A real estate company managing four local properties owned by one of Syracuse’s most notorious landlords has issued a steadfast directive to about 100 tenants who remain at Skyline Apartments: leave on your own terms now or be evicted.
Clear Investment Group’s CEO says the remaining tenants are impeding the company’s progress toward fixing poor living conditions in the building, including bugs, broken elevators, heating and hot water issues and safety concerns. They have likened those tenants, many of whom don’t have legal agreements with management, to “squatters.”
But Katrina Weston, a longtime resident of Skyline and the president of the complex’s tenants association, said painting the remaining tenants who have nowhere to go as squatters is overly antagonistic.
“(They) are making it seem like everybody here are squatters and people that are supposed to be gone,” Weston said. “That’s a lie. These are elderly, good tenants.”
Tenants who remain at Skyline say they are struggling with poor living conditions. There are 12 open code reports at the building, according to the city’s service request portal. The current state of affairs, they say, has made it difficult for residents of the properties owned by Green National and managed by Clear to get on board with Clear’s pitch.
The Chicago-based company has been negotiating the acquisition of the four apartment complexes currently owned by Green National since April, including Skyline. Clear executives estimate they’ll close the deal before the end of the month in hopes to remodel and address the buildings’ long history of dilapidation, property code delinquency and public safety concerns.
Clear is investing $7.7 million remodeling Skyline, James and Chestnut Crossing, all located on James Street. They will devote an additional $7.6 million to fixing up Vincent Apartments on Roney Lane. Clear has branded its Syracuse portfolio as “Lifestyle Apartments.”
To usher in the transformative renovations Clear has promised the city of Syracuse, which include extensive pest control and overhauls to plumbing and heating, Skyline residents must leave, says Amy Rubenstein, Clear CEO. The remaining tenants, some of whom have called the building home since prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, are not part of Clear’s plan to move Skyline residents to Chestnut and James temporarily until Skyline has been fully remodeled.
Rubenstein told Central Current in March that the company planned on reaching out to tenants who wanted to remain at Skyline and proposing the relocation plan once they took over management of the properties in April. Approximately 20 to 30 tenants from Skyline have been relocated to Chestnut Crossing and James Apartments, Rubenstein said last week. She added that fewer than 10 tenants from Vincent have relocated to said properties.
Rubenstein said the company can’t address major problems until residents leave.
“We can’t fix the building’s issues any other way,” she said. “The people who are here are living in situations we don’t feel are conducive to healthy, productive living.”
Rubenstein and Clear’s Director of Investments Lindsay Rodriguez had told residents they would call the city marshal’s office to conduct mass evictions in the building. Most recently, Rubenstein and Rodriguez said last week that representatives from the marshal’s office would come into the building Saturday as the company had allegedly moved to evict the remaining tenants.
That did not come to pass, residents told Central Current Saturday, and a Sunday night analysis of the landlord-tenant court calendar does not show any cases involving the company or Skyline residents.
The legal process required to remove a tenant in New York takes time.
State law requires the city marshal’s office to serve a 14-day notice after an eviction has been filed, which then leads to a landlord-tenant court appearance where a city judge would preside over potential eviction proceedings. If the judge grants an eviction order, tenants will have another 14 days to vacate the premises.
A frustration long expressed by management and tenants at Skyline is the presence of people who don’t have a legal agreement with management or ownership to occupy the premises long-term. Rubenstein said these residents are akin to squatters and that Clear has changed the locks on some units to avoid illegal entry into vacant apartments.
She added those individuals pose a danger to tenants and expressed dissatisfaction with tenant protections that slow down their removal from the property. Under state law, a property owner is required to file for eviction and serve a 14-day notice if the person trespassing has lived in the property for 30 days or more.
Rubenstein said some holdover tenants are engaged in illicit activities and that there is no immediate solution to get them to vacate.
“The victims are the same people who are there,” Rubenstein said. “We’re sitting there in this building right now that desperately needs to be vacated, so it can be safe and habitable. It is a very tricky situation.”
Weston, the tenants association president, said some remaining tenants were supposed to move to either Chestnut or James but have been left behind and received little to no communication about the places they hoped would be their new homes. Central Current reported earlier this year that tenants and housing advocates, including Greater Syracuse Tenants Network Executive Director Sharon Sherman, were concerned Clear would not be able to provide accommodations at other buildings for Skyline and Vincent tenants who were interested in moving back after the remodeling project was completed.
