Adi Talwar

Vern and Evi, shareholders at Lenox Court, a Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC), are generally supportive of a new regulatory agreement.

In 2010, new parents Evi and Vern were looking for an affordable home in their neighborhood of Central Harlem when they discovered an unbeatable opportunity: a five-bedroom apartment selling for the stunning price of about $100,000. It was in a foreclosed rental apartment building with a hole in the roof and a bunch of vacancies, and was soon to be transferred to the city’s Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) program, under which the building would become a limited-equity cooperative.

Evi is a photographer and Vern a City College employee. The couple just met the income limits for new buyers of about a $100,000 annual salary. They agreed to the resale price caps that came with the city program, which allowed the value of their home to increase by only five percent a year.

With home prices increasingly out of reach for low- and middle-income families, the city’s nearly 1,300 HDFC buildings are prized as one of New York’s last remaining opportunities for affordable homeownership. Since its creation in the late 1970s, the HDFC program has allowed existing tenants of abandoned and foreclosed buildings to buy their apartments for a minimal price (in the program’s first years it was $250 but later rose to $2,500), while providing many new buyers like Evi and Vern with enviable below-market prices.

Yet HDFCs operate under a hodgepodge of rules, under varying levels of oversight, and have varying degrees of financial health, with at least 27 percent in a stage of physical or financial trouble, according to DNAinfo. When it comes to affordability restrictions, about 50 newer HDFCs, like Evi and Vern’s, have resale price caps, but most never did; some have income limits for new buyers of about $100,000, while many others are open to new families making up to $135,000. As a result, in recent years some original HDFC residents have sold their apartments for millions of dollars to asset-rich middle-income buyers. Affordable housing advocates have called for new rules to ensure the program remains a resource for low-income families.

Last year, the de Blasio administration’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) proposed a new regulatory agreement to address these concerns, as well as others about financial management, but the draft regulation has triggered a substantial backlash.

Along with provisions such as requiring every building to pay for a monitor, a manager, and stricter provisions around subletting, the new regulation would require HDFCs to adopt price caps specified by the city. The proposal would grant HDFCs a larger property tax exemption than they currently get, but they’d have to adopt the caps to receive any break at all.

Some shareholders adamantly oppose the price caps and argue they will reduce shareholders’ economic mobility and reduce the financial health of HDFC buildings, as many use flip taxes to ensure a portion of the profit from sales goes back to support the property. They also argue that it’s just unfair: from their perspective, the city has never given the same supports to HDFCs as other affordable housing programs, and now wants to slap price caps on shareholders’ resales, even though many HDFCs still sell at low prices.*

“[The city makes] fuzzy statements about what the ‘intent’ of the program was. We know what the terms of the deal were, and we know what our intent was: to stabilize our housing and do the best we could for our families and communities, and get a shot at the American Dream,” says John McBride of the HDFC Coalition in an e-mail to City Limits. “The city relied on our desire to work hard and succeed when they needed us to take these abandoned buildings off their hands, and now they want to take from us what is rightfully ours, and we won’t let that happen. ”

McBride adds that in the 1980 and 1990s, under the city’s 60/40 Security Agreements, HDFCs were required to give 40 percent of the profit of any sale back to the city. HDFCs weren’t required to abide by sales caps at that time, he points out—suggesting the city did not ask for a cap when it stood to make money from the deals.

Shareholders may be justified in feeling past administrations did not do enough to help them and even gave them a different idea of the program’s purpose, and they also may have valid concerns about how they’ll continue paying for repairs in the future.

Yet ultimately the Blasio administration—and City Council, which would need to vote on the new rules—has to decide whether its worth going up against these owners’ concerns to preserve a vulnerable affordable housing resource for future decades. The details of the new regulation, including how the city incentivizes buildings to adopt the new regulations rather than simply forgo the property tax exemption, will be key to its success.

Questions of fairness, mobility, building finances

A few decades ago, when city land and foreclosed buildings were in abundance, the city dedicated much of its property to affordable homeownership opportunities that included income caps but no resale price restrictions. At the time, many people saw wealth building as one of the primary benefits of homeownership and believed limiting equity would unjustly rob low-income homeowners of the potential to grow assets. Few people imagined just how high home prices would skyrocket in the decades to come.

