A Greek immigrant, who began his work in this country as a busboy four decades ago, is now the kingpin behind Alma Realty, the main developer of the Astoria Cove rezoning proposal that’s currently up for debate in the city council.
In many ways, Efstathios “Steve” Valiotis’ story rings true to a glimmering version of the American Dream. And yet, some poking around reveals an extensive real estate empire with questionable track record on worker safety, maintenance and valuing tenants rights.
In 1972, Efstathios Valiotis, 26 at the time, immigrated from Greece and moved to Corona, Queens where his sister lived, a 1997 New York Times article stated. He worked as a dishwasher, at a pizza joint and later ran a newsstand and furniture store. With a group of friends he began his foray into real estate, converting abandoned lofts into living spaces and funding West Side co-op conversions.
”Then I came to Astoria,” Mr. Valiotis told the Times. ”I saw an opportunity in condominium conversions.”
Since that article was published, Valiotis’ real estate ventures have sprawled in a complex web that extends throughout most of the boroughs and deep into New Jersey.
In 2013, the century-old Greek publication the National Herald included Valiotis’ on a list of the wealthiest Greeks in America. It pinned his worth at $750 million, and claimed he owned around 10,000 apartments and 5 million square feet of commercial property in New York and New Jersey.
Beyond real estate there are 29 companies listed under Valiotis’ name including a bank, construction contractors and plumbing companies, ensuring that all parts of the development process can stay in house.
But within this vast sea of properties, contractors and related businesses, certain troubling cases raise concerns about the way Valiotis’ companies operate throughout the city.
Build Up NYC, a coalition of labor and affordable housing advocates, has scoured records from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and found more than 1,200 open violations at Valiotis’ properties across the city.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor fined Vardonia Construction Corporation (one of Valiotis’ companies) $145,530 for operating crane and concrete work too close to high voltage power lines, putting workers in jeopardy of electrocution.
“While this developer is not on OSHA’s Severe Violators List—which is the worst violators of safety and health in the country—they still have a pretty revealing record of safety and health violations,” Charlene Obernauer of the New York Committee for Occupational Health. Obernauer testified against Alma at a hearing about Astoria Cove development earlier this year.
And court records show dozens of civil suits against Alma Realty, Valiotis and related companies. In one case, tenants of a Washington Heights building say GVS Properties (a splinter of Alma) illegally overcharged them and disregarded rent regulation laws. At that same building tenants haven’t had gas since May.
“We’re surviving, but we’re not doing good,” Maria Tavarez said who has lived in that Washington Heights building for 37 years. She’s been using electric pots and hot plates to cook for the past five months, but is worried about the building’s lack of heat, now that winter is drawing near.
In another startling case Carlos Sanchez, a worker for S & S plumbing (also a splinter company), fell through the floor at an LIC construction site landing on the level below, sustaining serious brain damage and back injuries. His lawyer Josh Stein said the site lacked harnesses, webbing, lanyards and other safety equipment required by state law.
“He’s had the type of brain damage that you see in football players after they die and they do the autopsy,” Stein said. “He’s defiantly not the same person he was.”
And a handful of Valiotis’ properties have bopped on and off the Public Advocate’s yearly Landlord Watch List. One building in the East Bronx is still on the list with 309 open HPD violations, although it’s worth noting Valiotis only acquired that building a few months ago.
Thomas Butler, who does not represent Alma Realty directly, but who works with lawyers at Astoria Cove, pointed out that the company has inherited a lot of these violations from negligent landlords.
“Alma Realty does invest in existing distressed properties with a goal of stabilizing and fixing those up,” he said. “There has been a significant amount of misleading information given out that fails to acknowledge that.”
In this light, Alma is the generous developer that sees potential in struggling neighborhoods.
But Valiotis’ own words suggest his motives might be less altruistic and more opportunistic. A 2011 NorthJersey.com article reported Valiotis was the largest private landowner in the hardscrabble town of Paterson.
“I believe in Paterson,” Valiotis told NorthJersey.com. “We can make money there.”