Saturday, April 08, 2006

Landlord Accused Of Shady Dealings

Tenants Say Pinnacle Group is Using Courts To Force Them Out
By Anna Phillips
Columbia Spectator Staff Writer

April 07, 2006

Controversy surrounding Pinnacle Group � a New York landlord � has moved into Manhattan and settled in Harlem.

Local tenants, community organizations, and politicians have accused the Pinnacle Group, owned by developer Joel Weiner, of using questionable management practices to clear its buildings of low-income tenants to make way for a co-op conversion plan.

The claims are based on Pinnacle�s record of taking unprecedented numbers of its tenants to court for non-payment of rent, for reasons many say are unwarranted. Controversy around Pinnacle began in the Bronx, where the Norwood News reported that in the last year, Pinnacle had brought over 1,509 cases against Bronx residents within several weeks of purchasing the buildings in which they live.

Now, with an established hold on Manhattan real estate, Pinnacle is taking more tenants to court.

According to Luis Tejada, executive director of the Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center, Pinnacle has filed over 5,000 cases against its tenants in the last three years. The number of cases "increases by about 10 percent each month," Tejada said.

Residents say that while some of these cases are valid, most arise from Pinnacle�s refusal to accept their rent checks due to what they claim is a wilful misunderstanding of succession rights.

"Rather than approach tenants and make an inquiry they immediately take the case to court and that�s been their process for the last five years," said Kim Powell, founder of Buyers and Renters United to Save Harlem. "They go in and issue dispose notices on a whim. They see tenants who are fearful of courts who they know will just get out and move."

"The aggressiveness in going to court is troubling," agreed Dunbar Houses resident Barbara Nienaltowski. "Obviously some of these cases are not so simple, but our concern is that this number of cases had never happened before."

Reportedly, Pinnacle bought the Dunbar Houses from Baruch Singer, an infamous New York landlord who made headlines when one of his buildings collapsed, killing three tenants, and has a stake in a portion of Pinnacle�s property.

"That waves an obvious flag," said former Harlem Council Member Bill Perkins.

At the March 21st Community Board 9 meeting, Weiner announced his intention to convert his properties into co-operatives. In a statement issued by the Marino Organization, Pinnacle�s public relations company, the group denied that Pinnacle was forcing existing residents out.

"No tenant in any of our buildings has ever been evicted because they chose not to buy their apartment," the statement said, adding that Pinnacle had never issued an illegal eviction.

Residents say that while they are not officially being evicted, they�re being harassed into leaving.

The Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center has been collecting the testimonies of Pinnacle tenants since late 2005.

The Pinnacle group said in a statement that the company "is committed to providing a secure and safe environment and essential services to its tenants.... We challenge anyone to find one Pinnacle-owned property that is not safer, cleaner, and better off than it was before we took over management or ownership of the building."

"This could all be a gross misunderstanding," Kristopher John, a tenant of a Pinnacle building on West 108th Street, said. "But it�s not like they�re hiring translators to clear up the misunderstandings."

The main concerns for most tenants are the repairs made to the buildings and allegations of misuse of Major Capital Improvements�repairs a landlord makes that tenants are required to help pay for.

John, a Columbia University General Studies student, lives in a building previously owned by Singer. "I haven�t seen any changes," he said.

Massood Gilani, who lives on 635 Riverside Drive, has filed suit against Pinnacle for failing to repair the building�s damaged roof.

Tenants also claim that often, when repairs are done, they are done superficially.

"Some of these buildings are in dire need of repairs," Powell said. "The work that�s being done is substandard. All that glitters is not gold," she said, possibly referencing the gold paint Pinnacle uses on the iron wrought fences on their properties.

In response, Pinnacle said that it works "very hard to restore [the buildings] into affordable, safe, attractive homes for our tenants. We want them to be places that we are proud of and places in which you are proud to live. Rent increases are never based on cosmetic improvements."


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