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More tenants join Vantage suit

Tenants rights organizers are seeking to expand a lawsuit they filed against corporate landlord Vantage Properties, adding more plaintiffs and details of suspected violations of the new city tenant harassment law, which went into effect March 13.

"We have an extremely good case," said April Neubauer, director of civil litigation in Queens for the Legal Aid Society, which filed the suit with the Catholic Migration Office of the Brooklyn-Queens Diocese and Lawyers for the Public Interest. "As soon as we filed, we got a call from Vantage's lawyers to sit down and negotiate. ...They are worried."

The suit alleges Vantage violated consumer protection, debt collection and rent stabilization laws while pressuring tenants to leave their rent-regulated apartments in Jackson Heights, Sunnyside and Woodside.

Bud Perrone, a Vantage spokesman, said the suit was without merit and that the door was still open for discussion.

At a tenants rally in Jackson Heights last Thursday, the groups urged residents to organize to resist tactics like the ones named in the lawsuit aimed at removing them from their rent-regulated apartments.

Private equity-backed landlords like Vantage expected a rate of return between 15 percent and 20 percent on these properties, said Benjamin Dulchin, deputy director of the Manhattan-based advocacy group Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. The typical rate of return on rent-regulated apartment buildings is between 7 percent and 8 percent, he said.

State legislators are also working on changing regulations in the housing market. State Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) touted a bill that would eliminate the vacancy decontrol law that is central to the profit strategies of many corporate landlords. The bill recently passed the state Assembly, but has yet to come up for a vote in the state Senate.

Peralta also said he hoped to act as a mediator between the landlord and the advocates, noting Vantage had addressed the issues of several tenants who had contacted his office.

"Vantage is really looking to do the right thing," he said. "Have they done it fast enough? No. But they came to their senses."

State Sen. John Sabini (D-Jackson Heights) urged the gathered Vantage tenants to stick together.

"I think we have them on the run," he told the crowd. "I'm told the 'not on lease' notices have slowed, but that doesn't mean we should stop."

The suit alleges Vantage has sued tenants for nonpayment despite receiving their rent, and it accused others of having a primary residence elsewhere based on a similar name.

Dhenise Oliveira, who has lived in her apartment on 88th Street in Jackson Heights since 1992, said this is what happened to her two years ago. Oliveria, who is not part of the suit, said she received a letter from Vantage in December 2006 saying she had to move out.

When she and her husband, Marcos, contested the claim, Vantage asked to see pay stubs and utility bills, she said.

When pay stubs failed to convince Vantage, Dhenise said they went to the Woodside address where Vantage accused them of living. There they found another Marcos Oliveiras, who agreed to visit Vantage as proof Dhenise did not live there.

Still, Dhenise said, Vantage did not give them a lease renewal form until she called up to file a complaint.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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