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.”

 

Protecting Small Businesses

Detail from Netherlandish Proverbs, Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Students in my Community Development Clinic and I have a column in the New York Law Journal, Small Business Jobs Survival Act May Have Opposite Effect. It reads,

The New York City Council is considering a bill, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, that it claims will protect small businesses even though the Act contains no protections tailored to them. Instead, the Act would implement a new lease renewal arbitration system that treats all commercial tenancies the same, allowing businesses as large as Amazon to benefit.

The Act would create a bureaucratic process that works contrary to its stated goals. The Act is meant to “create a fair negotiating environment, which would result in more reasonable and fair lease terms to help small businesses survive and encourage job retention and growth.” The Act actually creates a system under which big businesses will benefit the most. Furthermore, the process is overly complex for mom and pop businesses owners who are not familiar with the legal system. To avoid exacerbating the advantages that big businesses currently enjoy in the rental market, the City should consider policy alternatives that are tailored to the needs of small businesses.

Although the Act is supposed to protect small businesses, it does not define what a small business is. By not distinguishing between big and small tenants, the Act gives businesses of all sizes the same rights to negotiate a lease renewal. For large businesses like Amazon with an in-house legal department, the new system is business as usual. Amazon does not need to worry about additional costs to negotiate a lease renewal. For mom and pop business owners, the system starts to feel like a tax simply to stay in business because they will need to increase their costs relative to big businesses.

The Act’s arbitration provision sets forth about a dozen factors that an arbitrator must consider when setting the rent. Those factors can then be supplemented by “all other relevant factors.” Such a complex and vague standard will lead to inconsistent and unpredictable results. Two arbitrators determining rents for similar businesses located near each other are likely to arrive at different rents for these businesses because of the broad set of criteria they can consider. Additionally, an arbitrator’s decision would be final and non-reviewable.

The City’s property tax system offers a cautionary tale. The system is complex, many of its decisions are unreviewable, and its results are arbitrary and unfair. One consequence has been that property owners in wealthier neighborhoods often pay lower property taxes than those in less affluent neighborhoods, a state of affairs leading to a high-profile lawsuit and a Mayoral push to reconsider the entire system.

In addition to a costly process, the proposed lease renewal system is not easily navigable for mom and pop business owners. These mom and pop shops would face a new world of legal processes not familiar to them and that have nothing to do with their businesses. The Act almost requires that small commercial tenants hire lawyers to guide them through a system that might begin to feel like the soul-crushing New York City Housing Court, where tenants and landlords spend countless hours and often obtain results as perplexing as the problems that brought them there in the first place. Unrepresented tenants, in particular, face steep odds against the confusing and impersonal system. They are often unaware of their rights and how the system works, leading to temporary relief that does not do much more than postpone the date of their eviction. If the Act is enacted, small business tenants who either can’t or don’t hire lawyers would face as many, if not more, obstacles than they do in the current system.

Given that the Act in its current form does not serve its intended goals, the City should consider policy alternatives like formula business restrictions, which may be a more effective way of targeting and protecting small businesses. The formula business restriction serves to prevent retail and fast food chains from operating in particular neighborhoods in order to protect their social fabric. These restrictions aim to protect the unique character of city neighborhoods that have yet to feel the full effects of gentrification and mall-ification. These restrictions will incentivize leasing to new small businesses while protecting existing ones that are at risk of losing their space to commercial chains.

Companies like Amazon should not be the principal beneficiaries of a “Small Business Jobs Survival Act.” Rather, the City should focus on targeted approaches like formula business restrictions that assist new and existing small businesses more directly.

David Reiss is a Professor at Brooklyn Law School, the director of the Community Development Clinic and the research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. Areeb Been Khan, Robert Levy and Juliana Malandro are legal interns in the Brooklyn Law School Community Development Clinic. They were recently invited to testify at a New York City Council hearing regarding the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.

 

Cutting Back on Community Reinvestment

Bloomberg Law quoted me in Banks Look to Narrow Exams Under Community Reinvestment Act. It opens,

Banks see an opening to limit the types of violations that could lead to a Community Reinvestment Act downgrade as federal regulators begin rewriting rules under the 1977 law.

Banks say regulators have improperly used consumer fair lending and other violations involving credit cards or other financial products to evaluate compliance with the law meant to increase lending and investment to lower-income communities.

