November 3, 2010
Let's Play, "Who's My Landlord?"
It's the new game sweeping New York, from the high-rises of Manhattan to the crumbling blockhouses of the Bronx. Any number can play, and while the rules are somewhat arcane, that hasn't prevented it from becoming hugely popular—so popular, in fact, that you may already be playing without realizing it! It's the new board-game sensation, Who's My Landlord?™
Here at the Voice, it has become abundantly clear that many of you—even those seasoned players who have been enjoying previous versions of the game for years—may still be unclear about the complex rules, strategic vagaries, and tricky maneuvers that separate the winners from the losers of WHO'S MY LANDLORD?™, so we've set out to make those rules more plain, as well as provide some detailed examples of extended play—updated to the latest rule variants.
Even veterans of WHO'S MY LANDLORD?™ will benefit from the advanced play detailed here, which has been extensively researched and verified by a panel of top tournament champions. For beginners, meanwhile, it's never too late to get swept up in the fun.
Remember, all you need to get started is what comes in a box of WHO'S MY LANDLORD?™, a few of your latest rent stubs, some determination to navigate city bureaucracy, and a winning attitude.
Rule Zero: Your Building Sucks
There's an unwritten rule in WHO'S MY LANDLORD?™ that binds together all players, from the Battery to Flushing, from the Rockaways to Inwood: You're playing this game because your apartment happens to be in a building with serious problems. If it weren't, after all—if your place had hot water, and a working boiler, and windows without cracks, and solid walls—you really wouldn't care who you wrote your monthly checks to, would you?!
But when things begin to fall apart, and month after month you can't get anyone to fix the hole in your ceiling or provide some warmth to your rooms in the dead of winter, then it's imperative to find out who your rent checks are going to, and hold that person accountable.
Of course, this wouldn't be a thrilling game without an able opponent, and landlords look for every advantage to stay one step ahead of complaining tenants and city inspectors. A slumlord's best strategy is to do everything humanly possible to keep his name off the buildings he owns!
That's where the real fun of WHO'S MY LANDLORD?™ begins—when tenants go looking for slumlords who don't want to be found. And what a game of cat and mouse!
Let's take a look at the rules and some actual examples of how this exciting game unfolds. Keep those action cards and special dice handy as you follow along at home.
Beginner's Corner: Getting Started New to the game?
Follow these simple instructions to get started. First, check your rent stub. Write down the name of the company to whom you pay your rent. Keep that with you for future reference.
Second, get yourself to a computer and go to the city's website (nyc.gov). Look for a pulldown menu on the left rail titled "Jump to City Agency Web sites." Select "Housing–HPD" and you'll be taken to the page for the city's Department of Housing Preservation & Development. HPD is the agency charged with protecting you from unscrupulous landlords. They're also the people who take your 3-1-1 calls on housing and do emergency repairs.
On the right rail, you'll find a place to type in your add-ress and apartment number. When your building comes up, you're going to have a lot of info at your fingertips. You can find out how many code violations are in your apartment, or whether any of your neighbors or the city is bringing a housing court lawsuit against your landlord.
Congratulations. You are now playing WHO'S MY LANDLORD?™
Beginner Mistakes: A Case History
Sometimes, players new to the game can feel overwhelmed. And who's to blame them? After all, if the city itself can't figure out which slumlords own the city's worst buildings, how can a frustrated tenant feel any confidence at all?
We're talking, of course, of the spectacular example of inexperienced play by the city's own public advocate, Bill de Blasio. With much fanfare, de Blasio announced this summer that he was going to shame slumlords in an online list of the worst buildings in the city. But as soon as his list hit the Internet, experienced players erupted in howls of laughter. De Blasio had fallen for the oldest trick in the book, listing not the slumlords who actually owned some of the buildings, but their property managers or other low-level employees—even a person tenants say is a secretary, in one case!
As we pointed out in September, two of the city's worst slumlords—Frank Palazzolo and Cronus Capital, controlled by a financier named Steven Carter—were nowhere named on de Blasio's initial list, even though several of their buildings were highlighted as among the worst of the worst!
De Blasio very publicly received a quick education in how slumlords operate (by way of a scolding in the Voice's news blog, Runnin' Scared), but to his credit he has caught on quickly and upped his own game considerably. He is now more carefully examining documents to keep a closer eye on the worst offenders.
"Tracking down the landlord for a given building is much harder than it should be," de Blasio spokesman Wiley Norvell tells the Voice. "For our Watch List, we have had to sift through leases, mortgages, and LLC incorporation documents to get to the bottom of things—and even then landlords can still manage to hide themselves."
The main city agency whose business it is to protect you from unscrupulous landlords is HPD. But even though the city claims that it enforces strong housing maintenance codes, experienced WHO'S MY LANDLORD?™ players know that much of what the city does is after-the-fact. The city can sue a slumlord, or make emergency repairs, but this happens only after a building is practically falling apart and tenants have been living in hazardous conditions for a considerable amount of time. Officials show up, in other words, only after the damage has been done. Even when emergency repairs are made, basic problems like broken front locks or faulty hallway lighting can remain neglected for years, simply because the city has resources only for the worst cases brought to housing court. Skillful, scheming landlords, meanwhile, can delay repairs simply by denying the city access to a building. In that case, a warrant from a housing court judge is required, and that can take months while tenants suffer.
