For Rent

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// WEEKEND

Sylvie McNamara’s ’16 heater won’t start. It is January in New Haven, and for two weeks, she has dealt with the cold of winter in her third-floor Pike International apartment on Park Street.

When her heater stops working, she puts in a work order — a request for utility fixes — online. She receives no confirmation email, no response. She tries again. After submitting a second work order, once again unanswered, she picks up the phone and begins leaving voice messages.

“I feel like when your heat is broken in January, that’s something that you pay attention to as a landlord,” McNamara says.

When maintenance staff come into her studio apartment to fix the heater, they leave no note indicating they have been there or addressed her concern, a practice she says is typical of the real estate services company.

McNamara’s story is not an uncommon one. Of the 14 current and former tenants interviewed, many of whom requested anonymity out of fear that Pike would seek retribution through litigious or other means, a vast majority expressed negative opinions of the company’s management and customer service.

The real estate organization’s blue signs and white letters are ubiquitous in the Elm City. Founded in 2000 by Rabbi Shmully Hecht, the company — which has been renamed several times — aggressively expanded its operations as housing prices plummeted during the 2008-’09 recession. With over 1,000 apartments across the city, Pike has emerged as New Haven’s most influential landlord.

While the company’s hold over area real estate properties continues to grow, little is known about its operations. Heating issues, as it turns out, are just the tip of the iceberg.

* * *

Former mayor John DeStefano, Jr. rejected the suggestion that Pike’s expansion during economic downturn was an opportunistic business strategy. Rather, he saw the move as a sign of the company’s confidence in New Haven’s continued growth.

“[Hecht] lives here. He’s involved in the community,” DeStefano said. “He does a good job with his properties. They’re clean. He’s been a solid landlord and he does what you’d expect a landlord to do,” the mayor said.

When the University-Wide Advisory Committee on Graduate and Professional Student Housing met with Pike, committee member Marie-Amelie George GRD ’17 said it became apparent that Hecht has very close ties to both Yale and City Hall.

DeStefano denied this connection. Although he said Hecht has donated to his past political campaigns and those of other Democrats such as Henry Fernandez ’94, the amounts were neither significant nor donated with an intent to acquire political capital.

Although he raised about $400,000 for his last campaign, DeStefano said he only received a thousand or so dollars from Hecht. He added that Hecht “never sought to be involved in politics” and was only donating within his right as a politically engaged citizen.

University Director of Housing and Fleet Management George Longyear said Yale seeks to have partnerships with all the major landlords in New Haven, including Pike, in the hopes of acting as a mediator when problems or miscommunications arise. He added that Yale’s on-going discussions with Pike have been fruitful and have already yielded positive changes in the way Pike conducts its business.

“We believe that Pike shares our desire to have students satisfied with their rental arrangements and wishes to work with us to achieve that goal,” he said.

But students with experience in Pike-owned properties disagreed. Brandis Yarrington ’14, who lived in a Pike house last year, said the company’s business practices were questionable and targeted students who, either because of financial constraints or naiveté, have no other alternatives.

“They have a near-monopoly on affordable apartments in New Haven,” housing committee member George noted.

She added that the company’s acquisitions have been strategic, with a focus on securing properties close to campus. A former Pike tenant herself, George said the advisory committee was formed after a number of graduate students complained to the Graduate Student Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate about the living conditions.

Both George and Songhee Bae DIV ’15 said Pike’s rapid expansion could be one reason for its poor responsiveness as a landlord.

Bae said a former employee informed her that Pike was expanding at too fast a rate. Rather than consolidate and provide quality services to existing apartments, Pike was more focused on acquiring properties as swiftly as possible, the employee told Bae.

“I think one of the pitfalls might be that they are juggling too many balls at once,” George noted.

Despite the voluminous complaints that students and residents have filed against Pike, she said the company has largely escaped consequences, likely because it benefits from the political influence that Hecht wields.

Hecht declined repeated requests to comment for this story, forwarding all questions via email to Pike Director of Operations Christina Rossetti.