“When a bank violates a consumer protection law, there is no shortage of enforcement agencies and legal regimes available to seek redress and punishment. Adding the CRA to that long list thus has little marginal benefit, and risks diluting and undermining the CRA’s core purpose of promoting community reinvestment,” the Bank Policy Institute, a leading bank lobbying group, said in a Nov. 19 comment letter to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The OCC set the stage for a CRA rewrite in August by releasing an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking. The Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. have signaled a desire to sign on to a joint proposal.

With that momentum building, banks are taking their shot to limit the types of enforcement actions included in CRA reviews. They want CRA reviews to focus on mortgages, small business and other community development investments.

The question of how non-CRA-related violations apply to banks’ community lending reviews is not merely a theoretical exercise.

Wells Fargo & Co. saw its CRA grade downgraded two levels to “needs to improve”in March 2017 following the revelation of the fake accounts it generated for consumers. Several states and municipalities cut off business with the bank in response.

CRA exam cycles run three years for large national banks and can run longer for smaller banks that perform well. Banks receive one of four grades—outstanding, satisfactory, needs to improve or substantial noncompliance—and a poor grade can restrict their merger and branch expansion plans.

OCC, Treasury Leading Push

The Trump administration, led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Comptroller of the Currency Joseph Otting, has been pushing for the latest CRA revision.

Both of those officials ran into CRA trouble when they tried to sell OneWest Bank to CIT Group Inc. Mnuchin was OneWest’s chairman and Otting its chief executive.

The Treasury Department released a report on “modernizing the CRA” in April. Included in that report is a call to not allow fair lending enforcement investigations from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other regulators to slow down CRA reviews.

Otting went farther, issuing a bulletin on Aug. 15 highlighting that his agency’s examiners will no longer take into account non-CRA lending violations when assessing a bank’s CRA compliance.

The FDIC and the Fed have not yet followed suit. But banks want the three agencies to set a common policy on dealing with non-CRA related enforcement actions in their community lending reviews.

“Regulators should develop consistent policies clarifying that CRA will not be used as a general enforcement tool,” the American Bankers Association said in a Nov. 15 comment letter.

There is some merit to the idea, according to David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and the research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

“It’s delinking fair lending concerns, which are regulated elsewhere, from CRA concerns. From an industry perspective that may make a lot of sense,” he said in a Nov. 30 phone interview.

The proposal, taken in a vacuum, may be reasonable. But in the context of broader attempts to weaken the CRA, it should be viewed more skeptically.

Lingering Effects of Racially Restrictive Covenants

Image by US Census as modified by Ruhrfisch

The York Daily Record quoted me in York County Neighborhoods That Once Barred ‘Any Negro or Mongolian’ Still Do Harm. It opens,

When the Rev. David and Eulamae Orr moved into the Fayfield neighborhood in Springettsbury Township in 1963, they were the first to break the color barrier in the all-white suburban subdivision.

While the Orrs were a well-known and respected York-area black couple, owners of several business enterprises and active in civil rights, their purchase of the South Harlan Street home was uncommon enough at the time to draw headlines in local newspapers.

“My parents were very dignified about it,” Charles Orr, who inherited the home, said in a 1999 interview. “They simply said it was our right, that they had worked hard, that they always had wanted a larger, nicer house and were now able to afford it.”

The color barrier that the Orrs broke through, however, was multi-layered and resilient. People found other ways to keep minorities out of the white neighborhoods even after the Orrs had crossed the line. In fact, social and economic obstacles blocking access to fair housing for minorities remain today.

And urban planning experts say such racial barriers must come down if the city and the county of York are to reach their full potential.

Restrictions elsewhere in York County

By 1963, the 1947 Fayfield subdivision restriction prohibiting the occupancy of any Fayfield home “by any Negro, or any person of Negro extraction, excepting domestic servants …” had disappeared.

The same discriminatory restrictions against minority ownership were found in the 1931 subdivision plan for the proposed Wyndham Hills area. That covenant prohibited home ownership or occupancy by any “negro” or “Mongolian.”

Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss, Academic Program Director for The Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, explained the term “Mongolian” in that time period was used to refer to “various people of Asian descent, including those of Chinese and Japanese heritage.”

The Wyndham Hills deed restriction placed minority home ownership under its “Nuisances” clause along with operating a foundry, a slaughterhouse, bone-boiling “or other establishment offensive to the neighborhood.”

And, it wasn’t just in the middle- and upper-class York County suburbs either. Two city homes a block apart on West Kurtz Avenue and West Maple Street, for example, carried the same minority ownership restrictions.

