New York City’s new housing commissioner is returning to public office after a years-long stint working with a quick-to-evict Bronx developer recently subject to a state investigation, raising concerns among tenants and advocates in the borough.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Adolfo Carrión Jr. at a press conference with Mayor Eric Adams on Jan. 30, 2022.

New York City’s new housing commissioner is returning to public office after a years-long stint working with a quick-to-evict Bronx developer recently subject to a state investigation, raising concerns among tenants and advocates in the borough.

Mayor Eric Adams named Adolfo Carrión Jr., a former councilmember and Bronx borough president, as commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) last month. Carrión spent the past seven years as a top executive and senior consultant for the Stagg Group, a firm whose subsidiaries sued to evict 402 households between March 2020 and September 2021. The state’s eviction moratorium and rent relief fund protected those tenants, but the filings earned CEO Mark Stagg the dubious title of New York City’s 11th “worst evictor” in an annual list compiled by the organizations Just Fix, the Right-To-Counsel Coalition and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. The company has evicted 101 households since 2017, court records show.

In recent years, Stagg Group has also faced scrutiny following complaints of unsafe conditions and slow repairs at its properties, triggering a 2019 investigation by state health and housing agencies at 32 of Stagg Group’s nearly 150 buildings. That probe ultimately turned up violations at 30 of the sites, which state housing officials ordered the company to resolve. A Stagg spokesperson said the firm “applauded the state for the thoroughness of the investigation” and acted to address the issues. Stagg has since filed hundreds of eviction cases to compel tenants who owed rent to seek and receive rental assistance through the state’s pandemic aid program, the spokesperson added.

The company is now facing seven lawsuits claiming that toxic mold in one seven-year-old complex is threatening the health of tenants, including young children.

As HPD commissioner, Carrión will be tasked with maintaining and paving the way for sorely needed affordable housing in New York City, which means working closely with developers and management companies. He will also oversee enforcement of housing code violations, like the problems that triggered the 2019 probe.

Stagg tenants and local advocates question whether Carrión will prioritize accountability for developers like Stagg, which provide housing for low- and middle-income New Yorkers.

“How are you going to be a part of something that’s supposed to help people when you’re not even helping your tenants?” said Kimina Baylli, a pediatric dental assistant at Montefiore Medical Center facing eviction from a 122-unit Stagg complex on Webster Avenue in The Bronx.

Advocates say the development company’s operating tactics are representative of an industry where property owners squeeze profits from working class renters while receiving generous public subsidies, low-cost financing and tax breaks.

“They’re certainly working their hardest to get every penny from the folks who live there,” said Sally Dunford, the former executive director of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center. “They’re certainly there to make a profit.”

Carrión joined the Stagg Group as executive vice president in 2014, before shifting two years later to a “senior development consultant” role through his real estate firm MetroFutures LLC, according to Stagg Group and Carrión’s LinkedIn profile. He continued consulting for the group until his appointment to lead HPD last month, meaning his time with Stagg coincided with the company’s major expansion across The Bronx.

To Adams—who called Carrión and new Chief Housing Officer Jessica Katz, the “Lebron James and Steph Curry” of affordable housing at a January press conference—those industry ties are an asset.

“As commissioner, Adolfo Carrión will be hyper focused on ensuring New Yorkers have safe, high-quality housing they can afford,” said a City Hall spokesperson when asked about Stagg’s eviction practices and the state investigation.

“He has a proven record of holding bad landlords accountable and is deeply committed to continuing that work at HPD,” the spokesperson added.

Tenant complaints lead to state probe

Baylli moved into one of the three buildings that comprise Bedford Park Manor in 2015, soon after the complex along Webster Avenue opened. She said she was excited to move with her teenage daughters into a brand new building that promised front-desk security.

“I jumped out of my car when I saw there were openings,” she said of her first time driving past the building. She said she put down a $5,000 deposit to secure a unit.

Within a week of moving in, mice started scurrying into her apartment through a poorly constructed kitchen cabinet. Two months later, there was a leak in her bathroom, she said. The front desk security never materialized.

