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.

Property Taken by Eminent Domain Unused

Photo by Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

CBS2’s Mary Calvi, photo by Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

I was interviewed by Mary Calvi on CBS New York in Man Wants Back Property NYC Took From His Family In 1967 (click here to watch the segment). The transcript of the segment reads, in part,

There is a property battle that has been brewing in the Bronx for some time.

A man is fighting to get back a piece of land that he claims belongs to his family.

He says the city took the land five decades ago saying it wants to extend a road, but all these years later nothing has changed, CBS2’s Mary Calvi reported Monday.

Fred Filomio fixes what’s broken on trucks in the Bronx. For decades, one problem has lingered, unfixed.

You see, back in 1967, when he was entering military service, the city of New York, using eminent domain, took part of his family’s property.

“When my uncle Freddie came back from World War II, they bought the whole block,” Filomio said.

A 13,000-square foot piece that sits up 22 feet above street level is a small part of a larger piece of property on Boston Road in the Bronx for his family’s trucking business. Back those 50 years ago, the city said it had to have the property in order to widen a street adjacent to it.

“They haven’t used one square foot of the property,” Filomio said, adding it looks the same as it did five decades ago.

In 50 years, the city has literally done nothing with the property. Filomio even uses it to park his trucks. His lawyer, Richard Apat, has filed suit.

“We feel showing number one it was an excess taking. Number two, it’s now being held as a proprietary. Number three, that we have been in possession we should get it back. But even with that, Fred is a reasonable person. If the city will talk to us and say let’s work something out, he’ll pay them some money, he’ll start paying taxes and that’s why I say I think it’s win-win,” Apat said.

The city responded to CBS2’s numerous requests for comment, with only the following from a spokesperson: “The property involved in this ongoing litigation is not subject to a claim of adverse possession, as a matter of law. We have no further comment while this litigation is pending.”

Professor David Reiss teaches students about eminent domain at Brooklyn Law School. He said he believes this one, like most others, is a difficult one to win.

“It looks like they have a tough row to hoe,” Reiss said. “Once the government takes ownership of the property, generally it’s theirs.”

Court Limits NY Attorney General’s Reach

New York State Attorney General                  Barbara D. Underwood

Bloomberg quoted me in Credit Suisse Wins Narrowing of $11 Billion Suit, Martin Act. It opens,

New York’s powerful anti-fraud weapon known as the Martin Act was crimped by the state’s highest court, which scaled back what was an $11 billion lawsuit against Credit Suisse Group AG over mortgage-securities practices in the run-up to the financial crisis.

The New York Court of Appeals found that many of the claims were too old, trimming the statute-of-limitations of the law to three years from six years. The Martin Act has been used by the state’s attorney general to police the securities markets since the 1920s, so the ruling may limit the prosecution of fraud in stock and bond sales and some other financial transactions.

“Anything that reduces a statute of limitations will have a big impact on enforcement,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, noting that it can take many years to develop complex financial cases. “This case reflects a significant curtailment of the New York attorney general’s ability to go after alleged financial wrongdoing.”

Prior to the legal battle against Credit Suisse, the Martin Act, one of the country’s oldest and toughest anti-fraud tools, faced relatively few tests in court. The law can be used by the state attorney general to file both civil suits and criminal charges, and requires a lower standard of proof for civil cases than other anti-fraud statutes. It can also be used to launch investigations, which can help extract settlements.

Legal Tool

Through the specter of the Martin Act, New York state has been able to collect billions of dollars in fines from investment banks, insurance companies and mutual funds over a wide variety of alleged fraud. It has also been used to charge individuals, including executives at Tyco International Ltd., accused of looting the company, and former officials at the law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf.

Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Barbara Underwood, said she pursues cases quickly and will continue to do so.

“This decision will have no impact on our efforts to vigorously pursue financial fraud wherever it exists in New York,” Spitalnick said. “That includes continuing our case against Credit Suisse.”

In recent years, the Martin Act has been used against Barclays Plc and other banks to pursue claims they misled customers about the role of high-frequency traders in dark pools, to win a settlement from the Bank of New York Mellon Corp. over foreign-currency trading, and to start an investigation into Exxon Mobil Corp. about whether it misled investors about the impact of climate change.

The case against Zurich-based Credit Suisse came as the office started probes into allegations of wrongdoing related to the financial crisis. The lawsuit, filed by former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in November 2012, claimed the bank ignored warning signs about the quality of loans it was packaging and selling in 2006 and 2007.

