The Triumph of Greed

[Note: Friends of Justice is a personal blog. I speak only for myself.]

Dear Friend of Justice,

I am posting this for a number of reasons. First of all, I have a pressing need to get a few things off my chest. Second, we need to ask for help. And third, I think the post is relevant to the concerns of this group.

The building where Jim and I have lived for twelve years is in process of being sold. To find out about the buyer, check out these links:

Our building used to be a limited-equity housing co-op. We were able to buy a share here for perhaps 10 percent (or less) of what it would have cost to buy a comparable condominium. Our monthly carrying charges were low. But the value of our share would only increase by a few hundred dollars per year. And we could only sell that share back to the co-op. The intent was to keep out speculators and preserve affordable housing here indefinitely.

Unfortunately, the speculators were not kept out. Ultimately, they destroyed the co-op.

Geese that lay golden eggs have a very short life expectancy.

Because our housing costs were so low, Jim and I were able to work less than full time and devote a great deal of time to our criminal-justice work. Had we not moved here, for example, we could never have done our work for Bernard Baran.

The trouble began not too long after we moved in. Some of us had legitimate concerns about the condition of the building. We wanted to identify necessary repairs and do them. So we hired an excellent engineering company who did a good study. They told us what we should do immediately, what we should do in a few years, and what we should do eventually.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have sufficient reserves to pay for all of this. One way or another, carrying charges would have had to go up a bit.

At this point one of our members sold us the Brooklyn Bridge. She had “found” an architect who would do his own study and also the necessary work. The total fee would be less than our reserves. Carrying charges would not go up a penny.

So our Board bought the Brooklyn Bridge and persuaded the membership to go along. The member was hired to “manage” the project.

It was never disclosed that the architect was the member’s former business partner. Nor was any of their less-than-stellar joint resume ever shared.

The project was a debacle. Our lives were disrupted by the “repairs” for almost a year. The money finally ran out. The building was in worse shape than when the “repairs” began.

The Board hired an engineering firm to evaluate the work. Their scathing report was kept secret until it was finally leaked years later.

The Board, by the way, is a three-member body that meets in private and doesn’t publish minutes of meetings. But it later became known that the Board declined to take legal action against the member and her partner because they didn’t want to sue a member. In my opinion, it would have been more appropriate to press criminal charges.

The social fabric of this co-op was destroyed by this fiasco. But things were relatively quiet for a few years. Tense, but quiet. And then some members decided that we should go condo.

The membership as a whole wasn’t interested. But there was a consensus that we should again look into the building’s problems — which still existed — and create a plan to address them.

The person responsible for the previous repair fiasco soon allied herself with the condo people. I will just refer to this faction as the Greed Party. Their initial objective, it appeared, was to tear-down the building and build luxury condos.

The Greed Party first tried to convince the membership that the building was in horrible shape, that it was dangerous, and that our lives were in danger if we continued to live here. A consensus was reached that we should hire experts to look at the building and advise us of our options.

Since the Greed Party wanted teardown/rebuild to be one of the examined options, we hired an architectural firm, not an engineering firm. The architects found many problems, including code violations. And we discovered that if we tried to fix the code violations, we would trigger a threshold that would require us also to make the building handicapped accessible. Among other things, we would have to install an elevator. Repairing the building was proving to be an expensive option.

Once the study was done and the Board had been informed of the code violations, the Board was forced to act. And if they did not act, the Greed Party could call in building inspectors. The Greed Party could now use blackmail to get its way.

The Greed Party began pushing the idea of selling the building. “We are sitting on a gold mine,” one of them was overheard saying at a local restaurant.

Having convinced most of the membership that the building was in such sorry shape as to be worthless, it now set about convincing the same people that they were sitting on an extremely valuable piece of property. Throughout the rest of the process, the Greed Party kept making both of these contradictory arguments, depending on their immediate goal.

There were some of us who felt the building could be saved with help. My neighborhood has an excellent non-profit Community Development Corporation that was interested in preserving 46 units of affordable housing in this neighborhood. They also had access to several million dollars of “inclusionary funds” (funds escrowed by developers to subsidize affordable housing) that they wanted to invest to save the building. The CDC, not surprisingly, was anathema to the Greed Party.

The Board decided to hire a “development consultant.” Many of us wanted the CDC to be at least considered for the position. The Greed Party lobbied against the Board even sending the CDC a request for proposal (RFP). Finally, the RFP was sent and the CDC came in with by far the best proposal. But the Board hired instead a huge real-estate firm. Their $40,000 report turned out to be nothing but a set of not terribly helpful PowerPoint slides.

And so it went. The full story would take tens of thousands of words. Some of it is quite incredible. But I will spare you the gory details.

In the end, those of who cared about affordable housing and the principles of a limited-equity co-op were crushed by those who cared only about selling to the highest bidder — regardless of who that turned out to be. The welfare and future of the neighborhood did not even appear on their radar screen.

One might think, at least, that the new owner will have to fix the building’s problems — at least the code violations. I am positive that this will not occur. Nothing of the building’s problems was disclosed to prospective buyers. (This is quite legal.) Buildings are often sold “as is.” In these cases, the buyer usually stipulates a due-diligence period so that he or she can bring in experts to examine the building and adjust (or withdraw) the offer depending on their findings.

But the purchaser of this building waived due diligence. He doesn’t want to know about the building’s problems. If he knew, he would be obligated to fix them.

Does the Greed Party in fact believe that this building is dangerous? If so, it doesn’t bother them in the least that future tenants might be risking their lives by living here.

That’s not their problem.

If Jim and I were in a better financial position, we would just use the money we get from the sale to further our work. But we can’t afford to do
that.  We have no assets and we have little income. Without my social security, we couldn’t get by at all. The money we will receive is dirty money. It is worse than tainted. But if we don’t accept it we would end up living in a shelter.

When it comes to real estate and managing money, we are babes in the woods. We haven’t worried about money management because we had no money to manage. And we never thought we might be in a position where buying a place to live was an option.

That is why we need help. And we don’t even know where to begin looking for help.

Much as I hate Massachusetts, I think we have to stay here. Most of the prisoners that I am closest to are in Massachusetts. If I moved away, I could never visit or attend their court hearings. And our social network is here. We are just too old to start anew in a new place.

So if you have any advice — or know someone who might — please let us know.

The next few months will be months of upheaval. And the whole process of finding a place and moving will consume a lot of time and energy.

But my hope is that eventually the dust will settle and I can again turn my attention back to innocent people in prison who have suffered far more than I can even imagine.

In many ways, the members of the Greed Party remind me of those corrupt prosecutors who have done so much to destroy our criminal-justice system. If self-interest is truly the only thing that matters, then these people are behaving reasonably. They further their careers by winning cases. So what if this comes at the expense of innocent people too poor and powerless to defend themselves? Winning isn’t the main thing. It is the only thing.

David Capeless and the members of the Greed party would get along very well. They have so much in common.

And they have no comprehension of people like us. People who have values other than “rational” self-interest.

But self-interest is not rational. If unchecked, it destroys communities. And when our communities are destroyed, so are we all.

-Bob Chatelle