That initial covenant restriction against minority home ownership in Fayfield was to be open to a vote among home owners in the neighborhood in 1952. Fayfield homeowners were to vote whether the prohibition against minority ownership was to be removed, rescinded, altered, changed or extended for definite periods of time or perpetuity.

If that vote ever took place, York County historical records don’t easily reveal any documentation of it.

Now illegal, but effects remain

Steve Snell, former president of Realtors Association of York and Adams Counties, said those covenants and restrictions — while apparently legal when written — became blatantly unlawful. He couldn’t be sure if Fayfield homeowners took any action against them or if they were quietly removed as houses in the neighborhood were resold.

These covenants and restrictions kept minorities concentrated in impoverished neighborhoods, primarily in the city of York. The effects of this concentration of poverty remain today, according to acclaimed urban planner David Rusk and others who have studied York. Those effects are seen in everything from the rate of homicide to the school dropout rate.

 

Housing in the Trump Era

 

The Real Estate Transactions Section of the American Association of Law Schools has issued the following Call for Papers:

Access + Opportunity + Choice: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era

Program Description:

The year 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the 2008 housing crisis—an event described as the most significant financial and economic upheaval since the Great Depression. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which upended many decades of overt housing discrimination. Both events remind us of the significant role that housing has played in the American story—both for good and for bad.

Of the many aspects of financial reform that followed 2008, much of the housing finance-related work was centered around mortgage loan origination and creating incentives and rules dealing with underwriting and the risk of moral hazard. Some of these reforms include the creation of the qualified mortgage safe-harbor and the skin-in-the-game risk retention rules. But when it came to the secondary mortgage market, little significant reform was undertaken. The only government action of any serious importance related to the federal government—through the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)—taking over control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This major government intervention into the workings of the country’s two mortgage giants yielded takings lawsuits, an outcry from shareholders, and the decimation of the capital reserves of both companies. Despite Fannie and Freddie having both paid back all the bailout funds given to them, the conservatorship remains in place to this day.

In the area of fair housing, the past several years saw the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities case whereby the U.S. Supreme Court upheld (and narrowed the scope of) the disparate impact theory under the Fair Housing Act. We also saw efforts aimed at reducing geographic concentrations of affordable housing through the Obama administration’s promulgation of the affirmatively furthering fair housing rule.

Yet, meaningful housing reform remains elusive. None of the major candidates in the most recent presidential election meaningfully addressed the issue in their policy platforms, and a lack of movement in resolving the Fannie/Freddie conservatorship is viewed as a major failure of the Obama administration. Additionally, housing segregation and access to affordable mortgage credit continues to plague the American economy.

In recent months, the topics of housing finance reform and providing Americans with credit (including mortgage credit) choices have been a point of focus on Capitol Hill and in the Trump White House. Will these conservations result in meaningful legislation or changes in regulatory approaches in these areas? Will programs like the low-income-housing tax credit, the CFPB’s mandatory underwriting requirements, public housing subsidies, and the government’s role in guaranteeing and securitizing mortgage loans significantly change? Where are points of possible agreement between the country’s two major parties in this area and what kinds of compromises can be made?

Call for Papers:

The Real Estate Transactions Section looks to explore these and related issues in its 2019 AALS panel program titled: “Access and Opportunity: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era.” The Section invites the submission of abstracts or full papers dealing broadly with issues related to real estate finance, the secondary mortgage market, fair housing, access to mortgage credit, mortgage lending discrimination, and the future of mortgage finance. There is no formal paper requirement associated with participation on the panel, but preference will be given to those submissions that demonstrate novel scholarly insights that have been substantially developed. Untenured scholars in particular are encouraged to submit their work. Please email your submissions to Chris Odinet at codinet@sulc.edu by Friday, August 3, 2018. The selection results will be announced in early September 2018. In additional to confirmed speakers, the Section anticipates selecting two to three papers from the call.

Confirmed Speakers:

Rigel C. Oliveri, Isabelle Wade and Paul C. Lyda Professor of Law, University of Missouri School of Law

Todd J. Zywicki, Foundation Professor of Law, George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

David Reiss, Professor of Law and Research Director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, Brooklyn Law School

Eligibility:

Per AALS rules, only full-time faculty members of AALS member law schools are eligible to submit a paper/abstract to Section calls for papers. Faculty at fee-paid law schools, foreign faculty, adjunct and visiting faculty (without a full-time position at an AALS member law school), graduate students, fellows, and non-law school faculty are not eligible to submit.

All panelists, including speakers selected from this Call for Papers, are responsible for paying their own annual meeting registration fee and travel expenses.