Over the past few years, a task force composed of non-profit affordable housing advocates and a few shareholders began suggesting new regulations to improve the management of HDFCs and secure their future affordability. Drawing on some but not all of the task force’s recommendations, HPD drafted its own regulation last year. Under the new proposal, HDFC units could only be resold to families making below $97,920, and with no more than about $142,800 in savings—stricter limits than found in many older HDFCs. In addition, the price of the apartment would be limited to the maximum sale prices listed in the proposed regulatory agreement (See page 26)—for instance, $412,022 for a two-bedroom apartment in 2017, with the price growing annually to keep up with inflation.

HPD says their proposed caps are calculated according to a measurement of what would be affordable to a family of three making about 110 percent Area Median Income, or $89,760, though some argue HPD’s calculations overestimate what would be affordable to such a family. A flip tax would also be applied to each sale, requiring the selling shareholder to give back 30 percent of the sale revenue to the building. (HPD also allows exemptions for individual shareholders who bought their apartments recently at market-rates; basically, the city is willing to consider those units lost and allow such owners to sell at prices above the caps.*)

HDFCs that don’t sign the new regulatory agreement will lose their current property tax exemption, though an HPD factsheet says that if HDFCs file a Real Property Income Expense (RPIE) with the Department of Finance, that might help to lower their taxes.

Richard James, a 73-year-old retired schoolteacher who lives in an HDFC in Washington Heights, is deeply opposed to the cap. Back in the 70s, his family lived in the same building as renters and endured under horrendous conditions, like weeks without hot water and heat, broken elevators and boarded up windows. When the city took over the building from their delinquent landlord and resold it at a low price to the tenants, the city’s documents claimed that the building had been handed over in good condition. But James says over the years, shareholders have spent millions getting the dilapidated building into shape. While he didn’t know the exact amount, he says he had paid out “tens of thousands of dollars” toward mortgage and renovation costs.

James argues that since the city didn’t do much for the building beyond offering low-interest loans, it’s fair the city continue offering the building a property tax abatement without imposing a price cap.* An apartment the same size as James’ recently sold for over $2 million dollars, but under the proposed regulatory agreement, he’d be able to sell for only $539,880. Furthermore, James says his building still has major renovation needs, and is concerned that since his building applies a flip tax to each new sale, price caps will take away a source of revenue for his building, jacking up maintenance costs for shareholders.

“Where’s that money going to come from?” James asks. “For the city to tell us how to manage our own building doesn’t make any sense.”

The HDFC Coalition’s McBride agrees. He notes that HDFCs have trouble obtaining bank loans, and thus need the help they can get from sales revenue. He also argues that in today’s housing market, the price caps will make it challenging for shareholders to move out. And if the building decides not to agree to the sales prices, HDFC shareholders would be hit with increased real-estate taxes. This, he says, would “[threaten] the viability of the whole building and could push our people out,” which he says is “clearly not how you preserve affordability.”

And those are not McBride’s only concerns with the regulatory agreement. He says the provision excluding the newest buyers from caps is tantamount to creating two classes of shareholders. He is alarmed by a provision that would allow HPD to terminate and reappoint the board if an HDFC breaches the agreement. And he say that the requirement that all buildings hire monitors may be good business for non-profit monitoring organizations, but will result in a loss of autonomy for HDFCs.

Advocates say caps are justified

But many housing advocates support the need for a new set of regulations.

Andy Reicher, director of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), which is a member of the original task force and provides monitoring for many HDFCs, says while it’s true the new resale prices will not allow residents to purchase units of equivalent size in New York City’s private market, price caps still allow families to make a large return on their initial investment. (The return would be higher for the building’s original tenants, but much less for purchasers who bought after the building’s conversion.**)

And he says that though HDFC families may not make the same kind of whopping return as market-rate homeowners, they still reap many benefits from being shareholders. As rents have risen in the surrounding neighborhood, shareholders have become some of the least cost-burdened New Yorkers and are able to invest those savings in sending their children to college, opening their own businesses, and other purposes, he adds.

“It’s understandable that people want to get everything they can get out of it,” Reicher says. “But there’s someone else who wants to retire with an affordable place to live.” An HDFC owner might find, Reicher adds, that “a lot of his colleagues who are retiring behind him will have no such opportunity.”

