Inside Manhattanville Tenants’ Fight Against Predatory Landlords
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In the five months I’ve followed David Hanzal, a tenant of 3149 Broadway, I have never seen him so nervous. It’s about David’s 20th time in housing court since 2014. When we arrive on the line to pass security check, David immediately starts to rummage through his pockets. Watch, wallet, belt—without thought or hesitation, David skillfully and discreetly takes them off, all before the sign that reads, “PLEASE REMOVE BELT/WATCH/BRACELET” appears in front of him. It’s obvious he knows the drill.

I, on the other hand, struggle to do the same, bumping elbows and stepping on toes. Seeing this, David jokes that he’s a “regular.” But before we’re able to laugh about this, we enter the courtroom and a gust of anxiety hits the both of us. While habit can make something seemingly easier, housing court itself is never easy. The atmosphere in the courtroom is thick and uncomfortable, as if we are floating in a medium that’s not air. It affects the way that David bends and moves and talks and, suddenly, going to court against his landlord all becomes terrifyingly real.

David has come to court today to fight for his ability to continue living in his Manhattanville apartment.

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I first met David in September, after reading several news clips about his building’s court case against its landlord, BCB Property Management, a private equity real estate firm. David is the president of the Manhattanville Tenant Association—a group that represents the tenants of 3143, 3147, and 3149 Broadway and three other buildings in Morningside Heights, all of which are owned by the same landlord.

It’s a little difficult to describe David. He’s of average height and weight, with brown hair and blue eyes. He is originally from Minnesota but moved here after high school, pursing his lifelong dream of living in the Big Apple.

David in his home.

Before having met David, I passed by his building twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays when walking to the Manhattanville campus, where I had class. His building is nestled between Thrifty Deli and Loui and Loui, a Louisianan restaurant, both of which I’ve been to before. When we met, I briefly wondered if we’d ever crossed paths.

Once we’re through security, David slides his index finger down the lineup that is pasted on a bulletin behind glass. His name is at the bottom of the list. We walk into a crowded room and sit at the only available bench, right before the judge. After just a few moments, David quietly but urgently rushes out the door. “Stay here,” he whispers to me, and so I do.

It’s not long until I hear his raised voice coming from behind the courtroom doors.

“Where are the documents? Where are they?”

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The documents that David is referring to are of his apartment’s rent history. What he’s trying to prove, or, rather, what his landlord is trying to disprove, is that David is a rent-stabilized tenant.

The rent stabilization system is the largest affordable housing program in the city. Roughly 50 percent of the city’s rental apartments, which house approximately 2.5 million people, are stabilized. The law was enacted in 1969 to provide New York renters a sense of relief and security from soaring rent prices and baseless evictions. It promises a set of rights and protections, such as the right to renew your lease (unless on grounds allowed by law), the right to pass down your apartment to a family member who’s lived with you for a period of time, and protection from steep and unexpected rent increases.

These are the rights that David is fighting for.

Although David’s building is recognized as rent-stabilized by the NYC Rent Guidelines Board, the status of his particular apartment remains contentious because of something known as “vacancy decontrol.”

First introduced in 1971 by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, then revoked in 1974 by the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, and then partially brought back in 1993 through the state legislature, vacancy decontrol gives landlords the opportunity to deregulate an apartment—that is, to remove it from rent-stabilization and increase the rent.

Recently, rising pressures and prices in real estate in West Harlem and the greater New York area have made particular landlords impatient, unwilling to wait for a rent-stabilized tenant to leave voluntarily. When this happens, some often resort to harsher and, often times, illegal tactics to force a tenant out.

“If you have rent-regulated housing, there’s a huge target on your back because of vacancy decontrol,” explains Larry Wood, the program director at Goddard Riverside Community Center who has been involved in tenant advocacy in West Harlem for over 30 years. Landlords who have the intention to mass displace their rent-stabilized tenants resort to a spectrum of tactics from a subtle buyout offer to ignoring home maintenance issues and denying services.

