Inner City Press

Inner City Press -- Investigative Reporting Since 1987

From the South Bronx to Wall Street to the United Nations

- In Other Media   For further information, click here to contact us         .

Home -For the Media
Bank Beat/ RSS Feed
Freedom of Information
Human Rights
Current Campaigns
How to Contact Us

Inner City Press Bronx Report - January 27, 2005

Back Drafts Don’t Take Place in a Vacuum: Following the Slumlords

           The fire in 236 East 178th Street which killed two firemen has resulted, as a matter of media- and Bronx-watching, in more attention that usual to housing conditions an d ownership here in the inner city. There is talk of criminal prosecution for partition walls, subdivision into rented rooms, with the finger of blame pointed either at the apartment’s tenants, or at Ms. Lesley Berman, portrayed as having owned the building only since January 2004.

       On its evening news broadcasts on January 26, CBS-2 reported that “Lesley Berman owns the apartment building at 236 East 178th Street where two firefighters died and four others were injured on Sunday. She bought in it January 2004 and says she did not know some of the apartments had been subdivided.” The New York Times of January 26 reported that “Speaking with reporters at her small real estate office at 780 Lydig Avenue in the Bronx, the owner, Lesley Berman, said she bought the building in January 2004 and did not know that some of the apartments had been subdivided. But she also acknowledged that she had not been inside all of the apartments.” The Times added that

“One person who may be a key figure in the city's investigations is Cesar Rios, who owned the building for about 15 years before selling to Ms. Berman. During his ownership, the building was cited for many housing code violations, mostly for problems related to the boiler, peeling paint and leaky ceilings. He also piled up tens of thousands of dollars, apparently, in unpaid water bills in a long battle with the city. It was enough of a concern for the company that holds the mortgage, Baron 1990 Associates, to sue Mr. Rios, said Barry H. Levites, a Bronx real estate broker who is a partner in the company. And even though Mr. Rios settled with Mr. Levites, Ms. Berman also became ensnared in a dispute over unpaid water bills, Mr. Levites said. A call to Mr. Rios's home in New Fairfield, Conn., was answered by a man who said he was Mr. Rios's brother Jose. He said it had been more than a year since Cesar Rios had any involvement in the building.”

            But Inner City Press’ research reveals that Lesley Berman and Cesar Rios have had other business dealings, in the nature of a partnership, going back more than a decade.  A 1993 property record from Fairfield County, Connecticut shows Cesar Rios buying 63 Rose Street, Danbury CT 06810 -- and shows Lesley Berman, 780 Lydig Avenue, The Bronx, as also owning 63 Rose Street in Danbury.  (The purchase was recorded on November 22, 1993, Book/Page 1068/373.) 

            The 1990 purchaser of 234-6 E. 178th Street was listed as Mira Realty, c/o Levites Realty C Rios, 15 North Street, Bronx NY 10468.  This same 15 North Street was Lesley Berman’s address in 1993, to accept process for “Try Out Realty,” f/k/a 1040-45 Boynton Realty Corp. (Corporation Number: 1411728; Microfilm Number: C093052-2.)  In 1998, for Lase Realty Corp., Ms. Berman is listed at 2675 Grand Concourse. Cesar Rios used the same address as his own for his 1993 partnership with Barry Levites and others, under the name Baron 1993 Associates, in Clay Owner Associates (Filing Number C19851). Mr. Rios also used this 2675 Grand Concourse as his to file to dissolve Mira Realty -- listed at 15 North Street -- in June 2004 (Microfilm Number C167355-3).

            These decade-old connections -- shared business address, joint ownership of property -- appear to call into question both Ms. Berman’s claim to have had nothing to do with 234-6 E. 178th Street before January 2004, and Mr. Rios’ brother’s claim, quoted in the New York Times, that Cesar Rios has had nothing to do with the 178th Street building for more than a year.

            The Times described Ms. Berman’s real estate office at 780 Lydig Avenue as small. That may be -- but consider that Ms. Berman’s Try Out Realty also appears to own 1472 Leland Avenue in The Bronx, and 340A Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem (Book/Page: 3474/1082, as of March 20, 2002, purchased with a $455,000 loan from Astoria Federal Savings Bank).

            One might wonder why, since Ms. Berman has been able to access bank loans for other property, the lender recording the mortgage for her 2004 purchase of 234-6 E. 178th Street from Cesar Rios’ Mira Realty was the same Baron 1990 Associates from which Mr. Rios accessed credit to buy the building in 1990.  Consider further the lender Barry Levites, and the company Baron 1990 Associates in which he is a partner.  Since it is reasonable to expect a lender to inspect and perform due diligence on a building being used as collateral for a loan, it is significant that Baron 1990 recorded two loans to Ms. Berman’s 234 E. 178th Street LLC, in August 2004.  Baron 1990 Associates is listed as owner of 89 and 98 Broadway Associates, along with Howard Parnes and Harvey Wolinetz (Bronx County d/b/a/ filing of October 9, 1990). Baron 1990 Associates has filed Uniform Commercial Code liens, for example against 432 E. 149th Street, with another financier, Howard Parnes.  The Village Voice’s now-deceased (and missed) Julie Lobbia described Mr. Parnes in 1998 as “a megafinancier of Bronx slum property who himself was named in the Voice's 10 worst landlords list in 1986.”  Newsday’s 1989 inquiry into who killed tenant organizer Bruce Bailey reported that

Bailey's last meeting before he returned home that Wednesday afternoon was with Harvey Wolinetz, who worked for the building's management company. According to the police, officials at Houlihan and Parnes, the Scarsdale-based management company, confirmed that Wolinetz met with Bailey the afternoon before he disappeared.... Nellie Bailey says that... the police told her that "after Bruce's body was recovered, they called Houlihan and Parnes, and they were very uncooperative . . . Then on June 30, they returned the call to the police and said that the agent Bruce had met, Wolinetz, was away on vacation in the Far East. He'd left on June 28. And the obvious question is, why did they wait two days until this man went on vacation, when they knew police were making inquiries?" Wolinetz is still out of the country; Houlihan and Parnes did not return repeated phone calls. But a detective close to the case said, "We're not focusing on anybody right now."

            If the past is any guide, the leads in these slumlord stories rarely get fully followed up. Perhaps it will be different this time.  Or perhaps not: back in 1985, the New York Times’ real estate reporter Alan Oser wrote that “Other major operators are Howard Parnes, a principal in the firm of Houlihan-Parnes, now in Scarsdale but for many years in the Bronx; Morris Leisner, who is described as an ''old pro'' whose deals are mainly in Harlem; Barry Levitas, operating in the Bronx and Washington Heights” -- yes, this is a misprint of Barry Levites, quoted above. Ironically, the New York Times of April 30, 1989 quoted landlord Cesar Rios: “Elsewhere in Morris Heights and in Fordham, just to the north, there were three shootouts between rival gangs recently, and a 12-year-old boy was killed. On a nearby block, drug sales were brisk on a sunny afternoon, and Cesar Rios, who owns an apartment house there, came by to ask Mr. Graham to extend the patrols to his building.” Which building might that have been?  To the firemen, as set forth below, Rest in Peace.  The media spotlight will move on; affordable, non-dangerous housing will remain difficult to find. 

Šopyright 2006 Inner City Press, Inc. To request reprint or other permission, e-contact Editors [at] - phone: (718) 716-3540