Last week, Letitia James, the recently re-elected Public Advocate for NYC, released her office's annual Worst 100 Landlords in NYC List. This always get a little buzz in the NYC real estate world, but generally doesn't get on the radar of too many people (especially now that Gothamist and DNAinfo were murdered.)
That's a shame because the list is an opportunity for all renters and landlords to assess their buildings and to see what is working and what isn't. Some of the landlords on this list are notorious in the housing world. Others come and go, but more on that later. Either way, understanding how the list works will help landlords (and renters) make sure their building stays far away from it. Here are some key points about the list that every New Yorker should know.
1. Tenant complaints are the only way the city can issue violations
This might seem obvious, but unless a tenant makes a complaint to the city - which is as simple as calling 311 in many cases - the Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) department won't initiate an inspection. If HPD inspect's a complaint and confirms it, they issue a violation. Those data points are the basis for the scoring on the Worst Landlords List.
For tenants, this means if you see a serious problem in your building and your landlord isn't fixing it, you better call the city. There are lots of bad landlords that don't make it on this list because tenants don't speak up.
For landlords, this means you can avoid being on this list by being responsive to your tenants - before they have to call 311. They are your first line of defense against problems in your building. Work with them.
As you'd expect, the most insecure tenants need the most help with speaking up. There are many organizations like Met Council, CASA Bronx, Legal Aid Society, and Tenants & Neighbors (among many others) that can help.
2. As a landlord, you've got to be pretty bad to get on this list
A building's score is based on a very straight forward formula:
1. Violations are given weighted scores:
- B Class "Hazadrous" = 1. (ex: Inadequate lighting in public spaces, lack of fire detectors, unlawful barriers to fire escapes) 30 days to fix, $25-$100 fine, plus $10/day
- C Class "Immediate Hazadrous" = 1.5 (ex. rodents, inadequate heat/water, broken or defective plumbing fixtures, peeling lead paint) 24 hours to fix, $50-$1000 fine
2. Violations are counted up over a 12 month period, divided by 12, then again divided by the number of units in the building. So if the same violation is unresolved over 12 months, that counts as 12 violations.
3. The score then has to meet a baseline threshold:
- Buildings under 35 units need a score greater than 3
- Buildings over 35 units need a score greater than 2
The simple metrics listed here shows that this list isn't designed to be "anti-landlord." You have to have a lot of violations over a long period of time to get on this list. And these aren't wishy-washy violations. Class B and Class C violations are things that can put people in danger. You deserve to be on this list if you're on it.
3. Not much happens to landlords on this list and that's the bigger problem
Sure, it's embarrassing to be on the 100 Worst Landlords list. It certainly means that you have incurred a fair amount of expensive fines. And it likely means you've spent some time or will spend some time in housing court. However, there isn't much this list can do to you if you're on it.
I don't want to sound like I'm against this list. I support it. There are very few widely-available resources for tenants to find out about landlords. The worst actors in the market should be held accountable. This list is a fair attempt to do so.
But looking at last year's list, the names at the top are very familiar. That's true every year. The sad reality is, there are very few mechanisms to punish these bad actors in today's market. Many bake in fines and court appearances and obviously don't care about the optics of being on this list. They bought their buildings and are waiting out tenants as property values continue to rapidly increase. It's part of the model.
Our elected officials can genuinely oppose this and put out lists to shine a light on it, but real estate - and the uniquely speculative nature of it in NYC - is too powerful a force to allow this list to have teeth. Attaching further fines, criminal prosecution, or even property forfeitures would be impossible politically, even if they would change the stakes practically. I suspect the rather benign metrics for the current list were an acknowledgement of this reality.
It's easy to pick on the worst, most flagrant actors in the NYC real estate market. They don't care. But it is much harder to acknowledge the deeper challenges presented by relying on real estate to drive so much of the city's economic and political engine. It's also harder to tap the vastly under-organized power of tenants. Uniting them would change this dynamic overnight. Many tenants across all pockets of the city will continue to struggle as long as that isn't the case.