tenants

3 Reasons Local Landlords Should Support Stronger Tenant Protections

(@homebodynetwork)

(@homebodynetwork)

Cynthia Nixon, the former actress and longtime public education advocate who is mounting a primary challenge to Governor Cuomo, announced a progressive housing plan that continues her disciplined assault on the governor’s dismal track record from the left. The plan, called Rent Justice for all, outlines many long-sought after reforms to protect renters across the state. A few real estate publications, including the Real Deal, have been quick to point out that landlords won’t like it.

I think this is partially true. Some landlords will absolutely hate these proposals and many of those landlords are quite powerful. However, I’m here to argue that I believe there are other landlords that should welcome stronger tenant protections — the majority of landlords, in fact.

Small, local landlords own more than half of the 2.18 million rental units in NYC and most have very little in common with bigger developers, publicly traded property management companies, or private equity firms that have flooded parts of the NYC market. However, small landlords don’t come close to having the same political power, which often means their interests are ignored or actively subverted.

Despite this contradiction, these more powerful interests continue to successfully flatten the perception that all landlords are the same homogenous blob (buffered by the generally uncritical real estate press in NYC). This narrative is obviously false, but big developers and Governor Cuomo trade in it freely. For example, the Governor’s Affordable New York plan does nothing for small landlords and gives away millions of public dollars to major developers (while failing to provide enough actual affordable housing).

This narrative maintains the strict landlord vs tenant political divide that feeds the toxic decades-old political status quo in New York: A small contingent of highly dedicated tenant groups fight to maintain tenant protections while the affordable housing stock slowly disappears. Small landlords get squeezed. Big developers get more tax concessions and rezoning opportunities. And the affordable housing crisis continues on unabated.

Breaking this toxic political status quo is the first step towards addressing the affordable housing crisis on a meaningful level. Housing advocates can start by rejecting the narrative that all landlords have the same shared interests and recognize that small, local landlords are hurt by this dynamic too.

We must do more to convince small landlords that they have more cause to work together with tenants. There is no meaningful solution to the affordable housing crisis that doesn’t incorporate small landlords and doesn’t make it easier for them to operate. As Matthew Desmond points out in his Pulitzer Prizing winning 2016 book Evicted, 3/4 of all affordable housing in the US is provided by small, local landlords. We must make the argument that these landlords will benefit from stronger tenant protections.

In previous blogs, I have written how I think a universal rental control could work, but to sum up quickly, I stress that it would not represent a simple extension of the current system (to be clear, I support the measures in Ms. Nixon’s proposals but think they must go further). It would be an entirely new system that would also need to offer more diversity in housing options (from co-living to senior living) and would absolutely involve trade-offs that no doubt would appear to be painful, particularly for some older rent controlled tenants. Measures to protect these tenants would have to be included (preferably with federal aid). Clamping down on the small minority of tenants that abuse the current system would also be a necessary step as part of a new system. This is no small task and I understand that many readers will be skeptical of even engaging in this discussion.

That being said, the first step in a larger reform is making the easy argument that small, local landlords will have more success by working with tenants rather than bigger landlord interests. Here are three reasons why I think this is true:

1. Simplifying compliance reduces costs and hassle

It is no secret that managing multiple classes of tenants makes compliance more challenging for small landlords. Many of these types of owners are landlords as a second source of income and are not professionally trained or resourced. This invites a lot of mistakes that can turn into costly problems that hurt both parties.

Having all renters fall under the same level of protection would remove a number of the steps that most small landlords trip over. Rather than having to follow every evolving law, loophole, MCI exemption, or annual RGB guideline and see how that impacts certain units, both sides would know exactly what to expect and what is required under a universal system.

A system where protections are offered across the rental landscape for every unit would potentially alleviate a lot of the tensions between rent stabilized tenants and landlords, particularly on fixing infrastructure within units. Much of the distrust that arises between both parties comes from a landlord’s reasonable need to make upgrades to a unit and a tenant’s reasonable fear that this will trigger a rent increase that may lead to a larger decontrol. Without the fear (and perverse incentive) of vacancy decontrol and bonus, both sides can operate in good faith.

