When Tishman Speyer made its astonishing $5.3 billion purchase of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village just under two years ago, almost immediately tenants began worrying about how the sale would impact them, both individually and as a community. At that record-setting sum, and with real-estate prices skyrocketing across Manhattan and beyond, the assumption was something had to give, the most obvious being the enclave’s historically moderate rents. Put another way, what sort of landlord would Tishman Speyer be?
One of the city’s worst, alleges Daniel Garodnick, the local council member and a lifelong resident. At least that is the comparison he and his fellow politicians made at a press conference today, at which they called on the complex’s new owners to stop filing frivolous lawsuits against tenants. “For Tishman Speyer to throw their lot in with the worst behavior of the worst landlords is just tragic,” Tom Duane, the local state senator, said. “We thought you were better than this,” he added, directing his comments at the developer, “but you have to prove it to us here and now.”
To be fair, Tishman Speyer, run by the father-son team of Jerry and Rob Speyer, are considered some of the city’s more upstanding developers. They sit on the boards of and donate to many charities, and their properties—including the Chrysler, MetLife, and Lipstick buildings—and practices are generally considered a model for others, something the politicians were not blind to. But at the same time, that is why they feel targeting the developers as one of the bad guys will be so effective, because it could tarnish the Speyers’ reputation.
The issue still remains the massive debt-service demanded by the project. The easiest way to cover that service is by forcing out the complex’s rent-stabilized tenants and converting their apartments to market-rate units, which can potentially quadruple their value. It is this economic math that can lead to unscrupulous tactics.
Garodnick has proposed a handful of what he sees as simple and reasonable requests: first, the cessation of all lawsuits until, second, Tishman Speyer lays out in specific language the standards for eviction. Scores of tenants have complained about lawsuits being filed against them alleging illegal residency in the complex, including charges that tenants held nonexistent second homes or failed to meet impossible subletting requirements.
“I was accused of having a driver’s license and a telephone number I never had,” Leo Stevens said during the press conference. “They’re just making stuff up.” Stevens said he also knew a family that had a summer home upstate in Peekskill that was accused of using that as their primary residence. “Had they just done some due diligence, they would have seen these kids, four kids, were going to school across the street from here,” he said. “There’s no way they were making a 100-mile commute every day for school.
Garodnick said this creates an environment of fear where no one knows what to expect from their landlord. “There is no excuse for Tishman Speyer, with all their lawyers, to bring lawsuit after lawsuit.” Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer called the action “fishing” and argued that many of the rent-stabilized tenants, who tend to be older, do not understand how or cannot afford to respond to Tishman Speyer’s considerable burden of proof. As a result, Garodnick wants the Speyers to pay any legal fees for cases not found in their favor. “Simply put, if Tishman Speyer drops a case, they should also drop a check in the mail,” he said.
Tishman Speyer declined to comment on Garodnick’s proposal, but a spokesman did say the situation had been blown out of proportion. “To date, 87 percent of all rent-stabilized tenants at Stuy Town Peter Cooper Village have had their leases renewed without question,” the spokesman, Bud Perrone, wrote in an email. “Of the remaining 13 percent—who we have asked to demonstrate that the community is their primary residence—roughly 50 percent have turned out to be illegal.”
Whether the Speyers relent remains to be seen, but Garodnick said he would pursue “every option available,” though he also did not spell out what further steps might be taken. Richard Kitzis, a 16-year resident, said he hopes the plan works, though he also doubts it will, judging from personal experience. Two-and-a-half years ago, Kitzis said he was fighting with MetLife over the same issues. “Garodnick didn’t help me then,” he said, “so how could he help us now?”