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The city’s housing department is now going full steam ahead with its first major effort in years to punish deadbeat, negligent landlords by taking their buildings away. But a lawsuit filed earlier this month challenges the program, saying that tenants don’t get a fair chance to take over their buildings themselves.

Under this program, known as “third-party transfer,” the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development has begun legal proceedings to take more than 300 run-down buildings away from their owners, mostly in poor areas in Harlem, the South Bronx and central Brooklyn. Already, 168 landlords have responded to the threat, reclaiming their property by paying off back taxes that in some buildings adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are still 130 properties on the list, buildings that eventually will be transferred to new owners if the old ones don’t pay up soon. According to the lawsuit, tenants from 10 buildings object that residents aren’t being allowed to try to buy the buildings on their own, even though the law that launched this program permits it. Instead, HPD requires them to partner with a nonprofit housing group in order to make a bid.

“They won’t sell [the building] to the tenants. We’d like to co-op it, but they won’t let us,” said Eddie Albino, tenant association president of 508 West 162nd Street. “We think it’s unfair, because we don’t have any say-so in what’s going on.” Albino added that he did not trust nonprofit managers to make tenant interests their highest priority.

“The law says that nonprofits, tenants or for-profits can purchase the building,” said Legal Aid attorney Harvey Epstein, who filed the suit. “But [HPD] has taken tenants out of the equation.”

From HPD’s perspective, the lawsuit is counterproductive. In an extensive written statement, HPD spokesperson Carol Abrams told City Limits that the suit “jeopardizes our ability to improve the living conditions for thousands of tenants in distressed buildings.” In effect, said the statement, the suit throws the baby out with the bathwater by trying to halt a program designed to repair thousands of apartments. According to HPD, these buildings carry more than 30,000 serious code violations.

Some housing advocates acknowledge that it’s more realistic for tenants to work with an experienced nonprofit organization that can oversee the process of fixing up the building. But, they say, the time they have to get proposals together–just a few months–doesn’t give tenants enough of a chance to team with a willing nonprofit and mount a strong bid.

City Councilmember Bill Perkins, whose Harlem district includes a lot of third-party transfer buildings, said that he and other councilmembers hoped to work with HPD to modify the program to increase opportunities for tenant ownership. “Already, I’ve been hearing concerns from [third-party transfer] buildings about the fact that they will not have that opportunity,” said Perkins.

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