NYC Rent Guidelines Board Final Vote Interview

I was interviewed on WCBS AM’s Drive Time about the vote of the New York City Rent Guidelines Board. Click here to hear it.

Rent-to-Ow!

Bait and Switch

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.” 

Buying out of Foreclosure

Foreclosure Auction Signs by Niall KennedyUS News & World Report quoted me in How to Buy a Foreclosed Home. It opens, 

AS HOME PRICES SOAR IN many cities, buyers may look to foreclosures to land bargains on houses. Foreclosure happens when a borrower can no longer make mortgage payments, and the lender seizes and then sells the home to recover losses.

Foreclosed homes are often sold for less than their market value.

That discount could bring a home within reach, but the financing and the home’s condition could present challenges. Before you bid on a foreclosed home, make sure you know the risks and the limitations.

Is It A Good Idea To Buy A Foreclosure Home?

Buying a foreclosure can save you some cash, but it comes with risks. If you pursue a foreclosure, it helps to have a “stomach of steel,” says David Reiss, law professor and research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.

Expect a lot more ups and downs than the typical homebuying process, says b, whose work focuses on real estate finance and community development.

Homebuying, including financing, can be more complicated with a foreclosed home. Yet the lure of savings can be irresistible.

“It can be like a 15% discount on your neighboring houses,” Reiss says. “So, it can be significant.”

But your savings will depend on the local real estate market and the condition of the foreclosed home, says Vince Malta, a San Francisco Realtor and president of the National Association of Realtors. Properties that need a lot of work sell for less than market value because of their condition and lower demand.

Not every foreclosure is a “steal” or a very good deal, Malta says.

“The truth is, the bank doesn’t want to ‘give’ the house away or sell it for less than it’s worth,” he says. “Foreclosures generally sell for very close to the appraised value.”

How Do You Buy a Foreclosed Home?

Buyers can find foreclosures at auctions, on home search sites such as Zillow and from traditional real estate agents, to name a few sources. You can finance or use cash to pay for a foreclosed home, but the former can be tricky.

Will you need cash to buy a foreclosure? You don’t necessarily need a full cash payment, but when you think you might buy at auction, you should prepare. Have some cash ready to make an immediate down payment.

Ask the auctioneer how much you might need in cash and how long you have to pay in full. Many foreclosures close within 30 to 45 days.

If you plan to finance the foreclosure, you will want to obtain a preapproval from a mortgage lender before the auction and bring it with you.

If you’re buying a bank-owned foreclosure at auction, you might want to apply for a loan from the same bank to simplify matters. Just be sure the bank offers a competitive interest rate.

If you’re buying a foreclosure from a bank, you could get a loan from the same bank to make your purchase. It’s not required but could make the process easier. Still, be sure the bank offers a competitive interest rate, as even a slightly higher rate could cost you thousands over the life of the loan.

Fair warning: Some banks will not want to finance foreclosures or will require large down payments because they can be risky investments.

Government-backed loan programs from the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Federal Housing Administration may offer financing options, but the property will need to meet standards for approval. Fannie Mae’s HomePath program helps homebuyers purchase properties the government-sponsored mortgage buyer has foreclosed on, Reiss says.

The program provides up to 3% in closing cost assistance for buyers who complete a homeowner education course.

“I have seen Fannie Mae put a lot of money into properties to get them in the condition for an owner-occupant to purchase them,” Malta says. “But I’ve also seen properties that would only accept cash offers due to the overwhelming deferred maintenance and damage to the property.”

An FHA 203(k) loan could be another smart choice for foreclosures in disrepair. The 203(k) program allows borrowers to finance repairs and renovations into the mortgage.

What Are the Risks of Buying a Foreclosure?

Buyers can embrace the process with eyes wide open, knowing the risks involved. The biggest risks can stem from buying property sight unseen.

“The big, scary thing is that with a number of foreclosures, you can’t actually inspect the property before you actually bid,” Reiss says. “That’s in part why the prices are below the market.”

Even if you pay for a home inspection, you typically have to buy the foreclosure “as is.” This means that if you purchase the home, any problem that pops up and the cost of fixing it are yours.

You can end up with a lot more of these problems in a foreclosed home, depending on the circumstances. A frustrated family might strip the home of valuable fixtures and appliances before leaving the house.

“Or they kind of just beat it up because they were angry about having to go through the foreclosure,” Reiss says.

A home lost to foreclosure could indicate a home neglected, Malta adds. “(You) have no idea what the previous owner has done for maintenance, or in many cases, hasn’t done,” he says.

