October 2, 2023
New York magazine’s Curbed interviewed me for their explainer, How to Fake-Own the New Yorker Hotel. It reads:
The story of how a guy named Mickey Barreto came to own, at least on paper, the New Yorker hotel is a weird one. It started in June 2018, when Barreto first booked a night at the Art Deco landmark for $149. He had plans to stay a while: Using an obscure clause in the city’s rent-stabilization law, Barreto requested a six-month lease to live at the hotel. The gambit worked. Even as the owner of the hotel, which happens to be the Unification Church despite the fact that it operates as a Wyndham, tried to boot him, the judge ordered them to let him back in.
Around the same time he requested the lease, and despite the fact that he did not own the New Yorker, Barreto filed a deed transferring ownership of the hotel from himself to something called Mickey Barreto Missions. Why did Barreto believe he owned the building? As he told a judge in 2019, the “building was never subdivided. It’s all one lot. It’s all one parcel.” Which meant, at least to him, that because he had a legal claim to room 2565, he had a legal claim to the whole thing: “What affects that part of the building called 2565, whatever happens in there, happens to the whole lot, the whole parcel.” He then went around presenting himself as the owner, attempting to collect rent from the building’s street-level businesses and at one point calling the Fire Department to have the building evacuated and, per court documents, identifying “himself as the owner of the subject property.” In the end, the judge found Barreto’s deed, which was extremely fraudulent, to be extremely fraudulent.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can we start with fake-owning a hotel? Barreto managed to file documents transferring ownership of the hotel to himself. Can someone just … do that?
The government looks at deeds and says: Do they meet our technical requirements for a deed? Is it on the right kind of paper, is it the right size? Does it have a notary stamp on it? If it meets all those technical requirements, then it is recordable. The way you sell a property is based on the fact that most people are doing the right thing and they’re not doing shenanigans. But if you record something that is fraudulent, that doesn’t make it real. A fraudulent deed conveys nothing, and really nobody’s going to be misled by this. It just needs cleaning up. The true owner has to go to court and get this deed declared fraudulent so that it could be removed from the recording documents.
You may not remember this famous headline some 20 years ago when the New York Daily News transferred ownership of the Empire State Building to itself. The notary was Willie Sutton, the famous bank robber, and one of the witnesses of the deed was Fay Wray from King Kong. They got a big headline, but it’s less interesting than the headline suggests.
They were trying to prove a point.
I believe what they were trying to demonstrate is that regular people can have their properties swept away from them through deeded theft, which is another name for this. And this can be a serious problem for people living in relatively modest homes, typically in the outer boroughs. And typically the victims are elderly people, and it’s a way to steal people’s property. This is a horrific fraud.
Barreto’s fraud was more like the Empire State Building fraud. Barreto told the restaurant to pay rent to him and all these things, but no sophisticated person is going to fall for this. They’re going to call the property manager and say, “What’s going on?” It’s not going to change anything.
So it’s mostly a hassle.
If this happened to you, you’d be miserable and you’d probably have to hire a lawyer. It would be a pain in the butt. But it doesn’t happen that often. And when you think about all of the transactions that happen whenever you design a government system like the recording system, you want to balance ease of use versus potential for fraud. Maybe it’s a cost we accept as a government because it doesn’t happen very much.
It was also funny to me that he transferred the deed from Mickey Barreto Missions to Mickey Barreto Missions.
I mean, his deed was really weird because the deed was from himself to himself. So that’s even more fraudulent on its face. If David Reiss transfers to David Reiss, that doesn’t really even do anything. This is just nonsense, right?
I mean maybe he was magically thinking that this would give him ownership of the building or just wanted to gunk up the works for them or is just a little wacky. Whatever his reasoning, trying to interpret it as a legal matter doesn’t get you anywhere because he had no rights and he kind of made it up. It’s like if your kid was writing a deed.
Okay, so he was not using magical thinking when it came to claiming a lease at the New Yorker Hotel. Can you tell me about that clause?
