In the Highbridge section of the Bronx, the tenants of 272 units are fighting to keep their buildings rent-stabilized so they might, in turn, keep their homes.
Their adversary is building owner Isaac Kassirer, a multifamily investor known for deregulating units to pull in market-rate rents — a business model encouraged by the old rent-stabilization law.
“Profit hungry,” is how Ezinwanyi Ukegbu, a supervising attorney at Bronx Legal Services, characterized such landlords.
But when the 2019 rent law closed most roads to deregulation, Kassirer’s playbook was rendered useless and his stabilized assets became a financial drain. Some buildings owned by his Emerald Equity Group fell into default, then bankruptcy. Two years later, Emerald’s portfolio holds fewer than half of its former 3,500 apartments.
To stop the bleeding, however, Kassirer is finding creative ways to work old tactics.
The tenants of six of his South Bronx buildings first saw the notices in April: Their landlord — an LLC affiliated with Kassirer — had filed with the state’s Homes and Community Renewal division to deregulate buildings at 1187-97 Anderson Avenue, 1220 Shakespeare Avenue, and 1210 and 1230 Woodycrest Avenue.
The buildings had undergone a rehabilitation in 1991 that qualified them for J-51 — a 30-plus-year tax break that freezes property levies at pre-construction values. The application requested that the units be removed from stabilization when the benefit expired.
But Ukegbu, who is advising the Highbridge tenants, says the owner did not comply with technical requirements of the J-51 program and also received a second tax break that requires units to remain rent-stabilized in perpetuity.
A condition of J-51 stipulates that residents of a building with the benefit must receive a rider with each lease renewal stating that their apartment is stabilized under J-51 and when that stabilization expires.
Only a few tenants have ever received that notice, said Ukegbu. Many have lived in the buildings for decades.
“I didn’t even know that I was rent-stabilized,” said Mercedes Escoto, a tenant of 1187 Anderson since 2012, who learned about her status after advocacy group Community Action for Safe Apartments explained what the notices meant.
The building also received a benefit through the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development Participation Loan Program, which requires units to remain stabilized forever, Ukegbu said.
Emerald failed to disclose the benefit in its request to deregulate, she said, an omission that tenants hope will doom the application.
“It’s really a story about a landlord trying to use illegal tactics to deregulate buildings that are rent-stabilized,” said Ukegbu.
She called it an effort to “wipe out the culture,” but landlords see the 2019 rent law as the state undermining their investment and making it impossible to keep up their buildings and pay their bills.
Tenants characterize their landlord as shadowy, neglectful and hell bent on raising their rent.
Julius Bennet, an octogenarian who has lived at 1230 Woodycrest Avenue for 30 years, said he’s lodged plenty of complaints about roaches, rodents, mold, leaks and a broken elevator. Recently he’s seen mattresses piled by the curb on trash day, a telltale sign of bedbugs.
But requests for repairs or exterminators are always met with the same response. “They basically do nothing,” said Bennet.
Communication problems have not helped. Since Kassirer bought the buildings in 2017, tenants have struggled to identify a point of contact for repairs or rental payments.
James Fairbanks, a 20-year resident of 1220 Shakespeare Avenue, said when the building went under new ownership, tenants received instructions on where to send rent checks. But the address was wrong.
Then they caught wind of a potential rent increase — the new owner claimed the leases they had signed were for preferential rents that could be hiked. Fairbanks reached out to via the updated address the tenants had been given to invite the owner to a tenant association meeting.
When a man showed up to address the tenants, Fairbanks asked him to write his name, company’s name and address on a sign-in sheet. The man declined.
“So I call that to their attention before the meeting let out, ‘You have never informed us, and now you’re still here in person not informing us of where your office is and who you are,’” Fairbanks said. The man still declined to share his name.
Bennet said the company he pays rent to has changed repeatedly over the past four years.
“We were Highbridge; then we became Emerald; and then we go back to Highbridge, now we’re back to Emerald,” he said.
Kassirer, responding to an email, initially denied that Emerald Equity Group was involved in the tenant’s complaint.
“Similar names but we aren’t involved,” said Kassirer.
Property records show Kassirer as the owner of the six South Bronx buildings. A few days after Kassirer denied ownership, James Marino, partner at Kucker Marino Winiarsky & Bittens, provided a statement on behalf of Emerald Equity Group.
“There is nothing in the loan or regulatory agreement documents that require the premises to remain rent-stabilized once they expire,” the statement said. It went on to explain that tenants would not lose their rent-stabilized status if the owner’s application is granted by the state agency. However, new tenants would not be entitled to stabilized rents when the benefit expires in 2026.
“That’s totally unacceptable to us, because that means that other residents of this community would not be able to move in because they couldn’t afford the rents,” said Fairbanks. “While they’re saying that we shouldn’t worry, we do worry because that will be the end of affordability of these six buildings.”
The landlord’s deregulation application requests that the state “declare, upon expiration of J-51 benefits, that the premises is exempt from the provisions of the Rent Stabilization Law.” The tenants have submitted an objection.
Despite the law firm’s assertion that existing tenants’ rent is protected under the law, Community Action for Safe Apartments claimed they could face deregulation as early as January. “A lot of us have said we cannot afford it if the rent goes up,” said Bennet.
Fairbanks said he’s seen Emerald turn one-bedrooms into two-bedrooms when a tenant moves out and double the rent. And multiple tenants say they have already had a brush with raised rents, a sign of what’s to come.
When Kassirer took over in 2017, Escoto said her two-bedroom unit’s rent jumped from $1,100 to $2,080. The landlord claimed she had been paying a preferential rent. Under the law at the time, preferential rates could be raised to the so-called legal rent when leases expired.
Escoto said she has continued to pay her original amount over the past several years, explaining repeatedly that she cannot afford the new amount. The same has played out in Bennet’s building.
“I got a young girl in our building paying almost $3,000 for an apartment. It’s ridiculous,” Bennet said. “We have not figured out how her rent got so high.”