How Can You Reduce the Risks of Buying a Foreclosure?

You can take a few steps to reduce the risks of buying a foreclosed property.

Get an inspection. “Buyers should absolutely hire their own inspector and thoroughly inspect the property,” Malta says.

In most instances, the bank will disclose any defects in the house, but sometimes the bank doesn’t have these details, he adds.

Research public property records. If you aren’t allowed to inspect the property, which may sometimes be the case, Reiss recommends researching its publicly available history. A property record search can reveal information about sales, tax liens, changes to square footage and additions to the property.

You can check the county tax office, which may have records available online.

“Maybe you’ll see some good news, like a boiler was replaced two years ago,” Reiss says. “Or maybe you’ll see some scary news, like there’s all these permits, and you don’t know if the work was completed.”

Do some informal due diligence. Start by visiting the house and performing a “curbside inspection” of your own, Reiss says.

“Even if you can’t go inside the house, you want to look at the property,” he says. “If you can peek in the windows, you probably want to peek in the windows.”

Knock on the doors of neighbors and see if they can answer your questions about the foreclosure. Tell them you want to bid on the home but need to learn all you can about the previous owners, including how long they lived in the house and how well they maintained it.

Ask if the home has had squatters or recent break-ins.

“Try to get all that information,” Reiss says. “Neighbors are probably going to have a good sense of a lot of that, and I think that kind of informal due diligence can be helpful.”

Urban Renewal’s Legacy

photo by Ziggymarley01

I was quoted in The Ledger (Florida) in Seeking Progress, City Upended Lives in Eliminating Moorehead Community. It opens,

After selecting Moorehead as the site of a new auditorium, Lakeland officials began efforts 50 years ago to inform residents, assess properties, make offers to owners and assist residents in finding new places to live.

Dividing the predominantly black neighborhood roughly in half, the city planned to acquire all of the eastern section north of Lime Street by 1971 and the remainder in 1972.

The campaign, which displaced 122 families, fit into a decades-long national phenomenon in which cities partially or completely removed minority neighborhoods for projects aimed at fostering urban renewal.

The American Housing Act of 1949, part of President Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal,” established the power of governments to seize private property for projects categorized as urban renewal. It also made federal funds available for such projects.

Though intended to replace substandard housing with better options, the Act spurred a flurry of activity that wound up displacing minorities, said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and academic program director of The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. Cities used the program’s Title I funding to engage in what was sometimes called “Negro removal” or “slum clearance.”

Before the federal program was halted in 1974, some 2,500 urban renewal projects displaced about 1 million people nationwide, Reiss said.

“Two-thirds of those people were African-American, and if you think about African-Americans being 12 percent of the population, they were being displaced at a multiple, maybe at five times the rate of other Americans and particularly white Americans,” Reiss said. “So urban renewal really reshapes the urban fabric across the country.”

Property in minority communities tended to be cheaper to acquire, especially during the peak period of urban renewal, and Reiss said minorities also were less equipped to challenge authorities.

“It was structural racism on one level, where the majority would find it much easier to displace a black community than they would to displace a white community, although displacement wasn’t only in black communities — but as we see it’s overwhelmingly in black communities,” he said. “Because black communities were often poor, that would be another reason — being in a poor community would give you less political power to fight something like this.”

In Spite of It All

By Chris Hamby - https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrishamby/8294571901, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35347913

Realtor.com quoted me in 3 Most Mind-Boggling Housing Turf Wars Ever—and What They Can Teach Us All. It opens,

Welcome to turf wars! No, it’s not the latest reality TV show—it’s just a way to describe two (or more) parties insisting that a particular piece of property is their own.

Turf wars are as old as the hills, and the existence of people who could lay claim to them. And they’re at the center of some surprisingly fascinating stories of wealth, greed, and pettiness. It seems that no property is too small to inspire a bitter rivalry—including one about the size of a floor lamp—that could go unresolved for decades.

As proof, check out some of the strangest turf tales below, and the lessons we can all learn from them to avoid the same ugly fate.

1. The smallest land grab ever

In Manhattan on the corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue lies a 500-square-inch piece of private property in the shape of a triangle.

The backstory: In 1910, the city demolished a building owned by David Hess to build a subway, but the surveyors missed this small patch in their measurements. Later on, once this error was discovered, the city asked the Hesses to donate it, but the family refused.

For good measure, the family laid a mosaic reading, “Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated for Public Purposes.”

Per the New York Times, it’s “one of the smallest pieces left in private ownership as a result of the cutting through a few years ago of the Seventh Avenue extension. It has been assessed on the tax books for $100.”