So, this is part of the rent-stabilization law that allows guests at single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels to become tenants, usually by living there continuously for six months or by staying there for one night and requesting a lease. They’re a very specialized, small part of the New York City housing stock that are very complex. Most of them are in very bad condition. They’re kind of a holdover from an earlier era — after World War II a lot of them filled up with single men who would come to New York City to make their way in the world. They fell on very hard times in the ’70s and ’80s and kind of phased out. Then the government came up with a supportive SRO model where it had a similar type of housing space with services on-site. But we’re not talking about very many units.
But the New Yorker Hotel is kind of nice. Is it an anomaly?
The New Yorker Hotel is owned by the Unification Church, the Moonies church. I’m guessing it’s a complicated story. It’s not your typical hotel owner.
And Barreto knew about this odd little provision on rent-stabilized hotels.
He clearly knew what he was doing. He was either advised by somebody or had done his own research and realized that he was able to request a lease. Some not-for-profit legal entities will even provide form letters to tenants so that they can do this, because for some people this is a very attractive housing option. It’s very reliable compared to being in a men’s shelter or a women’s shelter or something like that. So it’s obscure, but it’s doable. There have been other cases about this, and owners will often fight with a tenant about it because they would rather use it as a hotel unit where they can rent it out at a higher nightly rate. But that’s not complying with the law. So what he did in regards to rent stabilization and getting the lease is not extraordinary, although it’s rare.
And he paid $149 for one night at the hotel, but I assume once the court said he could stay, he would have paid a much lower rent?
That’s right. It can’t be higher than the legal rent. And the legal rent is set by a combination of what the initial rent was back in the day, and then whatever increases had been allowed over time under the rent-stabilization law.
So if someone gets a six-month lease, can they stay indefinitely because it’s a rent-stabilized lease?
Are there similarly obscure laws tenants or people can use to try to get leases from properties like this?
If you become a family member of a rent-stabilized tenant, you can succeed tenancy upon their death, but that’s really well known. You can’t be evicted without a court process if you’re a resident for more than 30 days in an apartment, and you sometimes hear horror stories of a roommate who doesn’t leave and gets tenancy rights. But I don’t know if I’m familiar with a thing that’s so similar to this.
The Daily Beast quoted me in Trump’s Bank Fraud Defense ‘Defies the Laws of Physics.’ It reads, in part,
Donald Trump’s colossal trial for faking property values starts next Monday, and one mind-boggling issue has emerged as his weakest defense yet: the idea that his past lies on financial statements were justified because prices eventually went up anyway.
* * *
“What he is saying is completely inconsistent with how real estate professionals talk about valuations,” said David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who specializes in real estate finance.
“When you talk about valuations at a given time, you’re talking about what its value is at that time. It becomes more valuable in the future, but that’s its value at the time,” Reiss said.
That means Trump’s 2014 financial statement should have, naturally, captured the value of any given building or land at that time.
To better understand why Trump’s excuse is bonkers requires a quick review of the three basic methods to assess value employed by professional property appraisers.
One is the income approach: What income a particular property is currently generating? That doesn’t account for the future, Reiss said.
Another is the cost approach: How much does it cost to replace the property? That doesn’t consider the future either, Reiss made clear.
The third is the sales comparison approach: What are similar parcels and comparable properties selling for? This could include future expectation of development, Reiss explained. After all, sale prices are determined by supply and demand—and a fundamental concept in economics dictates that demand can be affected by consumer expectations of future price changes.
As usual, Trump’s logic seems to careen off the rails and focus solely on his property’s future value. But Trump simply can’t do that because he wants to.
“That’s not how the legal system works or how the real estate industry works… if everybody could say that, nobody could be accused of a lie. We would all do whatever the heck we want,” Reiss said.
Reiss likened Trump redefining time-bound questions on financial forms to the way Humpty Dumpty makes up words in Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The law professor read a passage in which Alice took issue with the Eggman’s improper use of the word “glory.”
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
September 22, 2023
Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) have long proven their worth as liquid securities that give investors access to many real estate asset classes. Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (“DAOs”) are one of several blockchain real estate innovations seeking to provide a new path to those searching to invest in real estate. While the success of the DAO model of real estate investment is far from assured, these new investment options could offer real competition to REITs one day.
