In the years leading up to 2008, private equity firms with access to large pools of privately raised capital worked together with lenders to grossly overleverage multifamily housing. Assuming that they’d be able to increase revenue and make a financial windfall, “predatory equity” companies took out enormous mortgages to purchase rent-regulated buildings. When tenants refused to be pushed out of their rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments, these new landlords took a more aggressive approach: they increased harassment and reduced spending on maintenance. Buildings deteriorated and went into foreclosure across New York City.
As the housing market heats back up, predatory equity is returning to rent-regulated buildings. Meanwhile, tenants and advocates are still reeling from the first round of speculation, harassment, deferred repairs, and foreclosure. Last month, the owners of the Three Borough Pool, a group of 42 buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx that contain almost 1,600 rent-regulated apartments, were able to get a rescue loan from a private equity company called Ladder Capital. The Three Borough Pool is the largest portfolio of multifamily buildings to go into foreclosure since Stuyvesant Town.
Normandy Real Estate and Westbrook Partners, the co-owners, are also private equity companies that were some of the most notorious actors in the first round of predatory equity. Their obtaining refinancing is a sign of the dangerous return of pre-2008 lending practices to the city.
Thanks to tenants’ organizing, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman began investigating harassment complaints from tenants. This investigation led to a deal with Normandy and Westbrook, announced April 15, that significantly increases oversight over maintenance and management in the Three Borough Pool. Tenants will get $600 each in rent rebates, a total of $1 million, and a new management company. While this ensures that the negative effects of such predatory and irresponsible real-estate deals will fall squarely on the private equity companies and landlords who chose to make them, we still need policy changes that address the root problem of speculation on rent-regulated housing and that address predatory equity at a systemic level.
New York’s rent laws are a key tool in our struggle against speculation and predatory equity. By limiting rent increases and insuring the right to a renewal lease, rent stabilization provides organized tenants with the protections they need to stand up to landlords who see their homes as gambling chips. We need rent laws that further limit landlords’ ability to drive low-income and working-class families out of their homes. We need to limit major-capital improvement increases, individual-apartment improvement increases, and the sneaky tools that landlords use to make bad financial deals work to the detriment of tenants. For too long, predatory equity landlords have profited by thwarting regulations. By strengthening existing laws and closing loopholes that favor landlords, we can change the predatory atmosphere that pervades the city’s housing market.
Cea Weaver is assistant director of organizing at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board.