Hecht’s connection to Yale rests largely in his involvement with the Jewish community on campus. In 1996, he co-founded Eliezer Society with future Harvard Law professor and public intellectual Noah Feldman LAW ’97 and future U.S. Senator Cory Booker LAW ’97. Since its inception under the name Chai Society, the group has remained Hecht’s most visible connection to the University. Eliezer invites Yale students to discuss Judaism and other theological or secular issues with prominent guest speakers. A 2011 TIME Magazine article reported that “world leaders clear their schedules to attend Shabbat dinner” at the society. Past guests include Senator Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

But while Hecht continues to be a chief participant in and advisor to Eliezer, the management of Pike remains his day job. In a July 2011 New Haven Independent profile, Hecht claims to have received “tens of millions of dollars” from out-of-state investors to fund Pike’s expansion. Because the company is privately-owned and uses a number of limited liability corporations to house its properties, these investors are difficult to identify.

“Money’s coming from Canada. Money’s coming from Tel Aviv. Money’s coming from New York City. Money’s coming from Florida. Money’s coming from all different types of families and institutions,” he told the Independent, adding that his investors are typically high net-worth families who also believe in New Haven’s growing attractiveness as a city.

One Yale senior, who wished to be anonymous because he feared Pike would exploit the social security number and credit card details he gave them, said Yochanan Levitansky was one of the Pike employees he and his friends dealt with last year. Levitansky, according to a 2009 New Haven Independent article, was found guilty of defrauding hundreds of eBay customers by selling them electronic goods he never intended to deliver. Levitansky pocketed $237,257 from these false transactions. Although she did not confirm the years during which Levitansky worked for Pike, Rossetti confirmed that he was a former employee who has since left the company.

When Rossetti was asked how a rabbi could find the millions in investments needed to build such an extensive property portfolio, she wrote in an email that she was not involved in raising the company’s seed money.

* * *

Hyungmi Lim ’15 and Carlisle Runge ’14 moved into their apartment on 162 Park St. later than expected. Pike had not cleaned the property in time for their September 2013 move-in date.

But within a month of residency, their problems were going to get much worse.

It was October when the building began to reek with a pungent stench: “God, it wasn’t like anything I had ever smelled before,” Lim said.

The smell grew so strong that she began to have a gagging reaction each time she entered the house. Soon, it permeated her and Runge’s clothes, and the smell followed them outside. For nearly a month, Lim, Runge and a Yale School of Management student who lived on the third floor attempted to contact Pike almost daily about the smell. The third-floor tenant, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said he often went to the office only to be rebuffed.

“They were just stonewalling me. Just ignoring me. They don’t give a shit — they assume it was just a stink and didn’t bother,” the tenant on the third floor said. He added that often Pike employees would tell him that they were sending somebody shortly. That person never came.

When Lim finally noticed activity around the door leading to the first-floor apartment — from which the smell emanated — the movement was traced to maggots that were making their way through the building. She realized then that something had gone horribly wrong.

Edmund Valuskas was found dead due to natural causes on Oct. 28, when Lim returned to the apartment to find New Haven police officers and medical crews in HAZMAT suits congregated outside. By then, the smell had been present for over a month.

The SOM student said Pike tried to conceal Valuskas’ death.

“They tried to deny [his death] at first. They told me he was missing or usually unresponsive,” he said.

Pike Director of Operations Rossetti wrote in an email to the News that Pike responded immediately to the smell at 162 Park.

Referring to Valuskas as a “hoarder,” Rossetti explained that they considered his unresponsiveness normal.

“He was on a subsidy from the government and the government consistently failed to do their inspections,” she wrote. “This was a government failure not Pike International.”

While New Haven housing officials deemed the property unsanitary, Lim said Pike was unresponsive when the three remaining tenants asked for assistance in procuring replacement housing. It was only when Runge’s guardians, who are both lawyers, threatened to intervene that the company began to engage with their requests. Still, Lim added, Pike argued that they bore no legal responsibility because they had not played a part in Valuskas’ passing.

* * *

Not all the stories are so morbid, but accounts from other students and faculty represent Pike as equally evasive and unresponsive.

As a woman entering Yale from South Korea with a husband and a four-year old daughter, Bae knew she had to make the right call with her off-campus housing.