By the time the building opened, Carrión was an executive vice president with Stagg, helping to secure permits for large-scale projects throughout the borough. He certainly had the connections: After serving three years as Bronx Borough President, Carrión stepped down to become President Barack Obama’s urban affairs director and later an official in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He launched a third-party candidacy for mayor in 2013 before withdrawing from the race.

“I believe the best way to stop the cycle of failed neighborhood revitalization efforts is to work with homegrown developers who understand and are part of the communities where they are building,” Carrión said in a 2014 statement announcing his new role with Stagg.

Four years after Bedford Park Manor opened, with Carrión now in a consulting role, reports of black mold, pest infestations, broken doors and crime prompted then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo to order an investigation into Stagg Group and its subsidiary Five Stars Management. Complaints of poor conditions at Stagg buildings were documented for months by the local outlet Norwood News and later in multiple reports by the New York Daily News.

Officials from the state Health Department and the Division of Homes and Community Renewal (HCR)’s Office of Rent Administration conducted physical inspections at 32 Stagg-owned buildings between October and December 2019, and ordered the landlord to correct problems at 30 of them. Investigators returned in February and March 2020 and determined that Stagg had fixed the problems in 26 buildings. Tenants did not allow inspectors to enter units in the other four and the cases were closed, an HCR spokesperson said.

The agency also issued $10,500 in civil penalties to Stagg Group.

“New York State has zero tolerance for landlords who unlawfully harass tenants, and HCR is committed to protecting the rights of rent regulated tenants by enforcing and administering the law as enacted by the legislature and interpreted by the courts,” an HCR spokesperson told City Limits.

The inspections and modest financial penalty seemed to have had an impact. Stagg Group’s nearly 2,400 units now account for 372 open HPD violations, building records show. That rate of 0.2 violations per unit is lower than the city average, according to Just Fix, which compiles building records and complaint histories.

“Our practices at Bedford Park Manor and at all our properties are among the best in class,” said a company spokesperson. “We applaud the State for the thoroughness of the investigation which included all the properties in our portfolio. This investigation yielded a small number of violations which were quickly remedied.”

Baylli, however, said poor conditions have persisted in her apartment since the state investigation. She and tenants in six other households sued Stagg and Five Stars to remove toxic mold from their walls in 2020 and 2021. Four other households are also planning to sue, but must first compile medical documentation showing the impact of mold, said their attorney Paul Campson.

On Friday, Baylli showed City Limits gaps in the cabinets where mice enter her fourth-floor apartment and pointed out where she recently scrubbed mold from the bathroom ceiling.

A Stagg Group spokesperson, John Van Dekker, blamed the mold on excess moisture in the bathrooms and said maintenance staff determined that tenants could prevent the blooms by regularly using their ventilation fans.

“As an advocate for affordable housing, we are proud of the very low rate of violations in our portfolio of properties, which is a small fraction of the average of our NYC peers,” Van Dekker said. “We work diligently to maintain the highest possible standard of housing for our tenants, and we believe our record is a testament to that reality.”

Baylli is also working with an attorney from the organization Mobilization For Justice to fight a nonpayment eviction case she said resulted from a years-old rent overcharge. After a previous nonpayment settlement, the Stagg subsidiary that runs the building, Tyler’s Bronx Tunnel LLC, issued her a rent breakdown that was $3,299 too high, said Baylli and her attorney Bijoux Shayer-Altamarino. Baylli fell behind on rent while trying to get the property owner to correct the overcharge and had her arrears covered by the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) in September. After the landlord received the rent relief check, Shayer-Altamarino advised Baylli to withhold her payments until the overcharge was resolved.

Stagg Group sent her another eviction notice last month, but the company’s attorney acknowledged the overcharge during a settlement conference, Shayer-Altamarino said. The landlord’s attorney did not respond to City Limits’ phone calls and emails seeking comment.

Baylli said she has the money to pay the actual rental amount she owes once the overcharge issue is resolved, but said the company has been cutting corners since the building opened. “I just want them to do the right thing by their tenants,” she said.

Shayer-Altamarino said she feared other residents are facing similar administrative problems that could result in an eviction notice. “She had to get a lawyer to be able to get them to make the change,” she said.

Zxavier Simpson, another Bedford Park Manor renter, organized a tenant association at the complex and created a Facebook group for residents to post complaints and share resources. He said Friday that he has been staying at his sister’s apartment in Manhattan because the mold had become too unbearable inside his unit.

