Monday, May 08, 2006

Firm at pinnacle of landlord disputes

Juan Gonzalez is a Daily News columnist.

Firm at pinnacle of landlord disputes

Carlos Delarosa, Russell Taylor and Rosa Elsevyf-Conrad share a few things in common.
They've all battled recently against eviction by the same landlord, the Pinnacle Group LLC, the real estate company that has filed an astonishing 5,000 eviction proceedings since 2004 against tenants who live in its nearly 20,000 apartments.

And all have suddenly seen Pinnacle drop its cases against them within hours of the Daily News inquiring about their particular situations.

On April 24, city marshals actually evicted delaRosa, his wife and two children from their Morrison Ave. apartment in the South Bronx and promptly changed the locks.

At the time, delaRosa, a restaurant deliveryman, owed a grand total of $493 - just half of the $986-a-month rent for the one-bedroom, fifth-floor walkup.

There must be some mistake, delaRosa told the marshal. He'd mailed Pinnacle most of what he owed the previous week and had an overdue balance of only $100. Besides, the federal government's Section 8 program was paying the bulk of the rent - $786 - directly to the landlord each month, he said.

Tell it to the judge, the marshal replied.

DelaRosa's wife, Jennifer Aguilar, quickly borrowed $100 from a friend, then her husband - armed with the cash - scurried over to Bronx Housing Court. He produced receipts for two postal money orders, payable to Pinnacle for $100 and $300, dated April 7 and April 19.

He also gave a sworn affidavit to Civil Court Judge Pierre Turner that he had mailed the money orders the same day he purchased them. With the $100 he had on him, delaRosa said, he should be up to date with his rent.

Pinnacle's attorney, however, claimed the company had no record of receiving the latest money orders.

Turner immediately granted delaRosa a show-cause order that banned any removal of the family's furniture until a hearing the following day.

But when delaRosa returned home, he discovered the marshals already had carted off the family's furniture and clothes to storage.

That's a rare move: Although some 7,000 evictions are ordered annually in the Bronx, barely 200 result in forcible action by marshals.

"I've never heard of anything like this," said Carmela Price, an assistant to state Sen. Ruben Diaz (D-Bronx), who intervened to assist the family.

The following day in court, Pinnacle's lawyers demanded delaRosa pay $2,000 for moving and storage costs of the furniture, the marshal's fee, plus legal expenses - or they wouldn't let him back in the apartment.

"We could barely pay the back rent." his wife said. "How are we supposed to come up with another $2,000?"

The next day, April 26, I called Pinnacle to ask about the case. Company chief Joel Weiner returned my call within a few hours.

Weiner has been under fire lately from housing advocates who say his company harasses rent-stabilized tenants in order to vacate apartments and sharply increase rents. Weiner says all his actions are aboveboard.

"As soon as I heard about it [delaRosa's eviction], I ordered my super to restore them immediately," Weiner said. "I felt the tenant misunderstood the legal situation. They won't have to pay anything."

That same evening, the family and its furniture were back in the apartment.
Meanwhile, Russell Taylor was locked in his own months-long court fight with Pinnacle.

Back in 2000, Taylor, an academic adviser at New School University, moved into an apartment on St. Nicholas Ave. in Harlem with his girlfriend.

The girlfriend, however, had signed the original lease, so when she moved out two years later, Taylor asked his landlord to add his name as tenant of record. The landlord was Baruch Singer, a reputed slumlord who has been in the news lately because of his relationship to the Brooklyn warehouses that spectacularly burned down last week.

The office people at Singer's Equity Management kept promising to change the name but never did so, Taylor said.

Still, he continued paying his rent for the next three years with no problem.

Last August, Pinnacle purchased the building, along with dozens of others owned by Singer, who still retains a minor share in the properties.

Pinnacle immediately moved to evict Taylor, claiming he owed $3,000 in rent.

"I always pay on time and I have the proof," Taylor said. In December, a Housing Court judge agreed and dismissed Pinnacle's complaint.

Weiner blames the mixup on poor records he inherited from the previous landlord. "Not all of Singer's stuff was accurate," Weiner said.

Taylor recalled that when he went to Housing Court, "practically everyone there was being sued by Pinnacle."

The day after Taylor's victory, Pinnacle lawyers started another eviction action against him, this time claiming he was not the apartment's legal tenant.

I asked Weiner about that second action. "I don't mind giving Taylor the right to stay there," he said. "That's a problem I'm trying to solve."

A few hours after that conversation, a Pinnacle lawyer called Taylor to tell him the company was dropping its eight-month campaign to oust him.

Then there's Elsevyf-Conrad. She's a supervisor at a city agency who has lived in the same apartment on Riverside Drive in Washington Heights for 25 years. Pinnacle claimed in court she really lives in the Bronx.

"I pay my mom's gas and electricity bills in the Bronx to help her out and my name is on the bills," she said. "I've given them my tax papers and all my documents and they still aren't satisfied."

Weiner said the building's super told Pinnacle she had moved to the Bronx. "If she actually lives there, it's fine," Weiner said, adding that he is now willing to let Elsevyf-Conrad stay.

These three people are lucky. But for the many still being sued by Pinnacle, the nightmare continues.

Originally published on May 8, 2006

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