The New York Times released a sprawling, three-part investigation about the rental market in New York City over the weekend, with in-depth reporting on the fragile condition of the city’s rent laws, how landlords exploit them and how government agencies fail to protect tenants. And in doing so, the Times shined a light on a handful of landlords who are allegedly part of that problem, some already notorious and others with little name recognition. While the investigation references convicted landlords like Steve Croman and Daniel Melamed, here are some other industry figures who have received less scrutiny.
Meyer Orbach (Orbach Group)
In 2010, Orbach’s real estate company bought the better part of a block of West 109th Street for $76 million and quickly moved to evict dozens of tenants from rent-regulated apartments there. But the lawsuits filed by Orbach often took the form of dubious claims, according to the Times. In one instance, it sought to evict a tenant for “subletting” rooms to relatives who had already been living with him for 19 years. After two years of court battles the man took a $50,000 buyout and decided to leave. “I was sick of fighting with them and sick of the harassment,” he said. That apartment, which had cost $1,141 a month, is a lost affordable unit that now rents for $4,200. In another case, Orbach alleged that a rent-regulated tenant it sought to evict kept her apartment “inaccessible and uninhabitable” and full of newspapers and trash. Photo evidence suggested otherwise, but the Times did find that Orbach had left the apartment in a state of disrepair, with moldy walls and sagging ceilings.
Orbach sued 182 tenants between 2008 and 2010 (a third of apartments it owned), many of them holdover cases in which the landlord tries to prove that tenant has no legitimate claim to a lease. Housing legal experts told the Times that filing a holdover requires little evidence but can tie up a tenant in court for years. A spokesperson for Orbach told the Times that the company is “deeply committed to affordable housing.”
E&M Associates, the investment company founded by Irving Langer, bought the Dunbar apartments in Harlem in 2013 from landlord Pinnacle Group, which was settling one of the largest tenant class actions suits ever brought. The Times reported that E&M has adopted an aggressive strategy to push tenants out of “the nation’s first large housing cooperate for African-Americans.” The Times found a website for E&M that boasted its strategy of approaching rental homes “from an investor’s point of view, seeking to understand the underlying intrinsic value of the property, as well as the steps that must be taken to unlock that value.” E&M took down the website following inquiries from the Times and claimed that it had not been involved with the Dunbar apartments since 2017. The Times found that dozens of longtime tenants left the Dunbar after being sued by E&M. Some tenants were behind on rent, while others were refusing to pay rent until E&M made repairs to their apartments. Some tenants appear to have been sued even if they were not behind on rent. Tenants told the Times that the only way they thought they could get E&M to repair their apartments was to stop paying rent, get sued and the have an opportunity to explain the problem to a judge. “They sent an unlicensed person to fix my ceiling. And just as quick as he fixed it, the ceiling fell again,” one tenant said.
Green & Cohen
This landlord law firm is not the largest in town, but it has done work for the likes of Orbach and E&M. The Times found that some of its lawsuits against tenants were sloppy and inaccurate, with incorrect tenants and rent information as well as incorrect supporting documents. In fact, a 2015 federal lawsuit against Green & Cohen alleged the firm used “the same template for all the hundreds of cases that they filed against tenants within the State of New York within the past year.” It is rare for landlord-hired law firms to faces consequences for such filings: between 2011 and 2016 fewer than 50 landlords or landlord attorneys were sanctioned by the court. The firm did not comment for the Times story.
Atelier New York
The Times investigation found that this architecture firm has become a go-to for landlords filing permits for heavy renovation work, but reporting it as light renovation work, potentially putting tenants at safety risks. Clients include Ben Shaoul’s Magnum Real Estate and Sabet Group. Atelier principal Ken Hudes denied any wrongdoing. Architects at the firm have temporarily surrendered privileges in response to disciplinary actions, but such punishments are ineffective, as architect privileges can simply be passed from one firm member to another and work won’t be interrupted. Often times landlords are not even filing permits for such construction work, the Times found, only rushing to file permits once tenants complain to the DOB. The Times found that the DOB is slow to recover fines to issues to landlords who it finds are using deceptive construction practices for the purposes of tenant harassment. Of $1.8 million in outstanding fines issued since September 2017, about $280,000 have been paid and the median fine totals just $2,400. [NYT] — Will Parker