Samantha Kattan, UHAB’s assistant director of organizing and policy, recognizes the amount of labor and resources invested by shareholders in the past and the need for HPD to amp up its support to HDFCs going forward. But she says it’s not wise for buildings to rely on the random event of an apartment sale for revenue. Instead, HDFCs can take advantage of HPD’s new Green Preservation Loan program, among other available benefits.

In addition, although she thinks that the city’s monitoring requirement could be revised to be less onerous, she thinks its an important part of the regulation because buildings with monitors would have an easier time getting bank loans. (And that monitoring requirement could create more competition for UHAB, not necessarily help UHAB get more business as a monitor, she says.)

Affordable housing advocates also reject the argument that imposing price restrictions is unfair and unexpected, given that HDFCs are incorporated under the state’s Private Housing Finance law, which defines HDFCs as an affordable housing resource for low-income families, and most HDFCs have received tax abatements for years due to their special status.

(Granted, the state does not define “low-income,” leaving it up to local housing agencies to define that term, and in the past, HPD has said the HDFC program can arguing serve families making up to $134,640. That’s left foes and friends of a price cap debating who the program should serve.)

UHAB and other advocates do seek revisions to the proposed rules, including an even lower price cap. UHAB points out that the federal definition of “low income” includes households of three making less than 80 percent Area Median Income. In the New York City metropolitan area, 80 percent AMI is $65,250, though median incomes are actually much lower in many of the neighborhoods where HDFCs are located. UHAB would like to see prices affordable to families making between $48, 960 and $65,250—around $100,000 to $250,000 per apartment, which they say is within the price range of many HDFC units on the market, even in buildings without price caps.

In addition, advocates think the city needs to provide greater rewards to HDFCs to incentivize shareholders to adopt the new regulatory agreement, including a 100 percent property tax exemption not only for low-valued coops, as currently proposed, but for the higher-value coops in gentrified neighborhoods that have the most reason to leave the program.

Furthermore, advocates say the city could consider offering different percentages of property tax abatement according to the depth of the resale price cap agreed to.

“This was the worst housing in New York City and it was given to the lowest-income people who were living there and they’ve taken good care of it and have provided the city with an amazing resource and they need to be rewarded…but they need to be brought into the city’s effort to preserve for the next generation housing affordable to people like them,” Reicher says.

Pulling up the ladder

It is likely that HPD’s proposed agreement will not be approved in its current form. This week, seven City Council members sent a letter to HPD Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer asking for HPD to “halt the process to move forward with the Regulatory agreement to ensure real meaningful input from current HDFC stakeholders.” The council members, including Margaret Chin, Corey Johnson, Rosie Mendez, Daniel Garodnick, Ben Kallos, Mark Levine and Ydanis Rodriguez, expressed concern that the regulatory agreement had been crafted without significant input from HDFC stakeholders, that the regulation was “one-size-fits-all,” that additional restrictions could hurt stakeholders’ leveraging ability, among other concerns.

Asked to respond to the letter, HPD emphasized that the regulation is still only a proposal, but stood by its intentions.

“Unless we take steps to protect our stock of HDFC coops, we risk losing one of the most valuable sources of affordable homeownership in the city,” says Elizabeth Rohlfing, a spokesperson for HPD. “The goal of the agency’s proposal is to get struggling HDFCs on solid footing, while ensuring the long-term affordability of all HDFCs that are so critical to the stability and diversity of our neighborhoods.”

Critics of the proposed regulatory agreement are likely to see the City Council’s letter as a step toward victory. Those who support the proposal say more community input and revision is a good idea, but they dispute the councilmembers’ claims that more regulation could hurt shareholders’ leveraging ability. They also hope that the creation of a new regulatory agreement won’t be postponed indefinitely. If more units are sold for whopping prices as the city delays action, it will be less and less easy for City Council to justify extending any sort of property tax to HDFCs beyond 2029.

And it’s not just non-profit advocates who want the city to succeed. Central Harlem shareholders Evi and Vern, who were so pleased to discover their $100,000 apartment in 2010, want generations of moderate-income families like themselves to have the same opportunity. Vern participated in the non-profit task force that suggested new regulation.*** Considering that the regulatory agreement he and Evi signed in 2010 has lower price caps than the city’s proposal, they think the city could be stricter.