September 6, 2023
I was quoted in This Strategy to Cut Mortgage Rates is Becoming Popular in Bay Area — but There are Pitfalls in the San Francisco Chronicle (paywall). It opens,
When first-time buyers Rachel Shatto and Randy Nelson purchased a home in Oakland in May, they negotiated an interest rate buydown that effectively lowered their mortgage rate, and thus their monthly payment, for the first two years.
Although the seller made a lump-sum payment for the short-term rate decrease at closing, they increased their purchase price to compensate for it. This temporary rate buydown left them with more cash to pay for repairs and improvements the first couple of years, Shatto said.
Both temporary buydowns, which effectively lower the rate for one to three years, and permanent ones, which reduce it for the life of the loan, have become more popular since interest rates started soaring last year.
In June, 2.8% of 30-year fixed-rate loans funded by Freddie Mac had temporary buydowns, up from near zero a year ago but down from a peak of 7.6% in December 2022, shortly after rates spiked above 7% for the first time in more than two decades. After dipping as low as 6.14% in February, they surged above 7% again in August and now stand at 7.18%.
Buydowns are most common on new homes. When rates rise, builders frequently offer temporary or permanent buydowns as one of several incentives buyers can choose from.
A survey of builders in August asked what has been the most effective way to get buyers off the sidelines. The No. 1 answer, cited by 69% of respondents, was mortgage-rate buydowns, said Ali Wolf, chief economist with Zonda, a new-home data and consulting firm that did the survey. Only 22% said price cuts.
“When they lower prices, buyers already under contract at a higher price tend to cancel their contracts and it becomes a vicious cycle,” Wolf said.
Landsea Homes is offering buydowns on select homes in select communities including the newly opened Alameda Marina. “We are only able to offer them on homes that we can deliver within 30 to 60 days,” said Josh Santos, Landsea’s Northern California division president. “I’d say 75% of our buyers in the last 60 days” chose buydowns in lieu of other incentives such as options, upgrades or homeowners association dues.
Some sellers are also offering them on existing homes that have been sitting for a while.
Whether they make sense for buyers depends on myriad factors including their overall finances, the cost versus savings, how long they plan to stay in the home, whether they spend or invest their monthly savings, who’s actually paying for them, and future interest rates, the last of which is unknowable.
Borrowers should make sure they understand how buydowns work, the potential pitfalls and other ways to save money on a mortgage.
A permanent rate buydown is fairly straightforward. The buyer pays fees, called discount points, to reduce the interest rate — and therefore the monthly payment — forever.
One discount point equals 1% of the loan amount. To lower the note rate by 1 percentage point, a buyer today might pay around three points to four points. This cost can vary widely depending on the day, the lender and other factors, said Westin Miller, branch manager with Pinnacle Home Loans in Santa Rosa.
To figure out how long it would take for your monthly savings to equal the points paid, divide the total upfront fee by your monthly mortgage payment (or plug the numbers into an online mortgage discount points calculator).
Suppose a buyer can permanently lower the rate on a $700,000 mortgage to 6.5% from 7.5% by paying three points, or $21,000. That would lower the monthly payment by about $470 a month.
Divide $21,000 by $470 you get 36 months, which is the breakeven point. A borrower who kept the loan for more than three years would come out ahead. The longer it was kept, the bigger the benefit.
If a buyer knew for sure that rates were coming down soon, it might be better to take the higher rate with no points and refinance when rates drop, although refinancers will generally have to pay some closing costs again.
“If you are going to sell or refinance in a few years, paying points doesn’t make sense,” said Jeff Ostrowski, a Bankrate analyst.
Some buyers get permanent buydowns because they need a lower rate to qualify for a loan, said Jason Barnes, mortgage sales supervisor with U.S. Bank in Campbell.
Buyers pay for permanent buydowns, but in a slow market they might be able to negotiate a credit from the seller at closing to help pay for it.
