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New York City real estate agents have been inundated with Russian clients looking to privately sell off multimillion-dollar properties through so-called “whisper listings” in a rush to liquidate assets amid fears more U.S. sanctions will come against anyone believed to be tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Dolly Lenz, a luxury real estate agent who’s been in the business in New York City more than 35 years, told FOX Business her firm received calls from Russian clients looking to potentially “whisper list” between 50 and 70 properties, mostly in Manhattan, within the last week.
Of the Manhattan properties that may be sold under the radar, the majority are on Billionaires’ Row, a set of ultra-luxury residential skyscrapers along the southern end of Central Park. There are others in the West Village, as well as some luxury condominiums on Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue.
The properties range in value from $5 million to $45-50 million in asking price, but sales may be rushed for far less depending on how distressed sellers become.
‘Depending on sanctions’
“Everybody’s putting feelers out there. They’re not pulling the trigger yet. They’re getting ready to pull the trigger. Meaning, ‘Yes, I’ll take whatever the best offering can get me’,” Lenz told FOX Business this week. “That could be what comes down the pike. So really, depending on sanctions, and you know where we are with everything, that’s all we see potentially is playing out.”
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Lenz said other Russian owners reached out to her from states outside of New York, like California and Florida, where potential sellers are in North Miami and Fisher’s Island, known for its private enclaves that became popular among the Russian uber-wealthy around the fall of the Soviet Union.
As Putin continues his invasion of Ukraine, President Biden’s Justice Department launched a new task force, KleptoCapture, which has been working since last week to enforce sanctions against Russian criminal actors and potentially seize assets in the U.S. belonging to Russian oligarchs, including luxury real estate, yachts and private jets worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Loopholes in legislation
Last week, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine called on the U.S. Treasury Department to add names to the U.S. sanctions list so more real estate in New York City connected to Russian oligarchs can be seized. Through current loopholes in legislation, these oligarchs are allowed to transfer wealth to families and friends without retribution. It’s estimated that there is at least $12 trillion tucked away in offshore accounts, according to human rights group Global Witness. In New York City alone, a full accounting of the real estate holdings exceeds $1 billion in value, Levine said.
There’s also concern too among Russian elites about access to funds in their bank accounts as major Wall Street financial institutions cut ties to Moscow.
In neighboring New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed bipartisan legislation Wednesday clearing the state treasury to create a list of people and companies with investments in Russia or Belarus as a way to prevent Putin’s “cronies” from securing contracts, tax abatements or doing further business with the state.
A so-called whisper listing, Lenz explained, means owners contact realtors to contact potential buyers in their rolodex privately and gage how much they would be willing to pay. Instead of officially listing their property for sale, doing the paperwork and publicly disclosing asking price, whisper listings give sellers an added sense of privacy by avoiding having pictures of their assets online.
“It’s much more complicated, time-consuming, and leaves an odd taste in purchasers’ mouths as to why are we doing it this way? Why is this whisper listed?” Lenz said of handling listings under the radar. “Especially in these times, everyone wants a deal, but they’re so reticent to jump in.”
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Lenz said she can only speak with respect to the 50 to 70 Russian-owned properties her firm is handling, but those aren’t the only luxury properties suddenly hitting the Manhattan market.
At least 61 properties have been put up for sale or have had a price update or some other change in Central Park South within the last week, a second real estate source told FOX Business.
Central Park South, a micro-neighborhood just three blocks along 59th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Columbus Circle, has long attracted wealthy Russians and other international investors. At One Central Park South, the building famously known as The Plaza, there have been at least 16 new or updated listings since the invasion of Ukraine began Feb. 24.
These properties generally range in price from $1 million to $28 million.
That doesn’t mean all the new or updated listings are owned by Russians. If a Russian owner is putting a property up at a significantly better value to ensure quicker than average movement, that can prompt other sellers to fall in line and compete with the new pricing, the source said.
Manhattan’s luxury real estate market has long relied on foreign investment. Since she’s been in the business, Lenz said, it was first the Japanese who arrived in the 1980s looking to buy up luxury properties. Even the Bank of Japan purchased properties around the Museum Tower area, she said.
Then, about 10 to 15 years ago, wealthy Russians flooded New York City after the Soviet Union fell and mostly bought properties around Billionaire’s Row and older luxury buildings in the same neighborhood.
Then Russians became a less frequent clientele in New York City’s luxury real estate market. And, in recent years, there’s been more of an influx of wealthy buyers from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
“They kind of went quiet,” Lenz said of the influx of wealthy Russian buyers. “And they’re only out there now because they want to liquidate ahead of a crisis.”
“If you ask me to guess because obviously not everybody’s telling you everything they’re thinking, nor should they,” she added. “I think that they’re more afraid of what’s coming in the future than it is any absolute knowledge of what’s coming in the future. They’re trying to get ahead of it.”
At the state level in New York, two Democratic state lawmakers, Sen. Brad Hoylman and Assemblywoman Emily Gallagher, who represent Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively, introduced legislation last week aimed at combating “secretive patterns of real estate investment in New York City among international elites through anonymous LLCs and the use of New York LLCs by wealthy Russian nationals in New York state to purchase luxury homes.”
The bill would require LLCs to disclose their owners to the New York Department of State and would create a public database of which LLCs share common ownership. It asserts that anonymous LLC landlords have caused code violations for years in the Hudson Valley, prompting a 2019 state senate investigation, as well as tens of thousands of pandemic-era rental assistance applications to be unnecessarily delayed.
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But the use of LLCs to purchase high-end real estate is a common practice, so it’s unclear if the proposed legislation will gain any traction.
“Every single purchaser we’ve ever had created a new LLC for each and every property. I think the majority of wealthy people purchase an LLC for every reason in the world,” Lenz said. “We would welcome any transparency to every transaction. We personally go the extra yard to make sure we know who we’re dealing with. Even though we don’t have (know-your-client) rules in real estate like they do in banking – have to vet everyone they talked to – we don’t have to, but we do.”
“We don’t want to talk to anybody we think is unsavory,” she added. “It’s not because they’re unsavory, it’s because they’re afraid of being tied to this situation.”
FOX Business’ Sumner Park contributed to this report.