In 1938 the family sold this parcel to the cigar shop a few feet behind it for $1,000.

Lesson learned: Land survey mistakes—or not bothering with a survey at all—can cost you big-time!

“If there’s any question about who owns what, it’s better to be safe than sorry and get a good survey done,” says David Reiss, a law professor at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.

On a more human level, we can learn this: “Spite is about as powerful as an immovable object,” says Reiss. “If you try to dislodge it, you will in all likelihood lose.”

Skyscraper’s Future up in The Air

skyscrapers

The New York Law Journal quoted me in Upper West Side Skyscraper’s Future Uncertain After NY State Court Ruling. The story opens,

The development at 200 Amsterdam Ave. in Manhattan is slated to be the tallest building on the Upper West Side, with its 51 stories rivaling the skyscrapers located further downtown.

But whether this will ever happen has now become questionable, after a state court ruling that found city officials were wrong to follow an interpretation of city zoning law used by the developer to achieve the project’s awesome height.

Supreme Court Justice Franc Perry of Manhattan sided with local community groups looking to halt the building underway at the site. The plaintiffs—the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development and the Municipal Arts Society of New York—were joined by numerous local state and city elected officials in opposing what they say is not only an out-of-character monster development in the Manhattan neighborhood, but one that relied on a faulty zoning law interpretation to move forward.

“It is finally a declaration that zoning law means something and developers can’t make it up as they go along,” said Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady name attorney Richard Emery, who represented the plaintiffs.

Since 1978, developers and city buildings officials have relied on the so-called Minkin Memo, named after the former head of the city’s Department of Buildings’ Irving Minkin, for guidance on what experts call an ambiguity in the city’s zoning law towards so-called tax lots. These are additional subdivisions of city real estate, which can overlap with or be included inside a zoning lot.

Under the Minkin memo, developers have been able to pull together extra vertical building rights that nearby property owners aren’t using, offering the opportunity to boost the size of a project such as 200 Amsterdam beyond what would normally be allowed.

“The zoning resolution is ambiguous about when a zoning lot can be formed from partial tax lot; it never deals with that problem,” said Stewart Sterk, the Mack Professor of Real Estate Law and director of the Center for Real Estate Law & Policy at the Cardozo School of Law.

Initially, city officials had no problem with the move. DOB issued a permit to the developers for a residential and community facility building at the site of the Lincoln Towers condos on the Upper West Side. The developers relied on the Minkin memo as the basis for the acquisition tax lots that combined partial and whole lots to provide the developers with the vertical building rights needed for their skyscraper.

Shortly after DOB green lighted the project, the Committee for Environmentally Sound Development challenged the DOB’s decision. The challenge snowballed, and soon seemingly every local elected official, from state Assemblyman Richard Gottfried to borough president Gale Brewer, were opposed to the plan. The project’s permit was appealed by both CESD and the Municipal Arts Society to the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals.

In March 208, DOB made an official about-face on the project. In a letter from assistant general counsel to the BSA, the department said the Minkin memo provided an incorrect interpretation and that zoning regulations did not in fact intend for zoning lots to consist of partial tax lots.

The BSA was not persuaded by the arguments and in July 2018 voted 3-1 not to grant the appeal, with one board member abstaining. The plaintiffs soon after pursued a review of the BSA’s decision in state Supreme Court.

In subjecting the developers’ permit to further review, Perry pointedly took issue with BSA view of the process.

“BSA found that the Subject Zoning lot is ‘unsubdivided,’ within the meaning of the [New York City Zoning Resolution], simply because Developer has declared it to be so,” the judge wrote.

Noting that the referenced law states that a zoning lot is defined by being “unsubdivided” within a single block, Perry said BSA’s interpretation would render the term “superfluous,” and run “afoul of elementary rules of statutory construction.”

Since DOB saw the light on the Minkin memo during the appeal process, the court said the department’s statutory basis for the issuance of the permit to begin with was undermined. BSA’s decision was nullified and vacated, and the board was directed to review the project’s permit application “in accordance with the plain language” of the zoning regulation and Perry’s order.

As Cordozo’s Sterk noted, the development at 200 Amsterdam was far from the first to use the Milkin memo to justify partial tax lot usage in a building plan. Perry’s decision has the ability to throw uncertainty around zoning and building issues into a business sector highly adverse to such things, Sterk said.

But just as important for Sterk is the question now of when a government agency becomes estopped from changing its mind after it’s already induced people to rely on its existing interpretation.

“That’s a big problem in this case, because clearly developers have put millions of dollars into this project in reliance on an existing interpretation,” he said.

Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss, who is the research director of the school’s Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, said he saw the case as less of a “good guy vs. bad guy” dynamic as much as one of whether the assurances of government officials can be binding.

“There’s a reliance on government statements and government permissions,” Reiss said, while noting the project has already commenced.

Should the case stand, he predicted it would serve to rattle developers’ confidence in their dealings with the city going forward.

“It’s more uncertainty in a process that’s already pretty uncertain,” he said.

Luxury Rental Turned Into College Dorm

photo by Ann Larie Valentine (no changes made) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Realtor.com quoted me in ‘Help! My Luxury Rental Was Turned Into a College Dorm’. It opens,

Finally! After years of scraping by in cramped apartments in sketchy neighborhoods, you’ve made it—into a luxury rental with a doorman, concierge service, gym, bike room, and other posh amenities. It seems perfect.

Then you meet your neighbors, sunning themselves on the roof deck. Topless.

Sound like the opening to a Skinemax flick? On the contrary, it’s a reality for residents at The Azure, a new high-end apartment building in Brooklyn, NY.

“There were girls sunbathing topless up there,” one tenant with a child told the New York Post. “My wife was, like, ‘WTF?!’ There are a lot of families [here].”

You see, The Azure was facing significant vacancies, so the management company decided to rent out 30% of its units to King’s College, a liberal arts school in lower Manhattan. The result? Families who paid top dollar to live in a building with a business center, cold storage space for grocery deliveries, and other luxe features suddenly found themselves in what felt like a college dorm. A “dormdominium”! And you know what that probably means: late-night parties with eau de weed wafting through the halls and, um, some awkward bump-ins during rooftop barbecues with bikini-clad (or unclad) residents. And noise. Lots of noise.

“We bought into the luxury experience of the nice rooftop,” another tenant lamented. “We didn’t expect it to be packed with 18-year-olds.”

When luxury apartments turn into dorms: Why it happens

This rude awakening for well-heeled renters isn’t as unusual as you might think. It’s just what many luxury developers may find themselves doing now that the high-end rental market is softening, leaving empty apartments that must be filled to make ends meet.

“Building owners stuck with vacant properties will try to rent them to whoever they can within reason,” says Aaron Shmulewitz, a real estate attorney with Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman in New York City. “When the economy goes bad, building owners have to scramble.”

Part of the problem is that a few years ago, the housing market was going so strong, developers got bullish on building—only to find themselves in a more sluggish market once their structures were complete.

“Opening a residential building is a many, many-year process,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “You have to acquire the site, you have to get financing, perhaps you have to get zoning approvals, you have to get your plans approved … then you have to build it and then you have to market it. You’re talking about years of work.”

Many of these builders were likely banking on the possibility that rental demand would just keep going up and up—but they bet wrong.

“We have a large amount of supply that came into the market within a fairly short period of time,” says Edward Mermelstein, a real estate attorney with One and Only Holdings in New York City. “At the same time, the demand has waned substantially.”

How do college kids afford a luxury rental, anyway?

While luxury rentals in any other city might be hurting right about now, New York is well-positioned to solve this problem, thanks to its high student population and limited dorm space.

“Renting to college students in Manhattan or Brooklyn has always been a trend, as there’s a total of almost 250,000 active students on this small island,” says Michael Jeneralczuk, a real estate agent with REAL New York. “With that said, luxury apartments are usually outside of student budgets.”

While a luxury rental might be outside of any individual student’s budget, a larger group of students can make it work. According to the Post, the King’s College students are paying a combined $6,000 per month for a two-bedroom apartment housing four people, which comes to $1,500 per person. This is more affordable than trying to rent alone; even a studio apartment at The Azure starts at $2,399 per month, according to the building’s website.

Meanwhile, the nonstudent rate for a two-bedroom apartment at The Azure starts at $3,391 per month. So by renting to King’s College students, the building is also making almost twice as much per apartment. So, at least for these two parties, it’s a win-win.

“It’s an opportunity to fill vacant apartments and collect rent,” says Becki Danchik, a real estate agent with Warburg Realty in New York City.

Given that the luxury rental market is slowing down nationwide, does this mean renters across the country might expect college-aged neighbors soon, too?

According to Reiss, it depends on development levels. In Los Angeles, construction has stalled, so apartments are filling up. Seattle, on the other hand, is facing similar issues as New York City.

“Seattle has had a construction boom, which means there are a lot of empty apartments,” says Reiss. “You face a similar situation where landlords are going to look to find some way to rent those out and make their money back.”