Ghost of A Crisis Past

photo by Chandres

The Royal Bank of Scotland settled an investigation brought by New York Attorney General Schneiderman arising from mortgage-backed securities it issued in the run up to the financial crisis. RBS will pay a half a billion dollars. That’s a lot of money even in the context of the settlements that the federal government had wrangled from financial institutions in the aftermath to the financial crisis. The Settlement Agreement includes a Statement of Facts which RBS has acknowledged. Many settlement agreements do not include such a statement, leaving the dollar amount of the settlement to do all of the talking. We are lucky to see what facts exactly RBS is “acknowledging.”

The Statement of Facts found that assertions in the offering documents for the MBS were inaccurate and the securities have lost billions of dollars in collateral. These losses led to “shortfalls in principal and interest payments, as well as declines in the market value of their certificates.” (Appendix A at 2)

The Statement of Facts outlines just how RBS deviated from the statements it made in the offering documents:

RBS’s Representations to Investors

11. The Offering Documents for the Securitizations included, in varying forms, statements that the mortgage loans were “originated generally in accordance with” the originator’s underwriting guidelines, and that exceptions would be made on a “case-by-case basis…where compensating factors exist.” The Offering Documents further stated that such exceptions would be made “from time to time and in the ordinary course of business,” and disclosed that “[l]oans originated with exceptions may result in a higher number of delinquencies and loss severities than loans originated in strict compliance with the designated underwriting guidelines.”

12. The Offering Documents often contained statements, in varying forms, with respect to stated-income loans, that “the stated income is reasonable for the borrower’s employment and that the stated assets are consistent with the borrower’s income.”

13. The Offering Documents further contained statements, in varying forms, that each mortgage loan was originated “in compliance with applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations.”

14. The Offering Documents also included statements regarding the valuation of the mortgaged properties and the resulting loan-to-value (“LTV”) ratios, such as the weighted-average LTV and maximum LTV at origination of the securitized loans.

15. In addition, the Offering Documents typically stated that loans acquired by RBS for securitization were “subject to due diligence,” often described as including a “thorough credit and compliance review with loan level testing,” and stated that “the depositor will not include any loan in a trust fund if anything has come to the depositor’s attention that would cause it to believe that the representations and warranties of the related seller regarding that loan will not be accurate and complete in all material respects….”

The Actual Quality of the Mortgage Loans in the Securitizations

16. At times, RBS’s credit and compliance diligence vendors identified a number of loans as diligence exceptions because, in their view, they did not comply with underwriting guidelines and lacked adequate compensating factors or did not comply with applicable laws and regulations. Loans were also identified as diligence exceptions because of missing documents or other curable issues, or because of additional criteria specified by RBS for the review. In some instances, RBS disagreed with the vendor’s view. Certain of these loans were included in the Securitizations.

17. Additionally, some valuation diligence reports reflected variances between the appraised value of the mortgaged properties and the values obtained through other measures, such as automated valuation models (“AVMs”), broker-price opinions (“BPOs”), and drive-by reviews. In some instances, the LTVs calculated using AVM or BPO valuations exceeded the maximum LTV stated in the Offering Documents, which was calculated using the lower of the appraised value or the purchase price. Certain of these loans were included in the Securitizations.

18. RBS often purchased and securitized loans that were not part of the diligence sample without additional loan-file review. The Offering Documents did not include a description of the diligence reports prepared by RBS’s vendors, and did not state the size of the diligence sample or the number of loans with diligence exceptions or valuation variances identified during their reviews.

19. At times, RBS agreed with originators to limit the number of loan files it could review during its due diligence. Although RBS typically reserved the right to request additional loan-level diligence or not complete the loan purchase, in practice it rarely did so. These agreements with originators were not disclosed in the Offering Documents.

20. Finally, RBS performed post-securitization reviews of certain loans that defaulted shortly after securitization. These reviews identified a number of loans that appeared to breach the representations and warranties contained in the Offering Documents. Based on these reviews, RBS in some instances requested that the loan seller or loan originator repurchase certain loans. (Appendix A at 4-5)

Some of these inaccuracies are just straight-out misrepresentations, so they would not have been caught at the time by regulators, even if regulators had been looking. And that’s why, ten years later, we are still seeing financial crisis lawsuits being resolved.