“They don’t do anything for their tenants,” Simpson said. “All they do is want to raise people’s rent. They don’t want to fix anything.”

Inside the Bedford Park Manor complex Friday, tenants shared contrasting experiences. Two people exiting the building said they have never had major problems in their apartment. 

“I call them and they come to make repairs,” said one woman in Spanish, adding that she lived in the building for three years.

“It’s quiet. No problems,” said another man riding the elevator to his seventh-floor apartment.

Up on the seventh floor, another tenant, Ana Sanchez, said she and her mother are eager to move out. The hallway outside the apartment smelled like a dead animal. “They’re not responsive,” she said. “If something is fixed, it’s because they got a ticket—someone called 311 or there was an investigation.”

Conditions did improve following the 2019 state inspection, she said, but she thought she and her mother deserved more responsive management in exchange for their nearly $2,000-a-month rent.

In response to questions about tenant complaints, Stagg Group defended its practices and said the eviction filings were a necessary tool for obtaining payment.

“We at the Stagg Group deeply care about our residents. For those who have fallen behind in rent since the COVID-19 crisis began, we have worked hard to help them resolve rent arrears,” said Van Dekker, the company spokesperson.

Van Dekker said Stagg staff worked with tenants to file more than 300 applications for the state’s pandemic rent relief program, ERAP, which covers up to a year of back rent for low- and middle-income households affected by the COVID crisis.

“These undertakings helped hundreds of tenants receive the relief requested,” he said. “Our mission is to ensure that people have access to safe, affordable, high quality housing. We believe in being part of the solution not part of the problem.”

Van Dekker said Stagg initiated non-payment proceedings to enable tenants to qualify for financial relief. “Eviction is and always should be a last resort,” he added.

Tenants did not have to submit an eviction notice to access ERAP relief for their landlords, however. And the substantial number of eviction filings did not sit well with JustFix Executive Director Georges Clement, who served on Adams’ transition team.

“Any eviction is violence,” Clement said. “The trend that the worst evictors list highlights is the need for greater eviction protections and we all hope this administration supports tenant protections at a moment when there is very much still a public health crisis.”

Adi Talwar

A Stagg Group-owned apartment building on Webster Avenue in The Bronx.

Expanding in The Bronx

Since its founding in 1996, Stagg Group has grown its portfolio to include nearly 150 buildings accounting for just under 2,400 units in The Bronx, along with properties in Westchester County. The company started out by developing small- and mid-sized buildings, and hired Carrión as it sought to create more lucrative large-scale projects, its CEO said at the time. 

The strategy worked. Since Carrión came on board, the politically connected firm has constructed major market-rate and mixed-income complexes throughout the northern portion of The Bronx, usually with substantial tax abatements attached. 

The majority of Stagg’s buildings qualify for 421-a tax breaks, according to building records compiled by JustFix. Participants in the 421-a program must set aside a portion of their units for people earning a percentage of the area median income (AMI), though those rates can still price out lower-income residents. Stagg has also benefited from the 421-a program on at least one building it chose to turn into a temporary homeless shelter.

Stagg now has various other projects in the works, including a 474-unit residential complex along Whitlock Avenue, a 70-unit building on Webster Avenue and a 71-unit high-rise on Riverdale Avenue. 

A City Hall spokesperson said Carrión has no financial stake in Stagg or the company’s projects that will come before HPD or the Housing Development Corporation. Before taking office earlier this month, he suspended his work with MetroFutures LLC, he wrote on LinkedIn, and he ended his consultant relationship with Stagg, City Hall said.

MetroFutures has also done business with Best Development Group and the shelter provider Acacia Network, which operates supportive housing units in Stagg buildings and has faced scrutiny of its own in recent years. 

‘Par for the course’

The profit-driven affordable housing industry has gained renewed attention since a fire in an affordable Bronx high-rise killed 17 tenants and displaced dozens more. 

