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Vantage founder assesses his record as owner of 80 boro apt. buildings

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After spending the summer seeking input from tenants, Neil Rubler and his real estate company, Vantage Properties, plan to roll out several new initiatives they say will address the concerns of Queens residents, including a new billing system and partnering with a translation service to aid individuals calling the company’s complaint hot line.

Close to Vantage’s fourth anniversary, Rubler, the chief executive officer, is trying to smooth out the kinks the relatively new company has encountered with tenants and housing advocates. In an interview with the TimesLedger, Rubler said while the majority of the tenants were pleased with the Vantage buildings based on a survey the company conducted over the summer, there are still significant issues to address.He cited the company’s rent bills that Rubler conceded can be “incredibly hard to understand.”

Vantage owns and operates nearly 10,000 apartment units, many of which are rent-regulated, in about 150 buildings throughout the city. It acquired many of its 80 Queens buildings in such areas as Corona, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Sunnyside, and Woodside from notorious landlord Nicholas Haros in 2008. Haros had committeed nearly “70 years of system abuse” to his buildings, according to Rubler, and had wracked up nearly 10,000 housing violations by the time Vantage purchased the apartments.

After fixing all the serious violations, Rubler said he is now able to focus on such issues as billing.

Because each apartment unit has a slew of different items that comprise the total amount an individual pays for rent, such as Section 8 deductions or parking charges, Rubler said the bills can seem messy and frustrating for tenants and he expects to soon have a new billing system in which tenants will receive easier to read bills.

“The total amount you need to pay will be highlighted, like it is on an AT&T bill, and there will be explanatory information about the charges on the back,” Rubler said.

Until that system is in place, Rubler said the company will stop charging late fees to tenants living in Vantage’s Queens buildings.

In another attempt to better Vantage’s image that has been blemished by criticism from housing advocates, Rubler said the company will forge a partnership with a translation service by the end of the year. With this new partnership, Rubler said Vantage will be able to communicate with tenants in almost any language. Currently, Vantage officials primarily work in English and Spanish.

“People in our call center speak English and Spanish, and we work very hard to translate our printed documents into English and Spanish,” Rubler said. “But our residents speak a lot more languages than English and Spanish. With the translation service, if someone speaks Tagalog, they could get that interpreted.”

Tagalog is a language spoken in the Philippines.

Rubler is hoping a series of efforts such as these will help to assuage the concerns held by affordable housing advocates, such as the Sunnyside-based Catholic Migration Office.

The Queens nonprofit has helped to organize more than 1,300 disgruntled Vantage renters in the borough who have accused the company of harassing rent-stabilized tenants in the hopes of making way for residents who could pay for more expensive, market-rate units — a charge Rubler has repeatedly called baseless.

Vantage’s 24-hour call center, which has received more than 100,000 calls this year, will soon have additional personnel, which Rubler said will help to address frustrations held by such tenants as Elmhurst resident Iftikhar Muhammad.

Muhammad, 47, who attended a rally held by about 50 Vantage residents Monday, said he has not received a quick response about repairs after logging complaints with the call center. Additionally, he has lived with bed bugs for months, but Vantage has done nothing about it.

“They make you wait for weeks,” Muhammad said. “The super does not freely accept complaints.”

Sunnyside resident Duby Penagos, 46, said the leak in her bathroom ceiling was not fixed for two months, despite repeated attempts with Vantage, until she made a complaint with the city’s 311 system.

Rubler said he understands how “acrimonious” relationships have been between many landlords and their tenants in the city. But he believes that with time tenants, affordable housing advocates — of which Rubler said he is one — and elected officials will eventually recognize Vantage is an efficiently run company catering to middle-class residents that Rubler said he hopes one day will be compared to Toyota, Wal-Mart or JetBlue.

The Vantage CEO said it is well on its way to being recognized as a company that wants to change how housing is run in the city.

Jeremy Walsh contributed reporting to this article.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

Posted 6:28 pm, October 10, 2011
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