With a temporary buydown, the borrower typically takes out a 30-year fixed-rate loan but makes payments based on a lower interest rate during the first one, two or three years in exchange for a one-time payment that is deposited into an escrow account at closing.
The upfront payment is about equal to the interest savings during the discount period.
During this period, the borrower makes payments at the lower rate and the mortgage servicer draws from the account to make up the difference. At the end of the discount period, the borrower makes the full payment.
Suppose the note rate is 7.5%. With a 1/0 buydown, the buyer makes payments based on a 6.5% rate the first year and 7.5% in years two through 30.
With a 2/1 buydown the borrower pays at 5.5% the first year, 6.5% the second year and 7.5% in all remaining years.
Three-year buydowns are available but not too popular because of the steep price.
The borrower generally must qualify for the loan based on the note rate stated in the loan agreement, in this case 7.5%.
Most lenders require sellers to pay for temporary buydowns, meaning the cost comes out of their proceeds at closing. If the buyer has no choice between a true seller-paid buydown and a lower price, there’s little reason not to take the buydown.
In competitive situations, buyers might need to increase their purchase price to cover some or all of the buydown payment, in which case they’re paying for it indirectly. Here the cost/benefit analysis gets more complicated.
When Shatto and Nelson bought their “cute little 1927 Tudor revival” in Oakland, they took out a 30-year loan with a 2/1 buydown from LaSalle Mortgage, Shatto said. They’re paying based on a rate of 4.125% for the first year, 5.125% the second and 6.125% thereafter.
Over the first two years, the buydown will save them $15,470 in interest, which was the cost of the buydown.
Although the seller paid for the buydown, the buyers paid a higher price to compensate, said their agent Lindsay Ferlin of Red Oak Realty.
Did they make a good deal? Here’s one way to look at it.
They paid $866,000 and, with a 20% down payment, and borrowed $692,800. Had they not used a buydown and paid $15,470 less, they would have borrowed $680,424 with 20% down.
With the higher loan amount, they’d repay an extra $27,071 over 30 years — consisting of $14,695 in interest and $12,376 in principal. But during the first two years, they’d save a total of $15,470, and most people don’t keep a mortgage for 30 years.
“Outside of a few cases, this does not have a significant economic benefit for borrowers,” said David Reiss, a professor of real estate law at Brooklyn Law School. “It’s a little bit of smoke and mirrors. I don’t think it improves their financial condition other than in a few cases where you have a low income in the present and expect it to grow significantly after a couple of years.”
July 14, 2023
Opportunity Now interviewed me about how limited housing construction impacts the housing crisis:
Dynamic metropolitan areas like the Bay Area, LA, and New York City suffer from longstanding mismatches between the supply of housing and demand for it. Local communities control the zoning, and local voters (typically existing homeowners) have little incentive to increase the supply of housing. After all, more supply will likely increase the tax burden as new residents increase the demand for services (more schools, more infrastructure, more public safety). Homeowners are already in the market and generally like the way things are, notwithstanding their political views about the high cost of living for others and the epidemic of desperate homelessness that plagues all of these areas. The result of all of these local land use decisions is that very few units of housing are built in these communities, given the size and growth of the population.
Many coastal cities are high-opportunity areas, offering jobs to immigrants, young adults, and strivers of all stripes. They drive up the demand for housing even hours from urban centers, living in overcrowded units in many cases.
When demand outpaces supply, prices rise. Government can try to limit the effect of this pressure through a variety of means: rent controls, housing subsidies, right-to-shelter legislation. All of these interventions can assist certain segments of the housing burdened — current renters, new renters, homeless people — but to a large extent, they just reallocate scarce housing from one burdened group to another. That is not necessarily bad public policy given the current political realities, but it does not address the fundamental problem these communities face: There is not enough housing for all of the people who live in them. A broad coalition of decision-makers needs to face this reality and develop long-term strategies to build a lot more housing where all of these people want to live — for access to economic opportunity, for proximity to family, for all of the reasons that people want to relocate and build a life for themselves and their loved ones.