It is not clear that these types of problems can be kept from infiltrating the capital market once greed overcomes fear over the course of the business cycle. That’s why it is important for individual actors to suffer consequences when they allow greed to take the driver’s seat. We still have not figured out how to effectively address tho individual actions that result in systemic harm.

The Impact of Tax Reform on Real Estate

Cushman & Wakefield have posted The Great Tax Race: How the World’s Fastest Tax Reform Package Could Impact Commercial Real Estate. There is a lot of interesting insights in the report, notwithstanding the fact that ultimate fate of the Republicans’ tax reform is still a bit up in the air. Indeed, C&W estimates that there is a 1 in 5 chance that a bill will not pass this year.

Commercial Real Estate

C&W states that history

suggests that tax law changes by themselves are often not key drivers for transactions or for investment performance. However, there is likely to be a period of transition and market flux as investors restructure to optimize tax outcomes with implications for the underlying asset classes. Corporations are likely to separate the real estate aspects of their businesses. (2)

The commercial real estate industry is largely exempt from the biggest changes contained in the House and Senate bills. 1031 exchanges, for instance, have not been touched. C&W sees corporations being big beneficiaries, with a net tax cut of $400 billion over the next 10 years; however, they “anticipate that the tax cut will be preferentially used to return capital to shareholders or reduce debt, rather than to increase corporate spending.” (2)

Residential Real Estate

C&W sees a different effect in the residential real estate sector, with a short-term drag on home values in areas with high SALT (state and local tax) deductions, including California, NY and NJ:

The drag on home values is likely to be largest in areas with high property taxes and medium-to-high home values. There is also likely to be a larger impact in parts of the country where incomes are higher and where a disproportionate proportion of taxpayers itemize. Both versions of the tax reform limit property tax deductibility to $10,000. While only 9.2% of households nationally report property taxes above this threshold, this figure rises to as high as 46% in Long Island, 34% in Newark and 20% in San Francisco according to Trulia data.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) estimates that 22% of mortgages in the U.S. have balances over $500,000, with most of these concentrated in high costs areas such as Washington, DC and Hawaii—where more than 40% of home purchase loans originated last year exceeded $500,000. This is followed by California at 27%, and New York and Massachusetts at 16%. (6)

C&W also evaluated tax reform’s impact on housing market liquidity and buy v. rent economics:

The median length of time people had owned their homes was 8.7 years in 2016—more than double what it had been 10 years earlier. Now that interest rates have begun to tick upward from their historic lows, the housing market may face a problem called the “lock-in” effect, where homeowners are reluctant to move, since moving might entail taking out a new mortgage at a higher rate. This leads to the possibility of decreasing housing market liquidity in high-priced markets.

All things considered, the doubling of the standard deduction and the cap on the property tax deduction is likely to have the largest impact on the buy vs. rent incentive, especially as it seems likely that there will be minimal changes to the mortgage interest deduction in any final tax reform bill. (7-8)

Renters and Natural Disasters

Bill Huntington

Avvo quoted me in What Do Renters Need To Know in A Natural Disaster? It opens,

From hurricanes in the East to wildfires in the West, the past few months have seen an on-going slew of natural disasters in the United States. Fires and floods don’t care whether a property is inhabited by owners or renters. However, most states have laws that  address how landlords and tenants deal with a rental property in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Renters’ recourse in a natural disaster? Leases and local laws.

Check the lease first

The first source of authority on the obligations of landlords and tenants is found in the lease agreement, which should spell out the terms of what happens in case of a natural disaster. But not all leases clearly address this situation. According to Michael Simkin, managing partner of Simkin & Associates in Los Angeles, in cases where the lease is “burdensome or unfair,” local or state laws will govern what happens.

Landlord and tenant responsibilities vary by state

Every state has different laws regarding landlord and tenant obligations after a natural disaster strikes. Here are examples of answers to common tenant questions from some of the states recovering from recent natural disasters.

Can a lease be terminated if a natural disaster makes a rental property unusable?

California: If a rental property is destroyed in a natural disaster, the lease is automatically cancelled. The landlord must refund the rent for that rental period on a prorated basis.

“Many times, the city can come in and condemn the property and effectively force out tenants in unsafe situations. It is also the landlord’s responsibility to terminate a lease when they have knowledge that their rental property is unusable or unsafe,” notes Monrae English, a partner at Wild, Carter & Tipton in Fresno.

