’t raise the rent,” Daza pleaded with her future landlords. “We can’t afford it.”