Housing Blues

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Housing Blues

How a residential developer is cashing in on Columbia branding

by Nikhil Dominic

A few blocks down from Columbia University, on 106th and Amsterdam, lies the office of Columbia South Apartments. With their official logo of a scholarly Pantone 292 shield fronted by an open book, one could be forgiven for assuming that CoSo Apartments (as they usually brand themselves) are affiliated with the school. They aren’t—but CoSo is happy to work with that impression.


CoSo-owned properties are scattered through-out Morningside Heights, with a few additional buildings beyond the park lining Manhattan Ave. and Frederick Douglass Blvd. Just like their name, CoSo’s website makes very clear their target demographic. Their homepage displays an interactive map of the neighborhood with Columbia’s campus highlighted in blue against a gray backdrop; the CoSo brochure contains, in lieu of a description of the neighborhood, an abbreviated history of the university.


Columbia has made official statements emphasizing their non-affiliation with CoSo in the past, but that hasn’t stopped the latter from blatantly cribbing the university’s visual branding. However, the company makes sure not to make their connection to the school too direct. The full name “Columbia South Apartments” never appears unabbreviated on the website or their brochure. At one point the company motto was “Apartments at the heart of your education”; they have since changed it to the more circumspect “Apartments in the heart of the Upper West Side.” CoSo strikes a tricky balance, covering itself in blue and pointing to campus with a wink without ever officially verbalizing a relationship to the university.


It’s obvious, of course, that property-owners in Morningside want to lease apartments to Columbia students. More troubling, however, is how CoSo has been making space in their buildings for those students. The New Jersey-based Orbach Group, which owns CoSo Apartments along with several other properties across the Greater New York area, made the New York Times last year over repeated allegations that it was attempting to force tenants in rent-controlled apartments out of their buildings in Morningside Heights and Manhattan Valley. Long-time tenants reported a large variety of aggressive tactics used by the Orbach Group to try and drive them out, ranging from installing unwieldy metal gates on their stoops to attempted forcible eviction using “evidence” of lease violations gathered with hidden security cameras.


Renters in CoSo buildings have been followed by private investigators and have faced significant legal pressure to sell their leases; some have caved to avoid having to pay exorbitant defense fees.


There are close to 1,500 Orbach-owned apartments in and around Morningside, approximately two-thirds of which are rent-controlled. Presumably due to the public pressure in the wake of the Times coverage and a subsequent investigation by the New York State attorney general, the Orbach Group formed a new subsidiary known as Orbach Affordable Housing Solutions in June of this year, which they describe as being “committed to the investment in and preservation of affordable residential units in New York City and across the country.”


I spoke to a manager at CoSo Apartments who was fairly upfront about their strategy of targeting Columbia students, describing it as a “great niche market.” On the topic of affordable housing units, however, he was considerably less forthcoming. When asked about Orbach Affordable Housing Solutions he claimed that the subsidiary has no connection to CoSo Apartments; Orbach’s promise to invest and preserve affordable housing units doesn’t seem to extend to the Upper West Side.


Since the state investigation and media coverage abated the Orbach Group has continued purchasing properties in the neighborhood, most recently buying a building between 102nd and 103 rd Streets made up almost entirely by rent-stabilized apartments. Chances are good that Columbia students will one day be living in these apartments (and paying significantly more rent). Whether or not some ten- ants manage to stay, the building is already displayed in blue on the CoSo website; none of the controversy has stopped the spread of Pantone 292.