New Legal Push For Foreclosure Victims

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Tenants at 3018 Heath Avenue and nine other buildings in the The Bronx have had enough. After living for years with roaches, rats, sagging ceilings, broken plumbing and long stretches without heat or hot water, they are demanding the bank that owns their buildings make repairs. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development lists 756 immediately hazardous C violations against the 10 buildings.

“When you live in a place with no heat or hot water, with bugs, with ceilings falling down, with mold, that’s called a hole. People should live in a home,” said Yorman Nunez, a board member of the NorthWest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, which helped organize the tenants. “Wells Fargo is just letting this happen.”

Wells Fargo, and its special servicer LNR Partners Inc., control the trust that holds the mortgage on the buildings. 3018 Heath Ave. and nine other buildings, formerly owned by private equity-backed investor Milbank Real Estate, went into foreclosure in March 2009. Since then, tenants have been unable to get repairs, and uncertain who is in charge. So on Wednesday Legal Services NYC filed a motion in the ongoing foreclosure proceeding, begging the judge to make the bank take care of the building and its tenants while the foreclosure process continues.

The tenants’ position was neatly summed up in a hand-lettered sign that read: “You lend it, you mend it.”

Elected officials underscored the point.

“The lender is now the owner. They have a responsibility to maintain these buildings,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. “If Milbank couldn’t pay their mortgage, the lender, which is now the landlord, has to step up to the plate.”

In addition to Diaz, tenants were joined by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, City Councilmember Fernando Cabrera and representatives from U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano’s office.

Stepping into a foreclosure case to seek relief for tenants is a new legal strategy, said Ed Josephson, housing coordinator for Legal Services NYC. He is one of the attorney’s working on the case. The idea is to go straight to the bank that gave the mortgage–or bought it via a mortgage-backed security–to push for repairs.

“We know what will happen when we get into court,” he said. “Everybody is going to say that they don’t have any responsibility. They structure things on purpose to avoid liability. But the point is there will be a lot of pressure on all these banks to fork of the money because they created this disaster.”

The Milbank properties are only a handful of the hundreds of rental buildings in the five boroughs that housing experts say are teetering near fiscal collapse. Bought in the heady days of the real estate boom for far more than their rents could support, and leveraged with sky-high mortgages, the buildings are going into foreclosure. Tenants, meanwhile, are left in a lurch. The Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which has been working on issues of over-leveraged buildings since 2006, released a seven-page list of buildings it said are at risk of default.

Quinn said she knows the Milbank buildings are not isolated disasters. “We are working closely through the distressed property taskforce and we will look at other buildings where this type of lawsuit makes sense,” she said.

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for May 10 in Bronx Supreme Court.

LNR Partners declined, through a spokesperson, to comment.