Once a tenant moves out of a stabilized unit, the landlord has the choice to renovate and bump up the apartment value—until the monthly rent reaches $2,733.75, which then makes the apartment “market-rate,” removing it from rent-stabilization status for good and stripping away a myriad of rent and eviction protections from future tenants.

When I visited David’s apartment for the first time in December, my first thought was how hard it would be to pack everything up if he had to leave. Almost every inch of his wall is covered with paintings. His shelves are cluttered with board games, green and purple mardi gras beads, and photographs.

“You can see, I’ve made it my home,” David said to me. “It’s not just an apartment with white walls, it’s my home. I’m not trying to get free rent, I’m not trying to dupe anyone out.”

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Before the Manhattanville expansion in 2008, Columbia was just “over there,” David says as he points in the direction of the Morningside campus. The direct and indirect displacement of Morningside Heights residents was always a troubling and cautionary tale for those who lived above 120th street, but there was still a sense of distance and time.

Although the expansion merely confirmed the ordained change that was anticipated by Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights residents, the new campus also meant Columbia’s presence was no longer possible to ignore.

Whether you were in favor of, impartial toward, or against Columbia as an institution, it didn’t matter. Within a decade, local businesses and residents in the Manhattanville area were being asked to leave en masse—and this only refers to the directly displaced.

Once the New York City Council approved the expansion in 2007, the priorities that centered the debates between Columbia and the community quickly shifted. It was no longer about “if Columbia is going to expand in Manhattanville” but rather “what now?”

That same year, the New York City Department of City Planning published a Final Environmental Impact Statement, forecasting the possible adverse outcomes of the expansion. It estimated that by 2030, within a half-mile radius, the satellite campus would attract about 3,362 University-affiliated residents—this term referring to graduate students, faculty, other employees, and their possible families. According to the FEIS, this expected mass migration to Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights would prompt as many as 1,318 units to be “at-risk,” meaning residents would be subject to upward rent pressure and therefore involuntary displacement, at a time when rents were also soaring across the city.

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Despite living within the “at-risk” area, David didn’t know any of this jargon until he began feeling the impacts of indirect displacement.

In November 2014, David’s former landlord, Arnold Sandy Wax, sold his properties—all those that David’s tenant association represents—to BCB Property Management, a private equity real estate firm, for $81 million.

The following month, tenants in 3149 Broadway who were at the end of their lease were suddenly not being asked to renew it, according to David.

As tenants started moving out, empty apartments began to get renovated, turning the whole building into an active construction zone 6 to to 7 days a week from as early in the morning as 6 a.m. to as late as as late as 6 p.m. Four to five units were being renovated simultaneously in his 22 unit building. Hallways were filled with dust and construction noise could be heard outside the building.

The constant renovations took a toll on maintenance and living conditions of the building overall. David recalls the hallways being cluttered in construction materials and exposed electrical wires. There were also incidents where tenants lacked cooking gas or a working radiator.

Deteriorating ceiling in 3149 Broadway

The door to the building’s roof, which cannot lock

Broken intercom in the lobby of 3149 Broadway

Door to the building, which cannot lock

A hole behind the bathroom cabinet—providing a peek into the next apartment

Erasno Guerrero's collapsed ceiling that he taped up himself

While empty apartments were getting makeovers, remaining tenants struggled to gain simple repairs, many of which were caused by the excessive construction. In January 2016, the Housing Preservation and Development department recognized 70 open violations in 3149 Broadway, 36 of which were classified as Class B (hazardous) and 15 were classified as Class C (immediately hazardous).

Violation filed at 3149 Broadway

One day, Erasno Guerrero, who lives a few floors below David, watched a large portion of his living room ceiling cave in, only a few steps from where Guerrero was actually standing. After seeing his ceiling collapse, the tenant of 3149 Broadway immediately called 911. Half his living room was covered in chunks of drywall and the air was filled with debris when in his thick Spanish accident, the tenant explained to the emergency operator what had happened. “I called the police,” Guerrero explained, “they said.., ‘well nobody is injured, nobody died… we can’t do nothin’ about it.’”