July 12, 2023
Insider quoted me in Private Equity Sold Them a Dream of Home Ownership. They Got Evicted Instead. It reads, in part,
Erica Hines-Denson had no idea how bad the odds against her were.
Student loans and a recent divorce had dinged her credit score. But she and her new husband, Elquinton Denson, were building a blended family and they dreamed of buying a home in the greater Atlanta area. After lenders turned them down for a traditional mortgage, a realtor told her there might be another way. Something called a lease-purchase, or rent-to-own, agreement.
“This was our way to own a home finally,” Hines-Denson said. “It was like we found a loophole.”
It took just a weekend of house hunting to find a house they loved: a stately four-bedroom, 30 miles southeast of Atlanta, with a built-in bar in the basement where they pictured hosting family and friends. Listed at $275,000, it was in their price range.
There was a catch. The couple wouldn’t be buying. Instead, a Chicago-based company called Home Partners of America would make a cash offer and rent the house back to them, with an option to buy within five years.
Home Partners supplied a lengthy agreement detailing the terms, including built-in annual increases to their rent and to the eventual purchase price. The document was more than 50 pages long; Hines-Denson said the company gave them just 24 hours to review it and sign. But the opportunity seemed too good to pass up. “You’re like, ‘Oh Lord, this is my chance,'” she said. “So you’re moving quick.”
The deal quickly turned sour. The company locked her out of the online payment portal after she missed a single month’s rent, adding hefty fees that made it impossible to catch up. After she missed a second month, the company swiftly filed for an eviction.
While a judge stayed her legal case under the federal COVID-19 eviction moratorium, the company’s management agency continued to call, Hines-Denson said, threatening to remove her belongings. In a final insult, the company kept their two-month security deposit when she and her family finally moved out.
Private Equity Moves In
Home Partners, which launched in 2012, now owns more than 28,000 homes nationwide. It is the largest of a handful of new companies promising “a clear path to homeownership” for families not yet ready or able to buy.
The company’s success has inspired startup competitors such as the New York-based company Landis, which boasts of investments from entertainers Will Smith and Jay-Z. Once dominated by fly-by-night operators, rent-to-own is now attracting some of the biggest players from Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Andreessen Horowitz led a Series A funding round for a rent-to-own competitor, Divvy Homes, in 2018. BlackRock and KKR purchased a majority stake in Home Partners by 2014, before private-equity giant Blackstone Group bought the company in 2021 for $6 billion.
In its marketing, Home Partners emphasizes that it offers “flexibility, choice and transparency,” providing the opportunity to “rent your dream home” without making a long-term commitment. “Home Partners has created a path to home ownership for tens of thousands of people who may not otherwise have had one,” a company spokesperson told Insider. “We are tremendously proud of our business.”
Yet Home Partners tenants, in interviews and court documents, say they got stuck in barely livable dwellings, with leaking sewage, broken air conditioners, filthy carpets, or nonworking electrical outlets. They describe being blocked from seeing home-inspection reports and facing swift eviction filings for a single late payment. One tenant filed a lawsuit claiming she suffered injuries when the ceiling of her home collapsed.
Hines-Denson said she felt like she’d been “set up to fail.”
More than 4,000 Home Partners tenants have purchased their homes over the past decade, according to a July 2022 paper from Moody’s Analytics, coauthored by an advisor to the company. But over the same time, nearly four times as many tenants — roughly 15,000 — moved out without buying.
An analysis of contracts and sales and eviction data shows that rent-to-own tenants are often left with the worst of all worlds. They have to shoulder many of the costs and responsibilities of homeownership, and the financial odds are stacked against them to end up as owners. Meanwhile, many are paying above-market rent.
“I’m very sympathetic when someone says they’ve identified a large segment of the population not being served by the current housing and mortgage landscape,” said David Reiss, the research director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.
“What you don’t want to hear next is, ‘Therefore, we can do whatever we want to them.'”
*. *. *
“Rent-to-own has this really sordid history,” said Reiss. “It’s an area of the housing market that remains underregulated. That’s part of the attraction for many operators.”