|Steve Finkelstein bought the Milbank buildings|
back in April, under intense scrutiny.
(Photo: Jordon Moss)
The plight of the Milbank tenants, as the group came to be known, captured the attention of countless city groups, the mayor, the City Council and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), all of which vowed to monitor the new owner to make sure conditions at the buildings improved immediately. Finkelstein, a Scarsdale-based landlord who owns dozens other of Bronx buildings, bought the properties for $28 million at the end of April after months of negotiations with tenants and the city.
Today, things seem to be going according to plan—or, according to some, even better than planned.
“It’s pretty strong work,” said HPD spokesman Eric Bederman, who said the 10 buildings, which had 4,805 housing code violations between them when Finkelstein took over, now have just 1,838.
“The new owner and his workmen are fantastic,” said Gloria Thomas, who has lived at 2505 Aqueduct Ave. for nearly 30 years. “I’m very, very pleased with everything going on with Finkelstein. They’re working on all the apartments diligently.”
On a recent visit, Thomas’ building and two others nearby—2500 University Ave. and 75 W. 190th St.—were a whirl of construction, smelling of sawdust and wet paint as work crews outfitted apartments with new parquet wood floors and kitchen tiles.
The improvements are a sea change for many tenants here, who say they’d fought for the past several years to secure basic amenities like hot water and locks on the front door. Now, security cameras monitor nearly every floor.
“People feel a lot safer now,” said Rev. Peter Silva, a longtime tenant at the Aqueduct Avenue building who heads the Northwest Bronx Tenants Association Coalition, representing all 10 properties.
But while Silva and others are quick to praise, longtime tenants at some of Finkelstein’s other buildings say he’s not the hero landlord he’s been lauded as in the press.
“I was so disgusted,” said Rebecca Nival, who lives at 1460 Macombs Rd., which Finkelstein has owned since the late 1960s. “Here he is, being glorified for buying these buildings and fixing them up, when he can’t even take care of the buildings he already owns.”
Nival and other tenants formed their own tenants’ association, organizing against what they say is a lack of responsiveness from Finkelstein. The building, according to HPD’s website, has 104 open housing violations—not great, but not a huge amount in terms of New York City buildings.
The biggest problem, said tenant Shahid Van, is that their rent has gone up four times since 2004 through the Major Capital Improvement (MCI) program, which lets landlords hike rents at regulated apartments to cover the costs of building-wide renovations.
“Whenever he gets close to finishing one MCI, he’ll start another one up,” Nival said, saying Finkelstein makes unneeded renovations while ignoring other problems tenants would rather see addressed.
Grace Torres, a longtime tenant at 111 E. 167th St., another Finkelstein property, has been fighting the MCI increases in court. She says renovations to her apartment several years ago caused her ceiling to collapse and left her without a working bathroom for weeks.
“I’m not paying these rent increases,” she said. “He turned my apartment into a construction site.”
In a phone interview, Finkelstein said the MCI projects he’s undertaken were necessary to the upkeep of the properties.
“Tenants, obviously, don’t want to pay increases,” he said. “But if you let the buildings get older and older, they’re just going to get worse…the alternative would be just letting the buildings deteriorate.”
Kerri White, an organizer for the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, one of the groups advocating on behalf of Milbank tenants, said they’d looked into Finkelstein’s other properties when he first proposed buying the buildings and found that he fell along the “middle ground,” as far as landlords go—some of his buildings had higher violation counts, others had very few.
“We weren’t exactly rejoicing when we heard the news,” she said. “But the Milbank tenants were stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Bederman, from HPD, said the city vetted Finkelstein and found most of his 31 other Bronx buildings to be in good repair.
“That’s one of the things that we actually found very encouraging—that he already had a large portfolio in the area and knew how to run it,” he said.
As part of the deal when he purchased the properties, Finkelstein is required to stick to a strict timeline for repairing the buildings, is blocked from raising rents based on MCI projects for the first two years and agreed to waive rent arrears for existing tenants.
Tenants’ association president Silva says he’s optimistic about the future of the buildings—even after the media attention and city scrutiny dies down.
“I’m confident in Finkelstein’s promise,” he said. “I’ve told him, and I’ve said this to him before: I’m not going anywhere. I will be here. And if there are any discrepancies, we’ll start this whole thing all over again.”