Most of the time, maintenance issues, no matter how life threatening and dangerous, are addressed in housing court, where the most common penalty is paying a fine. This penalty is often enough to incentivise the average landlord to avoid overdue repairs. However, larger, wealthier private equity owners, like BCB Property Management, can afford to pay them, especially if it means that they can eventually push rent-stabilized tenants out. BCB Property Management did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

"Selected Incidents Reflecting Documented Habitability Issues" in David's building

It took around six months for Guerrero’s landlord to address this repair. During this time, Guerrero was placed in an apartment a floor below him because he was constantly coughing from all the debris and dust in his actual home.

Less than three months into BCB’s acquisition of the building, David discovered that other residents in the Manhattanville and Morningside neighborhood were experiencing similar issues with their landlords. One evening, at The Abbey Pub, a local pub on 105th Street, David started complaining about the heavy construction in his building to a couple of pals. In the midst of talking, another guy in the pub joined the conversation, commenting that his landlord does the same. It didn’t take long for the two to realize they had the same landlord. Suddenly, David realized this was an issue larger than him and his building.

BCB Property Management has a history of pushing people out, renovating, increasing the rent, and moving on. In 2013, the firm bought three buildings in Crown Heights for $11 million that were recorded to have over 100 units of rent-regulated units. It first started with buyouts. Those rent-stabilized tenants who didn’t accept to leave experienced a whirlwind of heavy construction and overdue repairs as BCB renovated empty units. Three years later, BCB sold the buildings to two separate buyers for more than triple what they bought them for.

What BCB has a history of doing, and was about to do to David’s building, is part of a larger trend seen in the past two decades in New York City. According to Benjamin Dulchin, the executive director of Association for Neighborhood Development and Housing, rent-stabilized buildings were previously mostly owned by small time landlords who were satisfied with a steady but modest 7 to to 8 percent percent greater return on their properties.

But in the early 2000s, private equity firms discovered rent-stabilized buildings in New York City to be an underexploited investing market. Mass collections of rent-stabilized buildings were suddenly being bought by non-traditional property owners who were backed up by Wall Street investors and aimed for 15 to to 20 percent percent returns on the same rent-regulated buildings.

“The difference between an 8 percent percent rate of return and a 20 percent percent rate of return,” Dulchin explains, “is harassing low-rent paying tenants.”

All of this is said to be calculated and considered before real estate companies buy rent-stabilized buildings. “A part of their business models rely on displacing the long-term rent-regulated tenants,,” Wood explains.

The combination of overdue repairs and excessive construction is is often intentional harassment by predatory landlords.

Graphics by Alondra Aguilar / Staff Designer

Outside the courtroom, the attorney of David’s landlord admits they were unable to produce the documents of David’s rent history which would prove whether or not he is a rent-stabilized tenant. There’s a large, awkward, distance between David, his lawyer, and his landlord’s lawyer as the three renegotiate a date to present. The two sides would rather project their voice across the hallway than sit next to one another. After around 30 minutes of negotiation, the three decide to give David’s landlord until February 9, four more weeks to present the documents.

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When David tells me how he formed a tenant association for his building, he laughs and says, “It all started with Jinx.”

Organizing and creating a tenant association is often the strongest leverage a tenant can forge for themselves and their building. David didn’t know this in January 2015, though. Instead, his first instinct was to go to the press. A few days before his photoshoot to accompany an article expected to publish in the New York Post, David’s sister frantically called him, urging him not to do the interview—she’d just discovered that BCB was owned by the estranged wife of Robert Durst, a man suspected of three murders who’d recently been profiled in the HBO documentary “Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.”

David asked the Post reporter to not include his face in any photos, and he said they never ran the article as a result. This forced him to look for a plan B.

That February, David set up a meeting with 30 tenants from 3143, 3149, and 3147 to figure out a game plan. They formed a tenant association with David as president. Although this was a big first step in the right direction, David didn’t know what to do next.

David ended up writing to his local council members for help, Mark Levin and Helen Rosenthal. The two both responded with recommendations to go to People Against Landlord Abuse and Tenant Exploitation, a tenant advocacy organization a few blocks from David’s place.