Because she also manages several businesses in South Korea, Bae wanted to rent two apartments in New Haven, one where she would live near the Divinity School, where she would begin her graduate studies, and another which would serve as a make-shift office. From South Korea, Bae searched for apartments online and found two apartments from Pike that seemed exactly what she wanted. The first apartment, a three-bedroom place on 670 Prospect St., was $3000 a month, the most expensive and luxurious apartment owned by Pike. The second, which was to be her office, cost $2000 a month and was on 477 Prospect St.

Although she was not able to visit these locations in person because she was in Korea, Bae said she thought Pike’s frequent referrals to Yale on its website was a sign that the company was University-approved.

Bae arrived to find the living conditions unsuitable for her family. And her new office on 477 Prospect St., she said, looked nothing like the photos of the apartment listed on Pike’s website.

“When we walked inside, it was not the space on the Internet,” she said. “It was completely different and definitely smaller,” she added, noting that unlike the actual property, the one on the Internet was very modern.

Even the more expensive apartment was underwhelming. The ‘living room’ was a basement, she explained, and constant stream of cold air from downstairs made her daughter sick. Soon Bae and her family moved into the one-bedroom apartment that she had planned to use as an office.

Yet beyond the poor conditions — which included a lack of heat, uneven floors and windows that were structurally unsound and posed a safety risk to her daughter — Bae was most disappointed by Pike’s customer service.

“It was my first time being offended by a receptionist on the phone. She just hung up the phone on me whenever I wanted to talk to someone higher up,” she exclaimed. Although she was laughing about it over the phone when interviewed on Tuesday, Bae recalled feeling sad and confused at the treatment she received.

When Bae realized she was pregnant again, she knew her living situation was untenable. After speaking with friends and University officials, she met a former employee of Pike who sympathized with her story. The ex-employee advised Bae to break her lease.

When she did so and drew up papers with a lawyer, Peter Blasini, who had worked with other former Pike tenants, she recounted the anger with which Pike officials reacted. Every day in the lead-up to her move-out day, Bae said two or three people from Pike would come and angrily knock on her door.

“I felt terrible and scared something was going to happen when we moved out,” she said, adding that she approached Divinity School faculty about being afraid for her safety. On the day that she moved out, Bae turned off her phone because she feared Hecht would call her and try to convince her to stay.

Although her original home was just a few minutes away from the Divinity School by foot, Bae decided to leave her Pike rental property in favor of housing in Trumbull, Conn. — a 45-minute drive from school. Her new landlord often responds to emails within minutes, she said.

By the end of her stay with Pike, Bae and her husband had considered a class action suit against the company, but ultimately did not file one due to time constraints.

* * *

When Matt Lawlor ’14 and his roommates moved into their Pike house on 401 Crown St., there was a mountain of trash by the front steps. Inside, there were abandoned kegs, holes in the walls and footprints on the ceiling. All of the first floor drains were clogged and crusted with black mold — and there was no hot water, he said.

“We went to [the Pike staff], and we told them ‘you have to fix this,’” Lawlor said. Initially, Pike was somewhat responsive, fixing the plumbing and water heater. But then, he recalled, “They started ignoring me.” So much so that when Lawlor and his housemates called into the office multiple times, in need of further utility fixes, they received the same message for days on end: that the person they were looking for was in a meeting.

Soon, Lawlor and his housemates established a rotational calling schedule between the five of them, one person on duty every hour to call.

Yarrington, one of Lawlor’s housemates, explained the problems that led to this endeavor. Their apartment’s floor was detached from the wall and sinking, causing, cold air from the basement to seep through. As a result, their apartment was chilly and they were forced to pay more for heating.

Yarrington added, mice were constantly scuttling around.

Cody Kahoe ’15, who lives at 37 Lynwood Pl. with five other undergraduates, has also dealt with increased heating costs as a result of broken windows. The house’s washer and dryer, which have been inoperable since the summer, were only repaired by Pike last week.

While Kahoe said he and his housemates are fond of their living space because it has its own “flavor,” he added that it is not a place he would want to live for the rest of his life.

“It’s kind of dumpish,” he said. “The stairs are incredibly warped, to the point that my friends will ask me, ‘am I high, or is there something wrong with your stairs?’” He added that from the back of the house, it becomes clear that the structure is crooked.

