Friday, April 07, 2006

Banks Press Landlords on Repairs

Banks Press Landlords on Repairs

Published: April 7, 2006

A coalition of housing advocacy groups and two large banks that hold mortgages on hundreds of apartment buildings in New York City announced an unusual agreement yesterday under which they will use the banks' leverage as lenders to pressure landlords into repairing dilapidated buildings.

The agreement between the coalition, Housing Here and Now, and the banks, Citigroup and New York Community Bank, represents a new weapon against landlords reluctant to make repairs. Housing advocates hope to use this tool not simply to fix leaks and crumbling plaster, but also to shore up low-income neighborhoods and make them less vulnerable to gentrification.

The loan portfolios of New York Community Bank and Citigroup together include more than 900 buildings and 66,000 units, according to Housing Here and Now. New York Community Bank, which holds the loans on a majority of those buildings, describes itself as the largest producer of multifamily loans in New York City and operates a network of branches including Queens County Savings Bank and Roslyn Savings Bank.

Under the agreement, a bank that receives an application for a mortgage on an apartment building must first evaluate the owner's and the building's track record. Using the records of the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development and those of Housing Here and Now, the bank will consider past housing code violations, emergency repair liens and litigation.

The bank would then require that run-down conditions and violations be fixed before closing on the sale. New York Community Bank agreed to hold repair money in escrow for release when repairs are done. The banks are also to inspect buildings annually; those considered severely distressed are to be given a repair plan and timetable for completion.

While in theory a bank has the power to foreclose on a building whose owner has repeatedly failed to make repairs, bank officials said such a step is unusual. Under the new agreement, banks are more likely to use the threat of withholding a loan, rather than the threat of foreclosure, to pressure landlords into properly maintaining their properties.

Representatives of about 18 other banks doing business in the city met on Wednesday with Citigroup and New York Community Bank officials, as well as city and state housing and banking officials, to discuss the agreement.

Diana L. Taylor, the state superintendent of banks, has written to banks throughout New York encouraging them to adopt similar practices voluntarily.

"This is a big deal," Alan G. Hevesi, the New York State comptroller, said at a news conference yesterday organized by Housing Here and Now to announce the agreement. "This is serious and historic. It's an agreement that brings the banks in as partners in maximizing the potential for landlords to clean up buildings."

Mr. Hevesi added, "This is serious mostly for tens of thousands of tenants in the city who have not been able to get landlords to respond to the problems that they live with every single day."
In a hot real estate market like New York's, with the price of land rising, housing advocates say some landlords feel little pressure to maintain their buildings.

If tenants leave, the owner is free to sell. "If you're a landlord, you don't need to preserve your collateral," said Jonathan Rosen, a spokesman for Housing Here and Now. "You just flip it on the land prices alone."

The agreement is the product of a campaign that began last summer, when Housing Here and Now released a list of what it described as the city's 10 worst landlords. When some of the owners continued to fail to make repairs, even after the city had cracked down, the coalition turned its attention to the banks that had financed the purchase of the buildings.

In January, the group reported that its own analysis of city housing code violations turned up problems in more than 600 multifamily buildings on which New York Community Bank held the mortgage. The group vowed to block the bank's planned acquisition of another bank, Atlantic Bank of New York, which was under federal review at the time, until it required its clients to repair their buildings.

The coalition accused New York Community Bank of failing to meet its obligations under the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires that banks meet the credit needs of their communities � including, advocates say, by doing business in a way that strengthens community ties. A bank's compliance with the act can be reviewed when the bank is planning an acquisition.

The coalition enlisted the help of Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, who wrote a letter to the bank's president in February saying she was considering asking the state's Banking Department to hold public hearings and delay the merger "until the issue of poor building conditions is satisfactorily resolved."

Julie Miles, the director of Housing Here and Now, said yesterday, "We've withdrawn our objection to the merger."

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