126th Street and Amsterdam, where P.A.’L.A.N.T.E is located, has become David’s second home. The organization has helped David set up press conferences and meet John Gorman, the lawyer who eventually helped his tenant association pursue legal action against their landlord.

David reviews court documents.

In one of our first interviews I asked David why he continues to go after landlords one at a time and doesn’t instead go after the larger forces inducing and allowing these issues to arise. He stops me mid-sentence—“It’s like David and Goliath.”

“But didn’t David win?”

David laughs.

This exchange comes up in my mind when I interview David for the last time. During our conversation, I ask him to recall the first time he’s ever stood up for himself. It takes him a couple of minutes to remember.

On a large ice rink in a small town in Minnesota, David is eight years old and playing hockey. After David makes a goal, a boy, who David recalls was five times his height, comes charging after him. The bully tears off his helmet and throws his hockey stick and gloves across the rink.

“This guy is going to kick my ass,” a pubescent David thinks to himself.

The two are inches away from a quarrel when David notices a blind spot—suddenly David flings his hockey stick over his body and hits the boy right on the center of his helmet-less head.

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Although Columbia had acknowledged the risk of displacement and made commitments to help mitigate some of that risk, David was barely aware of any of these statements.

Arguably the largest and most notable of the University’s efforts is the Affordable Housing Fund. As part of the Community Benefits Agreement, Columbia allocated $20 million out of the overall $150 million promised in the CBA to the preservation and development of affordable housing.

Although finally taking the money out of escrow in October 2014, the WHDC has only spent one percent of the fund. As of right now, the potential outreach and impact of the Affordable Housing Fund is inconspicuous.

In spite of this, the WHDC advertises time and time again that affordable housing is at the forefront of their concerns (along with education and workforce). Shuffling through a pile of papers, Boateng shows me a spreadsheet of the Benefits Fund expenditures and notes that the Affordable Housing Fund isn’t the only avenue the organization has for mitigating the threat to indirect displacement.

What he’s talking about is the the Benefits Fund. Another, much larger, contribution from the CBA, this fund, which consists of a grand total of $76 million, is paid in installments to the WHDC to then distribute to non-profit organizations in a semi-annual grant cycle.

“Organizations like P.A.’L.A.N.T.E., we’ve consistently given money,” Boateng tells me, “through 2017, about $218,000.”

$218,000 may appear to be a large grant for a single organization, but the amount is actually quite small considering that housing support services only make up 4 percent of the WHDC’s $14 million in grant-making from 2011-2017. In fact, the money disbursed in grants to housing support services (such as local tenant advocacy organizations) is incredibly low compared to the portion of grants given to their other two pillars of concern, education and workforce, which are 32 percent and 10 percent respectively.

Aside from the Affordable Housing Fund, the CBA also promises up to $4 million in housing legal assistance. This money would provide funding for one attorney from the beginning of 2009 through the end of 2014 and then two attorneys for the beginning of 2015 through the end of 2030. Under no circumstances or event would this funding exceed $4 million or extend past 2030. As of right now, the Manhattan Legal Services, the organization chosen to provide this assistance, has spent $1.2 million of the funds.

Additional but less-advertised commitments that Columbia has promised are intended for prospective graduate students and faculty. These proposals that were mentioned in the FEIS, along with the Affordable Housing Fund and housing legal assistance, are focused on reducing University-generated housing demand—the most interesting one of the bunch being a graduate student residence outside the Project Area, on Broadway and West 172nd Street.

According to the FEIS, this project would accommodate at least 200 graduate students and postdoctorate researchers. Despite the promise in FEIS that the project would be built “no later than 2013,” the proposal will actually take effect after the construction of Manhattanville reaches over 1.2 million gross square footage (GSF) of above-grade space. As of right now, the above-grade space of the four buildings is 845,000 GSF. A Columbia spokesperson was unable to predict how long it will be until the GSF reaches the expected amount and these particular conditions to develop the graduate student residence will be met.

The other two housing programs are designed to incentivize new faculty members to live outside the neighborhood or in pre-existing faculty housing. The University states that it has followed through on these two commitments.