Lawlor, Yarrington and Kahoe’s experiences with Pike’s unresponsiveness do not surprise McNamara. When she moved into her apartment in August, the man showing her around handed her the keys and his card and said, “Call this number if you ever need any maintenance done, and we’ll get people within four days.” That turnaround time is nothing to brag about, McNamara said.

Still, Rossetti said Pike is becoming proactive whereas it was once reactive. In an email to the News, she said the company sends out regular emails and letters to check in with residents. The company is also upgrading its software, she said, to make sure maintenance teams can be notified of requests in real-time to expedite the process. In addition, Rossetti said she personally visits both Pike’s buildings and also Yale administrators to ensure that “nothing is slipping through the cracks.”

* * *

Despite the prevalence of these incidents, students interviewed said rent in Pike properties is much higher than that of comparable spaces in the city.

“Pike is more interested in getting your money than in providing the services,” Yarrington said.

Kahoe feels this acutely. Though he is bothered by Pike’s utilities and maintenance issues, he is particularly frustrated with the high price he has to pay.

“We’re paying New York City rent for a house in New Haven,” he said, adding that his six housemates pay around $5,500 a month in rent. Price ranges depend on room size, which means that his housemates living in the largest rooms pay upwards of a thousand dollars a month.

And while Kahoe has the house’s smallest room, he said he pays two to three times more than friends living in similarly-sized spaces in nicer houses on Dwight Street.

Under these conditions, what causes students to sign leases with Pike?

Some undergraduates, like McNamara, a transfer student who was not familiar with New Haven before coming to Yale, enter off-campus housing unaware of others’ experiences.

“Most of my friends know better,” McNamara said. “[Pike] has such a bad reputation that when I tell people that I live in a Pike-owned building, they’re like, ‘I’m so sorry.’”

But others know about Pike’s reputation and decide to live there anyway. They say there are simply no other choices.

Kahoe said Pike is a part of an “oligopoly” on the housing market for students, so when it decides to increase rent, students are in no place to negotiate. When Pike wanted to increase Kahoe and his housemates’ rent by 5 percent (compared to the previous year), Kahoe tried to speak with them about it. But “they claimed they had other people who were interested.” Eventually, they negotiated the increase to 2.8 percent.

“They claim that it is customary to raise rent 5 to 10 percent per month each year,” Kahoe said in an email to the News. “This is really not true. I have friends who rent from other people in New Haven who have not had their rent increased in the last two years.”

* * *

Several students and faculty interviewed said they wish Yale were more involved, in some way or another, with properties off-campus.

“Many graduate students would like the University to build more housing for graduate or professional school students,” said George, adding that the principal problem is New Haven’s high occupancy rate. At 98 percent, George said, the rate makes it is difficult for students to negotiate with landlords because they can easily find other tenants.

Yale French Lector Ruth Koizim, whose friends have broken leases with Pike, said she hopes Yale will apply more pressure on the real estate company. Still, Koizim, whose late husband was involved in local politics, pointed out that in the New Haven community, Hecht is recognized as “a big mover and shaker” — a status that perhaps protected him from political consequence.

Some students expressed hope that Yale will purchase more properties that the University could lease as off-campus housing for students. They cited as an example Harrison Court, an apartment building adjacent to Pierson College that Yale owns and leases to students at market prices. But Koizim said such an action is likely unfeasible due to complex fiscal reasons.

Bruce Alexander, University vice-president for New Haven and state affairs and campus development, said Yale only purchased properties on Howe Street “to arrest a serious decline in that neighborhood adjacent to Davenport and Pierson.”

Longyear said while the University cannot control off-campus housing it does not own, Yale recognizes that students’ living arrangements affect the quality of their college experience. As such, Yale’s Off-Campus Living website is in the process of establishing a Landlord Ratings platform where students can compare and evaluate their rental experiences. Longyear believes that this resource will incentivize landlords to build good relationships with their tenants.

* * *

Lawlor and Yarrington now live in an Off-Broadway Inc. property. Their current landlords have been quick to fix burst pipes and shovel snow throughout the winter months, they said.

The students were eager to leave their Pike house last spring, but even moving out posed its challenges. For several months, Pike refused to return their security deposit. After threatening to go to court, Lawlor also showed the company time-stamped photos of the house.

After a year, the mold that greeted them at the beginning of their stay had remained intact.

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