New York City and state, like governments across the country, have attempted to incentivize affordable development and preservation with lucrative subsidies and tax abatements. Over the past two decades, the industry has seen the emergence of remote capital, with private equity investors bundling large building portfolios and attempting to extract as much revenue as possible. At the same time, some locally-based landlords who own low-income housing in The Bronx maintain egregious, and at times deadly, conditions

Compared to the worst offenders, Stagg buildings aren’t so bad, say Bronx-based tenant advocates. Still, they have been the target of tenant organizing by groups like CASA-New Settlement and a subject of several local community board meetings. Their practices seem to be “industry standard” among developers in the borough, said Dunford, the former head of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center.

She said large property owners across The Bronx attempt to keep repair and staffing costs down so they can squeeze more money from their portfolios. Stagg seems no different, she said.

“They’re not the world’s worst, but that doesn’t mean they’re wonderful either,” she said. “‘Par for the course’ is a good way to describe it.”

Former Bronx Community Board 7 Chair Jean Hill said she has fielded many complaints from Stagg Group tenants over the years and has met with CEO Mark Stagg to encourage the company to address problems and repairs. 

“He would swear it would always be taken care of and they’d fix some of the problems,” Hill said. “And then they’d think they could get away with not taking care of others.”

She said Carrión was the “point person” for the company at community board meetings, where tenants would complain about the unresolved problems, like the issues that triggered the state investigation.

Like Dunford, Hill said the company did not stand out as a shockingly bad landlord but seemed to cut corners and do patch jobs on deeper problems. 

“They have a messy track record,” Hill said. “They’re in the middle rung.”

Stagg Group has its share of supporters, however. A 2015 profile by the website YIMBY portrayed the company as a civic-minded developer committed to building middle-income housing in The Bronx. Various Bronx elected officials, including new Borough President Vanessa Gibson, have appeared with Mark Stagg to hand out turkeys around Thanksgiving 

And even critics acknowledge that the market-rate and affordable apartments that the company creates are desperately needed during a severe low-cost housing crunch. The median household income in The Bronx is just over $40,000—between 30 and 40 percent AMI for a family of three—according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only 16 percent of units across the borough were priced at levels affordable to people earning 30 percent of AMI ($32,220 for a family of three), data compiled by the Furman Center shows. 

When Bedford Park Manor opened its income-restricted housing lottery, 50,000 New Yorkers applied for just 25 apartments—a mix of one- and two-bedrooms priced for households earning about $50,000 a year.

“The demand is so unbelievable,” Carrión told the Daily News in 2015.

Carrión carries government and private-sector knowledge

Carrión took office on Feb. 7, less than two weeks after a press conference at City Hall announcing his appointment. His hiring earned praise from leaders like Attorney General Letitia James. 

“Adolfo has a keen understanding of the issues affecting our neighborhoods, particularly the urgent need for safe, affordable housing for New Yorkers,” she said in a January statement.

The appointment also renewed scrutiny of some of Carrión’s past development-related decisions.

He was forced to pay a $10,000 fine after the Conflict of Interests Board determined that he accepted free home remodeling from an architect involved in a team seeking city approval for a large residential project in Melrose in 2007. Carrión was Bronx borough president at the time and signed off on the project.

He opted not to reappoint community board members who opposed his preferred plan to build the new Yankee Stadium in 2006. And he has been accused of cherry-picking friendly nonprofit groups to serve on a task force charged with crafting a community benefits agreement around the redevelopment of the Bronx Terminal Market in 2006.

Those stances hardly seem to reflect a community-focused outlook on development, said John Fisher, a renter and activist who runs the website 

“Getting someone who is in bed with developers and not holding them accountable, that’s a problem,” Fisher said.

Nevertheless, Carrión comes to the role with a keen awareness of city government and the affordable housing industry.

Advocates have long urged HPD and other city agencies to take a harder-line stance against property owners who exploit their tenants, cut corners or foster dangerous living conditions, even as they benefit from taxpayer dollars. The commissioner role demands the kind of knowledge that Carrión possesses—as well as a commitment to beefing up COVID-depleted enforcement and penalizing tenants rights violators, said Housing Justice For All organizer Cea Weaver.

“The HPD commissioner needs to understand the affordable housing industry, but so much of the affordable housing industry is characterized by unsafe living conditions and lots of evictions,” Weaver said. 

“It’s concerning if people who have the interests of the property developers are running the agency and not the interests of those who are living in the buildings,” she added.