by Elaine Marranzano –
The tornado-force winds of change are blowing down Cortlandt Street in Sleepy Hollow in the form of Billy Procida, a high-profile, feisty, real estate lender who is the new owner of eight mixed-use buildings on the beleaguered inner-village street.
Procida acquired the properties when previous owner Cirilo Rodriquez defaulted on a $9.5 million loan from Procida’s $200 million investment fund.
In the last five months, Procida has removed “$100,000 worth of trash,” painted and repaired crumbling facades, installed three new boilers, removed unsightly awnings and blankets covering windows, installed smoke detectors and window shades, fixed faulty wiring, eliminated illegal and overcrowded occupancy and provided leases to tenants for the first time. He is a visible, hands-on landlord who said he has already spent $500,000 on his strategy for the buildings: “Make ‘em safe. Make ‘em pretty. Make ‘em legal.”
“We inherited hundreds of building code violations that have existed for decades,” said Procida. “We have cleared up about 90 percent of them.”
The Sleepy Hollow Building Department could not confirm this assessment.
“In May 2017, the Building Department issued permits for each of Mr. Procida’s buildings to correct miscellaneous violations,” said Sleepy Hollow Building Inspector Sean McCarthy. “At this time, we have not been contacted to inspect all of the work, so I cannot quantify what percentage of the violations that have been corrected.
Cortlandt Street was a vibrant commercial and residential district filled with bakers, butchers, bars and houses of worship. It was the kind of street where kids rode their bikes and bought lemon ice at Popeye’s Stationery and fresh rolls at Alter’s Bakery. There was a lot of “stoop talking” among the African-American, Irish, Polish and Spanish-speaking residents.
But in recent memory, Cortlandt became a place where sometimes unruly crowds gathered, smoking pot, drinking and littering. In 1998 a man murdered his wife and then jumped out of his fourth-floor apartment window on – you guessed it – Cortlandt Street. Until recently, the most positive thing to have happened on the street was the sighting of the Virgin Mary in the bark of tree. It was deemed miraculous.
Procida hopes to change that.
“This is not just about renovating my buildings. That would be short-sighted. It is about involving everyone and improving people’s lives,” said Procida. “That is the way you make money.”
Procida is an award-winning rehabber of decrepit neighborhoods in Harlem and the Bronx and a driving force behind renovations in Philadelphia and Beacon, New York. His company, Procida Funding and Advisors, lends to people who can’t get funding through a traditional bank. If the borrower defaults, Procida may become owner of the real estate securing the loan, which is how he came to own the buildings on Cortlandt.
“This is the first time in 10 years that one of my borrowers declared bankruptcy,” he said as a point of pride.
Rodriquez is what bankruptcy courts call “a repeat filer.” Since 2008, he has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy three times. When he defaulted on the loan from Procida in 2016, a judge ordered his assets be sold.
“He messed with the wrong guy,” Procida remarked.
Rodriquez has a long and fraught history with the village. In 1999, he sued the building inspector for trying to force him to comply with state and local building codes. He lost. In 2008, he was ordered by a judge to pay $94,500 in fines for building code violations at 196 Cortlandt Street. Procida now owns that building. In 2010, he tried to evict an 80-year-old cancer patient from 145 Cortlandt for nonpayment of rent when she was in the hospital.
“He was definitely preying on these tenants,” Procida maintained. A storage facility and four “dungeons” without windows were being rented out as apartments for $400 a month in a Rodriquez-owned building, according to Procida. Sixteen people were living in another two-bedroom apartment. “I think they were sleeping in shifts,” he said. The illegal tenants were asked to leave, but “not one legal tenant has been displaced.”
By law, the Sleepy Hollow Building Department cannot enter a building to investigate suspected building code or occupancy violations unless there is a complaint. Complaints and inspections are frequently triggered by police or fire department activity inside the building.
“Often times tenants do not file complaints because they believe their landlord will evict them,” said McCarthy.
To collectively address quality-of-life issues and put pressure on “bad landlords,” Procida is forming the Southwest Sleepy Hollow Property Owners Association, rejecting the term “inner-village” as negative. But the village has to change too, according to Procida.
“There should be a general mandate for the village to be as supportive as humanly possible of anyone who wants to open a business in Sleepy Hollow,” said Procida. “Instead, they have this antiquated process.”
Procida said he lost a potential tenant who wanted to open a 3-D printing operation because the village required him to “spend $10,000” on an architect and make multiple trips to the zoning and planning boards.
“The guy was in the building department 20 times. The village lost a great potential tenant,” he said.
Procida admitted he had to “push the reset button” on his relationship with McCarthy after pressuring him unsuccessfully to allow some of the illegal apartments he inherited to be “grandfathered-in.” The illegal apartments are considered a fire hazard. It is the responsibility of the village to enforce the fire code and ensure the safety of the apartments. It matters because if Procida wants to sell the buildings, the number of legal apartments helps dictate their value.
Another sign that Procida may be rubbing someone the wrong way is a strange fire that broke out in one of his buildings.
“I would call it attempted murder,” he remarked.
On April 7, when Procida and McCarthy were conducting an inspection at 85-87 Cortlandt, a fire ignited inside the kitchen of a third-floor apartment. Singed papers were found on top of the gas stove and smoke alarms and security cameras had been disabled.
“The Sleepy Hollow Fire Department was here in three minutes. Any longer and that gas line could have melted and exploded,” Procida said. “Whoever did this, had it in for me and the building inspector.”
The Sleepy Hollow Police Department labeled the fire “suspicious” and are investigating.
Procida’s apartments on Cortlandt Street are nearly 100 percent occupied, though vacant store fronts remain. An accounting firm recently became the first new business on the street in more than a decade, Procida said. Still he proclaims Cortlandt Street to be “a goldmine.”
“Oh my God, what a great location!” he said.