Florida: If the premises are “damaged or destroyed,” the tenant may terminate the rental agreement with written notice and move out immediately.

Louisiana: According to the Louisiana attorney general, if a natural disaster damages a property to the point that it is completely unusable, the lease is terminated automatically.

New York: If a rental becomes unfit for occupancy due to a natural disaster, the tenant may quit the premises and is no longer liable to pay rent. Any rent paid in advance should be returned on a prorated basis, according to David Reiss, law professor at Brooklyn Law School.

Texas: Either the tenant or the landlord can terminate the lease with written notice. Once the lease is canceled, tenants’ obligation to pay rent ceases and they’re entitled to a prorated refund of any rent paid during the time the home was not usable.

If the lease is terminated due to a natural disaster, does the renter get the security deposit back?

CaliforniaThe landlord must return the security deposit within three weeks of the tenant vacating, with any deductions accounted for in writing. The landlord is not allowed to deduct disaster damage.

LouisianaThe landlord is required to return security deposits within one month, as long as the tenant fulfilled the lease obligations and left a forwarding address, according to Brent Cueria, an attorney with Cueria Law Firm, LLC in New Orleans. The landlord cannot deduct for natural disaster damage.

New YorkThe security deposit must be returned to the tenant, according to Reiss.

Texas: The security deposit must be refunded.

Holding Servicers Accountable

image by Rizkyharis

I submitted my comment to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regarding the 2013 RESPA Servicing Rule Assessment. It reads, substantively, as follows:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a Request for Information Regarding 2013 Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act Servicing Rule Assessment. The Bureau

is conducting an assessment of the Mortgage Servicing Rules Under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (Regulation X), as amended prior to January 10, 2014, in accordance with section 1022(d) of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The Bureau is requesting public comment on its plans for assessing this rule as well as certain recommendations and information that may be useful in conducting the planned assessment. (82 F.R. 21952)

Before the RESPA Servicing Rule was adopted in 2013, homeowners had had to deal with unresponsive servicers who acted in ways that can only be described as arbitrary and capricious or worse.  Numerous judges have used terms such as “Kafka-esque” to describe homeowner’s dealings with servicers.  See, e.g., Sundquist v. Bank of Am., N.A., 566 B.R. 563 (Bankr. E.D. Cal. Mar. 23, 2017).  Others have found that servicers failed to act in “good faith,” even when courts were closely monitoring their actions.  See, e,g., United States Bank v. Sawyer, 95 A.3d 608  (Me. 2014). And yet others have found that servicers made multiple misrepresentations to homeowners.  See, e.g., Federal Natl. Mtge. Assn. v. Singer, 48 Misc. 3d 1211(A), 20 N.Y.S.3d 291 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. July 15, 2015).  The good news is that in those three cases, judges punished the servicers and lenders for their patterns of abuse of the homeowners. Indeed, the Sundquist judge fined Bank of America a whopping $45 million to send it a message about its horrible treatment of borrowers.

But a fairy tale ending for a handful of borrowers who are lucky enough to have a good lawyer with the resources to fully litigate one of these crazy cases is not a solution for the thousands upon thousands of borrowers who had to give up because they did not have the resources, patience, or mental fortitude to take on big lenders and servicers who were happy to drag these matters on for years and years through court proceeding after court proceeding.

The RESPA Servicing Rule goes a long way to help all of those other homeowners who find themselves caught up in trials imposed by their servicers that it would take a Franz Kafka to adequately describe.  The Rule has addressed intentional and unintentional abuses in the use of force-placed insurance and other servicer actions.

The RESPA Servicing Rule Assessment should evaluate whether the Rule is sufficiently evaluating servicers’ compliance with the Rule and implementing remediation plans for those which fail to comply with the vast majority of loans in their portfolios.  Servicers should not be evaluated just on substantive outcomes but also on their processes.  Are avoidable foreclosures avoided?  Are homeowners treated with basic good faith when it comes to interactions with servicers relating to defaults, loss mitigation and transfers of servicing rights?  The Assessment should evaluate whether the Rule adequately measures such things.  One measure the Bureau could look at would be court cases involving servicers and homeowners.  While perhaps difficult to do, the Bureau should attempt to measure the Rule’s impact on court filings alleging servicer abuses.

The occasional win in court won’t save the vast majority of homeowners from abusive lending practices.  The RESPA Servicing Rule, properly applied and evaluated, could.