It could also offer tenants more options. In many cases right now, landlords and neighbors change while a rent stabilized tenant remains. In a classic example, a tenant might age while their neighbors get younger. This might not be the ideal environment for that tenant, but moving to a better-suited location is virtually impossible financially. Knowing that a system is in place that could provide a similarly priced unit (again, presumably with some federal or state aid) with similar long-term protections could make moving more attractive.

2. More tenant protections mean fewer expensive eviction processes

Eviction is an ugly, painful process for all parties involved. However, the loss of shelter is simply nowhere near the loss of rental income. Greater tenant protections mean more resources to keep tenants in their homes — and to keep the rent checks coming to landlords.

This is already happening in NYC. Mayor de Blasio signed a Right to Counsel bill last year that guarantees tenant legal aid in housing court. These resources mean that fewer disputes will lead to evictions (which could save the city $320m a year). Intervening earlier in the cycle gives the tenant more opportunity to receive the necessary help to maintain good standing with their landlord.

No doubt there are bad actors in real estate (more on that later) but for the most part, small, local landlords aren't; they don’t have the resources for a lengthly eviction fight and don’t want it to get to that point. Landlords also generally don’t want to kick people out of their homes outside of the most extreme cases. They want peace and quiet.

More resources for tenants means a greater ability to intervene at critical junctions when a tenant may be at risk of falling behind on rent payments. Every landlord can support a process that appeals to their humanity and their bottomline.

3. Discouraging bad actors from the market opens up space for more local landlords

One of the biggest, if perhaps abstract, benefits of universal tenant protections to small, local landlords would be the shift in the market that would transpire over time.

The vast commodifcation of the American housing market caused the Great Recession. Instead of solving that crisis by reducing the incentives to speculate on homeownership, the economy has morphed into exploiting rental housing.

Large investment companies, private equity firms, and foreign capital all compete on small-scale properties in NYC. It’s difficult information for the casual observer to find, but, particularly in neighbors facing displacement concerns, these entities are forcing out small landlords who are often local, community-connected operators (which is why I have been stressing the ‘small, local’ modifier.)

The idea that the best, highest use of capital is virtuous on its own merits doesn’t hold up when you see the practical implications of this trend in housing. In many neighborhoods across NYC, poorer residents (many of them minorities) are being replaced by wealthier (largely whiter) residents. (This is a particularly shocking reality in California as well.) Many of these properties sit vacant as investment shields or as Airbnb cash cows.

NYC is already one of the most economically stratified cities in North America. Continuing this trend (which mirrors other trends of disinvestment in public institutions and local infrastructure) is simply not sustainable. The long-term viability of the city, let alone a given neighborhood, is at risk if it is simply closed off to all but a select wealthy population.

NYC is a city of immigrants, entrepreneurs, and artists — many of them start out poor. Many of them start out renting from small, local landlords. This can not end.

I will continue to advocate for more public housing and alternative forms of ownership, but I also believe that the private market must play a central role in property management in NYC. But this must be in the form of local landlords. New Yorkers should be able to cycle into ownership and renting in their communities. As housing advocates, we must acknowledge the importance of local landlords and reach out to them as allies.

Is Your Building On the 100 Worst Landlords List?

Top 10 Worst Landlords in NYC 2017 (officeofthepublicadvocate)

Top 10 Worst Landlords in NYC 2017 (officeofthepublicadvocate)

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.  

If you're still unclear about how the list works as a landlord, check out more info on methodology and also learn more about HPD and what you need to do to stay off the list.

 

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.

 

homeBody is the free communication tool for landlords, tenants, and neighbors.

We believe housing is a right and so should you. 

5 Biggest Beefs Tenants Have in NYC (1 is surprising and kind of sweet)

 
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If you're a tenant in NYC, chances are you've had beef with somebody in your building.  At homeBody, we come across a lot of challenging situations that people go through living together. We thought we'd share the top 5 that come up a lot and pass along some general suggestions about how to address them. (There's a common theme that you will surly pick up on.)

1. Absent landlord

"I lived in this place in Astoria where the landlord lived upstairs, I saw him in the hallway everyday, he said hi and was friendly, but he never got back to me when I had a problem. It was like he didn't know I lived there when I needed the toilet fixed." - Erik, N. 