Vern does hope that in addition to lowering the price caps, the city will provide training to HDFCs to improve governance, ensure easy access to competent managers, create a reasonable enforcement system, and do more to help shareholders pay for rising maintenance and repair costs—especially for the original tenants.

“The original people who have been here, a lot of them…suffer the most because their income doesn’t keep up with the increases we have to do each year,” Evi says.

Sitting in their now renovated apartment, which with its splendid view and light might make a fortune on the private market, they compare the sales prices allowed. If they chose to sell in 20 years, their regulatory agreement would permit them to resell their $100,000 apartment for about $350,000; under the city’s proposal they could have sold for $1.1 million (though in the city’s proposal, a greater share of the profit would go back to the building).

According to HPD, if the new regulatory agreement were passed, it would not supersede the 2010 regulatory agreement in Evi and Vern’s building. Still, the idea that shareholders in other buildings will be able to sell for such high prices is a cause for concern to Evi and Vern.

“The only people who are really going to be able to afford it are people who have parents who are wealthy, or retirees, you know who have savings, or someone who won a lottery,” Vern says, adding, “for me, this is like pulling up the ladder up behind us.”

*Correction: Originally implied that HDFCs currently sell at market rates, and that HDFC Coalition members believe they should be able to sell their apartments at market rates. In fact, existing income restrictions have a dampening effect on HDFC sales prices, and the Coalition supports the program’s current income restrictions.
**Correction: Originally implied that all HDFC shareholders would still be able to make a good return on their investment under the new price caps. The return would vary greatly, however, depending on whether the shareholder was an original tenant or bought after the building’s conversion.
***Clarification: Updated to clarify that Vern was one of the few shareholders on the task force.

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City Limits coverage of housing policy is supported by the New York Community Trust and the Charles H. Revson Foundation.

11 thoughts on “City Pushes to Regulate Low-Income Coops Amid Some Shareholders’ Opposition

  1. As an HDFC shareholder who has attended a number of public meetings on this issue, I can report that I have not heard of a single HDFC that would consider signing on to this agreement as it is. Therefore, rather than preserving affordable housing, under this proposal HDFCs that don’t agree to these ruinous provisions will be left in a kind of limbo, with no real incentive to maintain the homes as affordable. Most HDFCs are committed to their mission and would likely continue as before, but market forces might eventually prevail. The city must stick to its original agreements with HDFCs: leave the DAMP tax cap as it is, and only intervene in cases where HDFCs are in trouble. This proposal would hurt thousands of low- and middle-income New York homeowners who bought their units in good faith, and do the most damage to the most vulnerable existing homeowners.

  2. It is important to note that there are major problems with forcing these buildings to pay for monitors and managers, many of whom have proven to be bad managers, and some, dishonest ones. There is no HPD staff to hold managers accountable and no way for HDFCs to protect themselves from bad management other than paying for lawyers, an added expense. My HDFC has fired four managing companies over the the last several years and in the end managing the building ourselves was healthier for us. Also note that UHAB is not a disinterested party, since they would be one of those managers and/or monitors. Having lost a long term contract with the city last year, they need this proposal to go through. The fact is that the vast majority of HDFC apartments have not sold. Original shareholders who have put in 30 years of more of sweat equity in their apartments and coops are forced by this proposal to turn over that equity to new buyers.

  3. I live in an HDFC Co-op for 30 years. Our story is compelling. There were no floors, no roof, and no systems. The building had a giant X on it as condemned. We replaced over 30 wood beems , the steel , electric , plumbing, everything . Took us over three years to make habitable. Then police raids mistakenly raided my apartment with my infant son in my hands instead of the correct address of crack dealers next door. The police department apologized and I accepted.
    Mayor de Blasio had been a wonderful mayor on many issues. Rent stabilization is now only 1% a year for the past 2 years, free after school for all middle school students, Pre K for all , ending stop and frisk the list goes on . Yet, this proposal is far too complicated and will never reach its goal. It will have unintended consequences of actually hurting home ownership and stable communities. The HDFC residents who this is targeted are actually the back bone of many communities.
    The best way to do affordable housing is to reenergize the Mitchell Lama program. The former administration ended much of it. Time to build not take away hard fought efforts of working New Yorkers. Take this proposal off the table and rework it for a new generation.

