housing

Landlord of Crumbling Bronx Buildings Owes City $12.6M

A banner outside of building on Davidson Avenue in The Bronx where tenants say landlord fails responsibilities to both them and the city, Feb. 20, 2020.
A banner outside of building on Davidson Avenue in The Bronx where tenants say landlord fails responsibilities to both them and the city, Feb. 20, 2020. Photo: Ese Olumhense/ THE CITY

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The shrill squeaking begins in Junie Harrington’s apartment early each morning, persisting through the day and late into the evening.

The unsettling sound is the siren call of the rotating cast of rats that’s settled in to her fourth-floor unit at 2205 Davidson Ave. in The Bronx.

“They come out of the burners, they sit on the stove — whether there is food on the stove or not,” she told THE CITY. “These rats run the building.”

Harrington is one of a group of residents at 2201-2205 Davidson making a unique request of the city: Foreclose on the buildings and turn them over to nonprofit or cooperative ownership.

The current owner, New Day Housing Corporation, has not only allegedly ignored leaks, structural damage and other conditions bedeviling residents of the 49-unit, rent-stabilized complex, but has disregarded its financial obligations to the city, too.

In fact, the landlords owe $12.6 million to the city, records show, and property taxes have not been paid in more than three decades, according to the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, which is working with tenants on their organizing campaign.

Tenants of a northwest Bronx building say their landlord has allowed their apartments to fall into disrepair, Feb. 20, 2020.
Tenants of a Northwest Bronx building say their landlord has allowed their apartments to fall into disrepair, Feb. 20, 2020. Photo: Ese Olumhense/THE CITY

The city attempted to foreclose on the building in 2015 because of the lingering debt, but its owners tried to enter it into bankruptcy, suspending the foreclosure process. The bankruptcy proceeding was ultimately dismissed in 2018.

But now, the city’s decision to freeze the program that would enable a different owner to take over the building, called Third Party Transfer, has complicated things.

‘Help These Tenants’

The Third Party Transfer program enables city tax officials and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to shift a building’s deed to a nonprofit steward, rather than take possession of it for outstanding bills.

“What’s unique about this building is that the city actually has tools to make these tenants’ lives better,” said Ellen Davidson, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, which is also working with tenants in the building.

“To me that’s the story — the city could do something to help these tenants’ lives and has chosen to just ignore them and do nothing,” she added.

City officials said they are working to remedy problems at 2201-2205 Davidson Ave.

Owners of the apartments on Davidson Avenue in The Bronx owe the city over $12 million in taxes and fees.
Owners of the apartments on Davidson Avenue in The Bronx owe the city over $12 million in taxes and fees. Photo: Ese Olumhense/ THE CITY

“The city’s enforcement teams have been extremely active at this address and HPD has initiated legal action to hold the owner accountable and improve conditions for tenants,” Matthew Creegan, a spokesperson for HPD, said in a statement emailed to THE CITY.

The agency has an open case against the property and will be in court in March. The pair of buildings is also enrolled in HPD’s Alternative Enforcement Program, which mandates frequent inspections for the 200 buildings in the city with the most housing code violations. HPD steps in to make repairs when needed, and sends the owners the bill.

“We will continue to support these tenants in court and closely monitor the property,” Creegan added.

Attempts by THE CITY to reach representatives of the New Day Housing Corporation, the entity listed on the building’s property tax bills as its owner, went unanswered.

Task Force Examines Program

Third Party Transfer has been a controversial program, THE CITY reported in June.

Smaller landlords and co-op shareholders have complained that it unfairly stripped their ownership rights when they had trouble keeping up with property tax and other payments.

In response to the blowback, HPD placed a moratorium on the use of Third Party Transfer last year.

Brooklyn Councilmember Robert Cornegy Jr., a Democrat who chairs the City Council’s Housing and Buildings committee, promised a probe of the practice in June, and convened a task force to examine its use. He did not immediately have a comment on the Bronx tenants’ plight.

Photos from inside the apartments, Feb. 20, 2020.
Photos from inside the apartments, Feb. 20, 2020. Photo: Ese Olumhense/ THE CITY

HPD Commissioner Louise Carroll is a member of the working group, as are housing organizations and nonprofit developers.

The group has been making progress, meeting as recently this week, sources familiar with the task force’s work told THE CITY.

HPD officials are “currently working with our partners in the City Council to revamp the Third Party Transfer program, so it can better serve New Yorkers in need,” said Creegan, the agency spokesperson, in his statement to THE CITY.

Previously, a property became a candidate for Third Party Transfer after it both amassed a high number of housing code violations and more than $3,000 per building in tax and/or water debt over at least a year.

Buildings would then have a three- to six-year window to get on a payment plan and off the HPD’s list of properties offered to nonprofit housing organizations for purchase.

Third Party Transfer — which was created specifically to take title from landlords who failed to pay taxes — is likely the best program to help preserve the affordable housing at 2201-2205 Davidson, which is owned by a corporation and not a small landlord or tenant co-op, said housing experts.

‘Immediately Hazardous’ Conditions

The Davidson Avenue buildings actually qualified for Third Party Transfer in 2015, before the yearslong bankruptcy proceeding that was ultimately dismissed in 2018.

As of Thursday, the buildings have more than 200 open violations of city housing code, according to HPD. These include severe leaks, vermin infestations, and lack of heat and hot water.

Additionally, the elevator in the six-story building often does not work, according to tenants and HPD’s complaint log.

The majority of these violations are rated “immediately hazardous,” the most severe classification the agency uses. HPD continues to make emergency repairs, billing the landlord for the fees, which go unpaid, records show.

Some of these violations stretch back close to 20 years, the records indicate.

Some of the tenants in the building have embarked on an unofficial rent strike, said Edward Garcia, lead community organizer at the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.

But not long ago, Garcia added, the owners started about a dozen non-payment cases to evict some families in the building.

“They were trying to displace people while not paying their taxes,” he told THE CITY.

The deteriorating conditions of 2201-2205 Davidson weigh heavily on its youngest tenants.

“All these things in our building affect us,” said a 9-year-old who spoke at a news conference Thursday, reading from a remarks written on a cell phone.

“How do we live like this?” he added.

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