This is number 1 for a reason. In a perfect world, your landlord would be as responsive as a 5-star resort. The truth is, some just want to do the minimum to keep their investment income coming in. Some property management companies are awesome, some landlords are awesome, but a lot are absent, surly, or slow moving. 

Suggestion: The more you work with your neighbors to communicate as a group, the more likely you'll get a better response from your landlord. Good old-fashioned organizing is the best way to change the status quo in your building if you're unhappy with it.

2. Heat and hot water

"My wife and I are basically boiling in our apartment cuz we're on the first floor. The neighbor at the top of the building is this old guy who always complains that it's too cold." - Zach G.

We were somewhat surprised that this was as high in our poll, but the above quote sheds some light as to why.  Providing heat and hot water is a major legal requirement for landlords, and we really don't see too many people complain that either is missing entirely. But we do see people complain that either there isn't enough or there's too much.

Suggestion: If you're not getting heat or hot water call your landlord or call 311. That's unacceptable. But if you're getting 'too much', finding out if your neighbors are having the same problem is the surest way to get action taken by your landlord. Chances are, you're not alone, so band together.

3. Neighbors are noisy

"I lived below these guys who were bartenders, young guys. They came home at crazy hours, had people over at crazy times. We kept telling them to get carpeting and take their shoes off, but it didn't stop until they moved." - Rachel F.

This is the classic case of neighbor-on-neighbor beef.  The truth is there aren't too many simple answers here because a lot of these things are subjective. Landlords don't have the time or interest (or responsibility) to intervene against/between people and it seems particularly hard to enforce leases for small things like carpeting. Not too mention a lot of NYC buildings (old or new) were simply not built with the tenant's peace-of-mind in mind.

Suggestion: Building a relationship with your neighbors ahead of the 3AM broom pounding is really the only way to avoid many of these conflicts. It won't always prevent them, but it can create a common dialogue that establishes trust and respect. That makes legitimate complaints easier to address and to resolve when they come up.

4. Packages clutter the hallway or get lost

"I've gone door to door asking neighbors if they have seen my package. We've all had meetings asking the property management company to install cameras so things don't disappear but nothing happens. I have to get things delivered to the office." - Steph R.K.

With Amazon and Jet fundamentally changing shopping, this problem is getting worse each year. Packages pile up and it's easy for things to get lost (or stolen in extreme cases.)

It's difficult to reverse engineer a more lasting solution, particularly in older buildings with narrow hallways and no lobbies. Landlords don't want to be responsible for packages and don't want to allow easy access for delivery guys for understandable security reasons.

Suggestion: Establishing a simple line of communication between neighbors could go a long way of fostering a more communal approach to package delivery. Finding out if a neighbor is home at a certain time to buzz in a package or to sign for something can save a lot of time and lost stuff, especially if there's an easy way to track the conversation.

5. Not knowing neighbors

So this is the one that was sweet and actuallynot that surprising to me (sorry for the clickbait title). As much as NYC gets the rep for being a keep-to-yourself town, the reality is that people want to know who they live with. 

We found out that there is a genuine interest, especially among tenants who have been in their apartments for a few years to form meaningful relationships with their neighbors. The problem is how weird it is to try to introduce yourself when you've missed that initial window of moving in.

This isn't a homeBody anecdote, but a personal one. Living in Stuytown during Superstorm Sandy, we lost power for 9 days. There are a lot of older residents in the complex and it was pretty cold that week.  The Tenants Association and Councilmen Dan Garodnick organized a door-to-door neighbor-to-neighbor reach out to make sure we got to all 11,400 apartments. It was one of the most inspiring things that I've ever been a part of, honestly. It also brought my closer to a lot of neighbors that I'm still in touch with.

Suggestion: You don't need (or want) something like Sandy to bring you and your neighbors together, but you should make the effort all the same. You're already sharing a physical place, making that extra connection means turning a place into a home.  All of the problems our members run into really are easier to solve when you know the people who you live with a little better.

 

homeBody is the free communication app for landlords, tenants, and neighbors.

Find out how we can improve the quality of life in your building