  4. At the end of the day… for those who are designated “poor” “low income” etc. are not considered as equal members of “society”. The desires of the elitists plutocrats, aristocrats, reign supreme. In the name of “affordable housing” concepts and definitions such as low income, poor, poverty, disadvantaged, have been taken out of the lexicon. It is evident that in general society is ruled by sociopaths and psychopaths with various degrees of greed and need for power and control. Its the same generation of BS from generation to generation. How much can achieved with the ends justifying the means is the hallmark of the cultural thesis which lies at the core of America’s claim to being a democratic society. At the end of the day, greed vs. need. America is good at pointing the finger at the short comings of other nations, societies in the world…. It is time for America to look at itself… To be concise.. if we lived in a society which is base on justice, equality, and freedom….This article would not have been published….

    • I stumbled upon this article, and I’m surprised. I organized the building at 86 W 119th Street for four years while we went through rehab, unit sales, and co-op conversion. My comments are less about the very necessary conversation regarding resale restrictions, HDFC monitors, (lack of / too much) City support, wealth creation, politics, etc etc., and more about the way this property was presented as a case study. If it was meant to illustrate this topic, in my opinion, it was poorly chosen and presented.

      I believe it’s important to root this conversation in specific and correct information. Pulling from the publicly available record on ACRIS BBL 1717/69, (I encourage people to get familiar with how to use this publicly available tool! Google Oasis map and enter your address if you don’t know your buildings block and lot), the building was transferred from the private owner to Neighborhood Restore in 2001, and later to a combination of Settlement Housing and UHAB (SHUHAB) in 2004. Meaning: landlord out in 2001, not 2010. The property then went through an admittedly too long slog through an extensive stabilization and rehabilitation. During this time and the active existing resident body (the ones who went through the “hole in the roof” days) took several training courses while the property was rehabbed line by line. The final stage of this project involved them organizing a shareholder selection committee and selling to “outsiders,” who purchased and moved in to rehabbed apartments in a rehabbed building in late 2013. This is when Vern and Evi, along with about a dozen other families, moved into the 37(ish?) unit building. See, there were twelve years between the old landlord and the new people purchasing, and during those twelve years a lot happened.

      To me as a reader, this article presents 2010 like a pivot point. It was not. That type of thing is more consistent with the TIL or squat co-ops of the 70s, 80s, 90s, not the TPT co-ops of later years, the HDFCs that often contain stricter resale restrictions. These clarifications do make a difference when considering how to value “sweat equity,” who deserves what when it comes to capitalistic wealth creation vs. decommodification of housing as a human right (the far poles, with many possible points along the spectrum available), etc. The story of HDFC Co-ops is varied, and so are the housing law and general regulations that accompany them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing or a mistake. The history of HDFCs and HDFC owners in New York is fascinating and super varied.

      I have nothing but fondness and respect for the residents on 119th street, Vern and Evi in particular, and I’m sure that no one there would intentionally provide a misleading narrative. There’s a team of three individuals working on this City Limits story, and though I generally respect City Limits as a publication, this story was disappointingly researched and I don’t think it shed much light on delineating complex HDFC issues. Many things were not clearly or correctly stated, and not just about this specific project. I would encourage the authors to start by familiarizing themselves with the basic tools surrounding understanding property history if they continue to write on these topics as I hope they will. There are several training on things like how to read ACRIS records available for free through the Association for Neighborhood Development, ANHD.

  5. There are currently NO homeownership programs coming from HPD. 99% of HPDs development resources go to rental housing. The HDFC issue needs detailed study of all long term effects of a new regulatory scheme. The initial intent was to reduce the number of buildings coming into HPDs management; in many cases this was done with lax supervision of tenants (board members). These buildings shifted responsibility but did not adequately address the long term impact. HPD is now embarking on the same path 30 years later. HPD take time to study each building and propose/amend regulations on a case by case basis. It will take more time, but your future staff and homeowners will be happy not to go through this again in 2050 when the policy winds shift again.

    • As a shareholder at a recently reformed HDFC, I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. To take our own co-op as an example, in 2012, we were over a half million dollars in debt to the city, mostly property tax debt. The co-op was being run by a predatory management company that only cared about writing itself a check once each month, and hiring out jobs to its “preferred” vendors etc.