Upon a closer examination of the two faculty housing programs, however, the Housing Assistance Program and Shared Appreciation Second Mortgage neither explicitly cater to prospective faculty nor explicitly incentivize faculty to live outside the Secondary Study Area.

By FEIS’s estimates these commitments are promising. The $20 million housing fund is expected to preserve or develop 1,110 units. The graduate student residence would house at least 200 graduate student and postdoctorate researchers in 159 units. And the two additional housing programs are said to reduce the demand for off-site housing by at least 246 units.

These numbers are estimates of the impact of the commitments from the beginning of the proposals to 2030. But almost a decade after these commitments were first promised, none of the initiatives seem to be reaching their full potential.

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David’s tenant association no longer meets. As of right now, the tenants of 3149 are waiting for all the repairs to be finished. The hallways in his building now have a chic modern style: there’s a chandelier on the first floor and a spacious roof deck.

Although David’s tenant association was able get all the maintenance units resolved and repaired, David expresses some disappointment when he tells this part of the story: “We caught on too late.”

This is a common sentiment. As Dulchin explains, “The buildings would look better and have fewer violations, but you’re actually losing affordable housing.”

According to David, six people including him who had moved in prior to BCB’s takeover remain in his building, two remain in 3143, and none in 3147. The new tenants are all market-rate tenants, paying up to double the price that former rent-stabilized tenants had paid.

With most of the rent-stabilized tenants gone and the buildings all newly renovated in a matter of three years, BCB is currently selling the six properties for $125 million.

David reviews pictures of violations at 3149 Broadway

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The day after David’s landlord is required to present the documents, I check in with David via text, nervously waiting beside my phone. David is usually quick to respond.

The minutes go by in big gulps.

If David’s landlord is able to retrieve his apartment’s rent history, it could go multiple ways. These long-awaited documents could show that David was a rent-stabilized tenant when BCB bought his building—this is the result he’s hoping for. But they could also prove that David wasn’t a rent-stabilized tenant after all, throwing his whole case out the door and beginning the countdown to when David has to move out. Or maybe his landlord simply can’t produce the documents at all, which would buy David more time to file another motion.

David finally texts back with an answer. His landlord produced 350 pages of documents which David predicts will take weeks to sort through.

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My intention was to head to the venue together with David and stay close to him throughout the event. Instead, David arrives to the P.A.’L.A.N.T.E. Annual Benefit Gala three hours before it starts. When I arrive, I barely have a moment with David. Although the joke at P.A.’L.A.N.T.E. was that he wouldn’t get too involved in the planning of the gala this year, David ends up running around, making sure the event is running smoothly.

Despite all his effort to avoid the spotlight, that’s exactly where David is called to be. This past January, David received the highest award at the gala for organizing his tenant association and also helping other buildings do the same.

In the middle of the evening, once everyone is seated for the awards ceremony, former New York State Assembly member Keith L. T. Wright gets up on stage and announces, “Our next awardee is someone who’s very special, he’s young, he’s active, he’s got a lot of energy and he happens to love this community… The recipient of the leader of the year award goes to… David Hanzal!”

David walks up to the stage and immediately cracks a joke. His eyes sail across the audience while he gives his speech as if he’s having miniature personal conversations with each of the familiar faces in the room. David knows these people. He’s worked with them, helped them, or been helped by them. The names of the people he wants to thank roll off his tongue. But as he stands there, he’s also stiff, gripping his award tightly and stressing every word; he’s consumed by and overwhelmed with thanks.

David accepts his award at the P.A.’L.A.N.T.E. Annual Benefit Gala

The celebration between local tenants, landlords, attorneys, city officials, and Columbia representatives makes for a strange and spectacular sight. In this one space, they drink, laugh, and dance.

But for tenants like David, the future remains uncertain. Later, he and I recall a song from the gala that we can’t get out of our heads.

“My momma worked hard to raise me in the city, they can’t kick her out, / Imma make sure she stays with me.” We vaguely remember the lyrics: “Hard to stay strong in a world so lethal, who will take a stand and be a hero, I’ll sing this one strong for my people.”