Rodriguez and Rubenstein said they have already moved the tenants who were on board with the moving plan. Rubenstein acknowledged there are special cases of tenants who need accommodations and that Clear is trying to coordinate with local agencies to help.
“Anyone who is stuck in a desperate situation, and they’re actually cooperative but don’t have the financial or mental capacity to get themselves moved, we’re trying to help those people,” Rubenstein said.
With the potential for mass evictions in the near future and with some residents in limbo, Sherman said Clear’s lack of foresight, understanding of New York state tenants protections and an overly ambitious scope for renovations and relocation of tenants has complicated the situation.
“It was and still is in the best interest that Clear succeeds in turning around the properties, but their whole plan was totally unrealistic,” she said. “They really didn’t understand what they were getting into. Tenants are living in unsatisfactory conditions and Clear is perfectly fine with that.”
Unlivable conditions at Skyline continue, tenants say
Clear assumed management of James Apartments, Skyline and Chestnut Crossing in April, after city officials became fed up with the constant danger the state of the properties posed to tenants.
The city declared at least a portion of Skyline unfit for human habitation for the eighth time in about three years due to a lack of hot water, and then filed a lawsuit seeking to redirect rent revenue of all Green National properties toward repairing the buildings and addressing major code violations.
The Syracuse Division of Code Enforcement has cited the Greens’ properties for hundreds of breaches of the city’s property codes. Officials also worried about public safety. From July 2022 to February this year, first responders had tended to more than 1,500 calls from residents concerned for their safety or that of others.
The promise of new management initially inspired hope among some Skyline residents, as Clear’s plan promised to address issues that had plagued the complex for years. Now, three months into Clear’s management tenure, conditions in the apartment building have remained dire, Weston said.
“Skyline is absolutely disgusting,” she said. “There has been no primary care for the basic areas and our basic needs.”
Weston said she thinks Clear is not addressing the poor living conditions as a strategy to force tenants out.
“They want people to have no choice but to leave,” Weston said. She blames Clear for discontinuing pest control services Green National was providing prior to ceding control of the properties.
Rodriguez, of Clear, said the company hired Orkin Pest Control in spring, doing away with Green National’s previous contract.
“Every single complaint I got from every tenant when we did our first walkthrough was that the pest control company never really worked,” Rodriguez said.
For now, Orkin handles pest control of the common areas at Skyline but will get started on fumigating the entire building once it has been vacated.
“The big issue with pest control is that there are pests inside of the ductwork,” Rubenstein said. “We don’t think we can safely eradicate that until people are out.”
Issues like the relentless vermin infestations have pushed Weston to look for a new place, but for now, she said she will remain in solidarity with other tenants who have nowhere to go.
Initially, Weston had considered moving to one of the other Green National buildings and returning to Skyline once it’d been remodeled. Now, she wants to stay to help tenants fight for better housing conditions in the building.
“I really care about these people,” Weston said. “If I left, I would not be able to help them.”
Tenants on the move
Part of Clear’s plan to turn around the properties was to remodel apartments at Chestnut Crossing and James Apartments prior to integrating Skyline and Vincent Apartments tenants.
Rubenstein said the company has renovated about 30 apartments so far, with another 10 to 15 units being completed in the next week.
Planned renovations, court documents show, include paint and new floors, cabinets and counters where needed. Contractors will also update light and heating fixtures and add new appliances.
But as Skyline and Vincent tenants move in, Chestnut Crossing residents say problems persist.
Much like Skyline, Chestnut is dealing with a severe cockroach infestation.
“It’s so bad,” said Juanita Nanowsky, who has lived at Chestnut Crossing for 10 years. “They’re in my coffee pot. They are in the microwave and all over my food. I can’t eat and I can’t cook. It’s awful.”
The apartment upstairs from Nanowsky’s unit also drips water into her apartment, which she said is emblematic of the plumbing issues across the complex.
“I don’t care how overwhelmed Clear is. This is what they do for a living,” she said.
A lack of communication has been a pain point for residents. Nanowsky said she wants to see members of the company in the buildings as it would help address concerns quickly and in-person. Currently, Rodriguez does most of the interfacing with tenants. She said she comes to Syracuse once every two weeks.
For Nanowsky, when problems at her apartment have gone largely unaddressed, it is hard not to think that the change in ownership hasn’t brought tangible improvements to her quality of life, she said.
“They are not interested in the tenants,” she said. “They are only interested in the buildings. “Their focus is going to be on the Skyline because that is where they are going to make their money.”