      A small group of shareholders organized, held board elections and took the reigns. First thing they did was meet with HPD to see how HPD might be able to help. At the time, HPD said “sorry, you’re on your own.” So they fired the bad management company and hired a good one. They worked out a real budget, they raised maintenance to meet operating expenses and they put together a plan to get the building out of debt. Most importantly, they started holding regular meetings of all shareholders and got everyone to buy into the vision. It wasn’t easy! But they slowly but surely turned things around.

      Five years later our HDFC is out of debt with a healthy reserve fund and we are meeting all of our operating expenses. When something breaks, it gets fixed. The hallways are clean. Our board meets every month and our shareholders meet at least once per quarter. We hold annual elections, and our shareholders are kept up to date with frequent mailings and newsletters.

      We did all of this ON OUR OWN. We continue to adhere to ALL of the rules set forth in our conversion documents, including strictly enforcing income restrictions on resales etc.

      My point is: Isn’t this precisely what the city wanted when they designed this program? A very healthy, self-governing low-income co-op? We continue to get a tax abatement due to our corporate status and our enforcing of the income restrictions etc., but other than that, we are not costing the city and its taxpayers anything else! We don’t require a monitor, and that should be seen as a GOOD thing. That should be the goal for ALL of these buildings.

      We will not sign on to the new RA. Even though we agree with nearly everything proposed in it, we simply have not had good experiences when forced to work with the city as partners. They don’t do a good job and they don’t pay attention to the specifics and the subtleties of our HDFC. So we would rather pay a bit more in taxes than be forced into a relationship with the city like that.

  6. The authors of this article need to do some basic fact checking. The claim that units have been sold to “asset rich” middle income buyers for “millions of dollars” is a political one made up by HPD to justify the regulatory agreement, which further is De Blasio’s last ditch effort to create affordable housing on the backs of middle and low income New Yorkers. Perhaps “asset rich” means that after 20 years of saving, you can afford a down payment on an apartment, or that you have a retirement account. Vern and Evi’s story is atypical since they are in a new HDFC. I love in a HDFC coop (btw I work for the city as a community college professor so I guess that makes me “asset rich” ) that is in good financial shape after many years of struggle, well maintained, and well managed. The regulatory agreement would undo years of hard work and the loss of the tax break would affect low income residents adversely. The apartments in my buildings are large and when an original owner leaves they require huge investments on the part of shareholders because the individual units have not been maintained. Is the city ready to subsidize these improvements for those who do not have the income to make them? I agree with an earlier comment that the city should put its efforts elsewhere, especially into the Mitchell Lama program because these apartments are money pits. As far as I know, shareholders have shown huge opposition to this plan (not “some” as the article maintains) and it has not fallen on sympathetic ears. Mayor De Blasio has lost my vote in the next election.

    • Agreed. Although I’m sure there are isolated cases where apartments sell for “millions,” this is simply not the case in the vast vast majority of HDFC sales. It seems like propaganda meant to sell the public on the idea that the beneficiaries of these resales are greedy profiteers. Doesn’t leave a good taste in the mouth that the city is resorting to such tactics. Less reason for people living in HDFCs to trust that HPD indeed has their best interests at heart.

      The cynic in me tells me this entire endeavor is heavily influenced by De Blasio’s reelection ambitions. But I’m sorry, we will be living in these buildings long after Bill De Blasio becomes a footnote in our city’s history books.

  7. There is a recent court decision from the Appellate division first department that decided that original shareholders have to income qualify (again) when a co-shareholder dies (both names on lease and stock certificate), in order to have the remaining shares transferred to the existing shareholder (even with a Will). If you don’t income “qualify” , 20 or 30 years later you can now be forced to sell and basically be displaced from your home. Most people do not have the same income from 20 or more years ago. This decision makes no sense and impacts all HDFC shareholders throughout the city, as now Board’s and the city can potentially use this decision to get rid of shareholders already in possession of the apt for years as an existing shareholder. Shareholders can now be forced from their homes and neighborhoods that they have occupied and lived in for 20, 30 and 40 years. We can thank Deblasio for his fight against HDFCS and the attorney who blindly pursued this in court and for a court with a political agenda.

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