When Marc Landis, a leading candidate to represent the Upper West Side in the City Council next year, talks about himself, he often boasts of his long record of fighting for affordable housing in New York City. The attorney and Democratic district leader, praised by his many endorsers for his tenant advocacy, also works closely with Tahl Propp Equities, a large real estate developer that has been sued by Manhattan tenants and accused of “predatory” financial practices in rapidly gentrifying Harlem.
“Tahl Propp was one of the early companies that we and other organizers spotted coming in and buying up large amounts of affordable housing and they weren’t a known actor in the affordable housing or real estate world,” said Emily Goldstein, coordinator of preservation and policy at Tenants and Neighbors, a statewide tenant advocacy group. “In more recent years, I know that they’ve said they care about affordable housing. They’ve said they care about the Harlem community. And yet their actual practices in many of these buildings have been detrimental to low and moderate income tenants, to the physical housing stock and arguably to the community.”
Mr. Landis is the chair of the real estate department at the law firm Phillips Nizer, where he has worked in various capacities with the developer Tahl Propp Equities. Mr. Landis, who describes himself on his LinkedIn page as a “real estate and corporate transactional attorney focused on the acquisition, development and preservation of affordable housing,” declined to speak on the record about his work with the company. But, according to a Tahl Propp attorney, Mr. Landis has collaborated extensively with the company.
“We continue to work with him on numerous types of deals and he’s a great resource,” said Neda Barzideh Levy, VP and general counsel at Tahl Propp, though she declined to specify the particular cases or instances to which Mr. Landis has lent his expertise.
The firm, according to tenant advocates, is a part of a new wave of real estate developers that, as private equity companies, buy up large chunks of affordable housing at speculative prices that realistically can’t be supported by the low rent that tenants are paying, setting up a choice between attracting more affluent tenants to the buildings or running into financial trouble as debt piles up.
Indeed, Tahl Propp, which owns more than 3,000 apartments across the city, has repeatedly clashed with Harlem tenants over the last decade. A 2008 report detailed the plight of several buildings in Harlem that Tahl Propp purchased, describing how the company would, according to residents, cut back on maintenance repairs to increase profit margins and force lower-income residents away, thus creating vacancies for market-rate apartments. For example, Tahl Propp pulled one building at 1900 Lexington Ave. from the state’s Mitchell-Lama program, which provides affordable rental and cooperative housing to moderate and middle-income families. A resident of that building, Alvin Johnson, founded Harlem Tenants Against Tahl Propp even before that happened.
“They come in and they buy up Section 8 buildings, former Mitchell-Lamas, and they take buildings out of the Mitchell-Lama program triggering these high, exorbitant rents,” Mr. Johnson told Politicker, referring to buildings where low-income tenants receive federal vouchers to help pay their rent. “Or they put pressure in the Section 8 building. They enter into these agreements with the government where the government pays them rent that is so ridiculous that the government is actually running out of money … with their rent-stabilized buildings, they look to convert them all to co-ops and condos.”
In 2010, Tahl Propp further settled a $3 million lawsuit at the Normandie, a building at West 119th Street, which the company converted from rentals to condos in 2005. Residents complained that the building had exposed structural beams and pipes, cracked hardwood floors and various other maladies. A year later, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development took Tahl Propp to court amid allegations that tenants were denied heat and hot water in one of Tahl Propp’s newer condo conversions in Harlem. Tahl Propp, according to HPD, paid $1,000 in penalties and corrected the issues. Last year, Tahl Propp faced litigation from its own investors.
Although activists like Mr. Johnson describe the company’s efforts to keep housing affordable as halfhearted at best and nonexistent at worst, a company spokeswoman contested any claims that the company isn’t completely committed to building and maintaining affordable housing. She said the company, in addition to donating school supplies and toys to Harlem children, is now building two low-income housing developments and has received top quality of life scores from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“They are committed 150 percent to affordable housing,” said the spokeswoman, Linda Alexander. “They’ve spent literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in the community.”
For their part, Mr. Landis’ campaign was happy to talk about the candidate’s other work on affordable housing issues, like organizing tenant associations at three Upper West Side buildings, leading lobbying trips to Albany on behalf of tenants’ rights and filing a suit against Fannie Mae to force the lender to provide emergency repairs to apartment buildings.
Mr. Landis is running to take over from term-limited City Councilwoman Gale Brewer against a crowded field that includes Helen Rosenthal, Mel Wymore, Ken Biberaj, Debra Cooper, Noah Gotbaum and Thomas Siracuse.