Imagine being a tenant in the City of Newburgh and one day discovering that the home you rent has been sold. You can no longer pay the rent because you don’t know who your new landlord is, or even where to send your monthly rent payment. Then one day you are served with legal papers for failure to pay rent.
It has become a recurring story in the City of Newburgh, where a developer is stocking up on properties and evicting tenants.
On the morning of Wednesday, May 10, two such residents, Taurus Johnson and Elizabeth Estrada of Carson Avenue, appeared in City Court for their rental payment cases.
Presiding over the cases was City Judge Joanne Matthews Forbes. The plaintiff against Johnson was Newburgh SHG 109 LLC, while Newburgh SHG 110 LLC brought suit against Estrada. Both plaintiffs were represented by attorney Sean O’Fallon from the law firm Catalano and O’Fallon, LLP, based in Poughkeepsie. The firm specializes in landlord-tenant law, real estate law, criminal defense and general litigation.
According to UniCourt, an online database, O’Fallon and his partner Vincent Catalano have filed 81 such cases in Orange County and City of Newburgh Courts, each involving a Newburgh SHG LLC.
Johnson’s hearing concluded with a settlement of $5,475 in rental payments from Johnson to the landlord.
Johnson added a statement at the end of the hearing, affirming his commitment as a tenant to pay his bills consistently. As for Estrada, the hearing resulted in an offer of complete forgiveness for the outstanding rental payments of $6,825 from November 2022 to May 2023, on the condition that they vacate their apartment by June 30. Estrada claimed to possess physical copies of money order receipts sent in November and December. Both Estrada and her husband decided to seek legal counsel and would return to court on May 31 at 9 a.m. O’Fallon did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the tenants’ cases.
Johnson, a lifelong city resident, had lived in his Carson Avenue apartment without issue for the past two years. However, his situation began to change earlier in 2023. According to Johnson, an unidentified individual approached him on behalf of an unknown employer, demanding rental payments for his unit. Initially, Johnson paid $900 per month for his apartment, which was later increased to $950 per month. “There was this strange guy, didn’t leave a name, just stated that he wanted to provide a [payment] account where to send the money for rent,”Johnson said. “He never left a name, he never left like his business card or provide any type of proof of who he works for.”
The building in which Johnson resided had been sold, and the previous manager was Fidelity Real Estate Management. Johnson attempted to contact Fidelity but was informed that the purchaser of the property was unknown.
Other tenants in the neighborhood had reportedly been approached by the same unidentified individual, who offered them money to move out. Most of the tenants on Carson Avenue, including Johnson, were of Hispanic and Black descent.
“He offered other neighbors money,” Johnson said. “He offered, I believe, $1,000 to move out, which is absolutely ridiculous. Some people don’t have the time to find affordable housing.”
Johnson informed the individual that he would not pay any rent since he had no information about the account or the recipient of the rental payments. Following this encounter, Johnson received a 14-day notice claiming he owed rent from December 1, 2022, to February 28, 2023.
Similarly, Estrada and Edith Zapata, also residing on Carson Avenue, were approached by an unknown individual who offered them $1,000 to $1,500 to vacate their units on behalf of the new owner of their buildings. Since Estrada’s family already paid $1,000 in rent, relocating was not viable. Furthermore, their rent was set to increase to $1,800. Neither woman had been informed about the sale of their buildings to another party, and Estrada only received notification of the sale in December 2022.
Research showed that each of the limited liability companies (LLCs) are registered to Adam Shayanfekr of Great Neck, Long Island. Shayanfekr is the Executive Director of Seraphim Equities, a real estate firm that became a part of the Newburgh community several years ago. The company participated in community events and giveaways in 2020 and completed a mixed-use development project on Broadway. Ninety-nine other properties are also owned by limited liability companies registered to Shayanfekr, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Fidelity Real Estate Management was also contacted for comment. A Fidelity representative only offered clarification that they had not managed Seraphim properties for nearly two years.
The fear among some lifelong residents is gentrification: buying and renovating properties, then charging higher rents that may attract wealthier tenants looking to relocate here from New York City and elsewhere, rents which locals would not be able to afford.
“I believe that what is happening behind Seraphim is what could be described as violent displacement to uproot and to displace an entire neighborhood. And families that have lived in Newburgh, it’s wrong. I definitely think that they should be investigated,” said Newburgh City Councilwoman Giselle Martinez. “I did want to mention that there is legislation being introduced at the state level by Assembly member [Jonathan] Jacobson, who is trying to tackle the indiscretion of LLCs in the City of Newburgh. There should be information on who is the actual owner, and I just don’t want this to be swept under the rug. People should not be profiting at the expense of our of our residents.”
Orange County Legislator Genesis Ramos, another lifelong city resident, is also concerned.
“What we see happening with Seraphim is very concerning because they are essentially contributing quite drastically to the displacement in our community and forcing folks who have been here for generations to leave what they know is home because they are buying buildings under LLCs, hundreds of properties at this point,” said Ramos. “The reality is that back in 2021, when things were first brought up around Seraphim’s practices, Adam tried to create an illusion that Seraphim was about the community, that they cared, that they were about the right thing. But what we are seeing two years later is the complete opposite. We’re seeing that they are contributing systemically to displacement here in the City of Newburgh, hiding behind their LLCs. They may have a financial investment in the City of Newburgh, but they surely do not have any kind of intention around really building community here or maintaining the character of this community.”