18, No. 25
Jan. 11, 2006
Full Court Press
Pinnacle Sues Hundreds Of Bronx Tenants
By HEATHER HADDON
A controversial management
company has taken hundreds of tenants to housing court at an extraordinary
pace since purchasing dozens of Bronx buildings last year, according to
The Pinnacle Group has initiated over 1,509 cases against Bronx residents in
31 buildings since early last year, with many of the lawsuits filed just
weeks after the company purchased the properties.
Bronx housing court records are kept on an outdated computer that is
difficult to navigate, but two searches by the Norwood News found
that the vast majority of cases are unique actions against individual
tenants. The properties included 1,929 units, meaning that Pinnacle has sued
as many as three-quarters of these tenants.
“It’s very suspicious,” said Louise Seeley, director of the City-Wide Task
Force on Housing Court, a city advocacy group.
The majority of cases are for back rents ranging from several hundred
dollars to $3,000. Residents paid up in some incidences, but other cases
were dismissed or never resolved.
“Either there are lots of really bad tenants, or the landlord is really
aggressive and wants to get people out,” said Joe Lamport, another Task
Tenants insist it’s the latter. The company, which is run by investor Joel
Wiener, has scooped up hundreds of buildings in low-income areas citywide.
Many of the deals were financed by Praedium Group, a real estate investment
fund whose goal is to capitalize on properties through “strategic capital
improvements and proactive leasing,” according to the company’s Web site.
Pinnacle makes certain infrastructure improvements on the buildings after
purchasing them, and Wiener says they are working to bring back neglected
properties. But tenants charge they are being slapped with fabricated fees
and trumped-up Major Capital Improvement costs to increase the rent rolls
and drive them out. Tenants in Bronx and Manhattan Pinnacle buildings report
these trends, as the Norwood News has documented in three previous articles.
Taking tenants to court is expensive — costing anywhere from a couple of
hundred to thousands of dollars a case — but the volume of litigation
suggests that Pinnacle is making the investment in hopes of future return.
Serving court papers can be a way for landlords to usher out tenants, legal
“A lot of people get scared and simply leave their apartments,” Lamport
That’s exactly Wiener’s goal, according to a person close to the situation.
“He did not care about the legal fees,” said the source, who asked for
anonymity for fear of retribution. “His thought was ‘If I fish enough, I’ll
get enough people out. In the long run, my rent roll will go up.’”
Residents of Botanical Square, one of the eight local buildings purchased by
Pinnacle, haven’t fled yet, according to Elio Pichardo, a tenant. But
threatening letters about nonpayments have been taped on many people’s
doors, according to a resident who didn’t want her name used.
Over at 66 St. Nicholas Pl., which is part of a Harlem Pinnacle package
bought in the fall, a resident said that dispossess notices were served to a
third of the units. Tenants also received threatening letters about removing
their door mats and satellite dishes.
“Everything is do it immediately, or else,” said the tenant, who asked for
Pinnacle has also gone after tenants in the Dunbar Apartments, a large
Harlem complex. Residents and a staffer for Council Member Bill Perkins
brought up the issue with management during a meeting last month, according
to a tenant newsletter.
Wiener denied he is pushing out tenants. “We’re trying to have a stable
tenancy in each building,” he said in an interview last month.
In addition to back rent, records show that Pinnacle has disputed tenants’
residency rights in court. Some of these cases pertain to tenants housed
through social services programs, like homelessness prevention.
Wiener said that he is in negotiations with the sponsoring agencies, but
does not support the practice. “We don’t want to make the building into a
Motel 8,” he said.
The company is also very aggressive about suing residents who it claims are
living in their apartments without a proper lease, even in incidences when
there is a familial connection to the unit. “Their succession rights were
violated,” said Hazel Miura, a housing specialist working with Bronx
Other cases seem to have even less merit. Tenants report that the company is
contesting rightful residency for technicalities like rent checks with
married surnames instead of a maiden one. “They are saying that I’m not the
person who owns the apartment,” said Debbie Brown, a resident of 700
Riverside Dr., a Pinnacle building, for the past 40 years. Brown says she
made two court trips to prove her identity. “Other tenants have had to do
the same. They like to harass people,” she said.
Seeley said that taking people to court over name discrepancies was “the
most bogus claim I’ve ever heard.”
Building staff turnover
Landlords often rely on building staff to assess which
tenants aren’t leaseholders or owe rent. But Pinnacle is wiping that history
clean by terminating the previous staff —who could potentially vouch for
legitimate tenants — and hiring new people.
Wiener bought seven former Mitchell-Lamas in the Bronx in 2002, and promptly
fired the buildings’ staff and evicted them, according to a Daily News
The source familiar with Pinnacle’s practices said the workers were
aggressively forced out. “He told everyone they have half an hour to get out
… and changed all the locks,” he said. “His intent was to put his own people
The move was so egregious that the city passed a law barring new landlords
from firing exiting staff within 90 days. Some in the real estate industry
refer to it as the “Wiener Law.”
But Pinnacle appears to be flouting the new law. Gladys Criswell has been
the superintendent of 87 Ellwood St. in Inwood for the past 27 years.
Pinnacle purchased the building in October. Within three weeks, Criswell
received a letter stating she had not performed her duties satisfactorily
and was terminated.
“It’s very shady,” said Fred Criswell, her son. “They basically didn’t want
to work with her from the beginning.”
The younger Criswell said that their Pinnacle property managers never
communicated with his mother about the situation. A superintendent from a
neighboring Pinnacle building was tapped for maintenance and renovation
work. Criswell is disputing the decision in court with assistance from her
union, and is still performing her duties.
Carol Abrams, a spokesperson for the city Department of Housing,
Preservation and Development (HPD), said they are investigating Pinnacle’s
practices. “They seem to be firing superintendents in every building and are
assuming management control,” Abrams said. HPD has also filed at least three
cases against Pinnacle for serious code violations.
Once installed, the company superintendents perform everything from
custodial duties to major renovations that require a contractor’s license.
“They do electrical work, plumbing work,” said Kim Powell, a resident of a
Pinnacle building on 706 Riverside Dr. “They set up a whole laundry room
without a permit. It’s substandard work.”
Ernestine Temple, who lives in the same building, said their efforts were
shoddy and potentially dangerous. “They ran new pipes in five apartments
without treating the asbestos in the walls,” said Temple, who alleges that
tenants were never told why the work was necessary.
The source called the company’s tactics an “atrocity.”
“I never saw a [licensed] contractor there,” he said. “This makes a mockery
of the system.”
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