HPD also has a worst-properties list—an enforcement program that goes after the landlords behind the city's 200 worst buildings. The worst properties program is the biggest stick the city currently has to combat bad landlords. But the stick isn't that big: While some landlords take being on the list seriously, other buildings have been languishing on the list for years. In the meantime, the city fixes the biggest emergencies and charges the landlord tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
Beginning players can be forgiven for assuming that this game is tilted in the favor of landlords from the first roll of the dice.
"If you want to go to the Bronx and buy 200 apartments and run them into the ground, and force people to live without heat and hot water, well, you don't need a license to do that and you can't be prevented from doing that," says Dina Levy, who directs the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. "There is no mechanism to stop them from taking over housing that affects thousands of people's lives. You need a license to sell liquor. You need a license to operate a crane. When you are in a position of power, in a position where your actions could have an adverse impact on others, there is a framework that you need to pass through. But there is nothing analogous for owning people's homes."
Going Deeper: A Tenant's Next Step
Once you've found your building listed at the Department of Housing site, look on the left rail of the page for the word "Registration." Click on it. A list of names should appear.
These are the names of registered owners associated with your home. It should give you the name of the principal owner, if it's an individual, or the head officer of the company that owns your building. (That officer may be only one of a group of shareholders whose names don't appear.) There's also a tab for a managing agent. If you talk to anyone of authority in your building besides the super, it's likely to be that person. You'll also get the company name and address.
Ask yourself: Are any of these people familiar to you? Have you met them? Who are they? Do they own any other buildings in your neighborhood, ones that might be in as bad condition as yours?
Is the listed address the same address to which you pay your rent? If you live in a slum building, it could very well be that the people listed are not accurate. If there's no registered name, then call 3-1-1 and let the city know. Tell HPD who it is you're sending checks to.
But the truth is, if your building registration is blank, you're already in bad shape!
Game Play Example: An Absent Landlord Suddenly Materializes
For years, many of the residents of 2710 Bainbridge in the Bronx had a vague idea that their landlord was a man named Frank Palazzolo. The name of his company, Palazzolo Realty, was on property documents, but residents never saw him, and they hardly ever saw any of his representatives, either. As the building began to fall apart, tenants became accustomed to going directly to 3-1-1. "We called 3-1-1 because we were never exactly sure who owned it," says Enriquetta Garcon, a 33-year-old homemaker who says she has lived in the building with her husband and children for seven years. "It was always changing hands. The administration was always changing, and the supers were always changing. We didn't know who to ask for repairs."
There was a phone number to call, but the line was often dead.
Since 2006, the tenants or the city has brought more than a dozen court actions against the landlord. Those include: eight attempts by the city to obtain a warrant to gain access to the building to repair lead violations, two heat and hot-water actions, one comprehensive city lawsuit against the entire building, and one attempt by the tenants, this year, to get an independent administrator to oversee the building.
The building, currently on the city’s worst-properties list, has 244 violations, down from more than 1,000 violations earlier this year.
After passing the entire winter of 2009–2010 without heat and hot water, a group representing more than 20 apartments went forward with an attempt to get an independent administrator to take over the building.
But something strange happened. The day the tenants were finally going to bring their long-absent landlord into court, a new landlord appeared on the scene. On April 1, the day the tenants brought their independent administrator suit against Semper Fi Realty IV (Palazzolo had changed the name some years earlier), Palazzolo sold the company to an Irish-American Bronx landlord named Shawn Curry. The building still technically belongs to Palazzolo, who holds the mortgage. Curry tells the Voice he is waiting to get a loan from the bank so he can take over the mortgage from Palazzolo. He says he can’t get the mortgage because the building has too many violations and tens of thousands of dollars in outstanding fines and fees. Reached by phone in Ireland, Curry says, “I honestly believe they [the city] think Frank Palazzolo is still the landlord, and so they are trying to make it difficult for me,” he said. “There’s a serious agenda going on with HPD. I can’t put my finger on it.” He says he just wants to pay his bills, get his mortgage, and get on with running a building.
Garrett Wright, the Urban Justice Center attorney who represents the tenants, thinks the whole thing is suspicious. “It certainly seems very coincidental that the day we file our case, a guy appears out of nowhere and says that he just bought up the majority shares that day.”
When asked about why the city was suing him to gain access to the building to do repairs, Curry freely admitted to not letting the city in: “I put in a new roof that costs around $60,000. HPD’s price for the exact same job was $225,000. Why should I pay HPD $225,000 when I could hire a contractor and pay him $60,000 to do the same job?,” he asks. “And why should HPD care who owns the building? All they should care about is the violations in the apartments.”
Wright disagrees. He says there are very good reasons why HPD should know the identity of the landlord. He says that one of the biggest problems with landlords filing faulty registration documents is that when it comes time to take the neglected buildings to housing court, the tenants end up suing a person who really is not responsible. On various occasions, Wright has gone to court to find that the person he named in a lawsuit is actually a low-level employee. “We think we’re suing the corporate officers, but it turns out that we are suing the janitors! And that’s a problem,” he says.
In the Bainbridge case, it appears that Curry does in fact own the company that controls the building (but not the building itself). However, it would make sense for the city to be suspicious: In the 1990s, Palazzolo was king of the mysterious corporate entity, a man who managed to amass what the city said was nearly 100 buildings, while keeping his name off most of them. He managed to do that, a court case from 2009 demonstrated, by loaning money to acquaintances—sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars—and installing them as the head officers of his buildings. These acquaintances—one was a house painter; another, a speech teacher—had no prior real estate experience.
Advanced Play: Going to the Deed Records
Now that you've checked out what the city's housing department knows about your building, it's time to cross-check your facts by looking at property deeds. Go back to the city's website (nyc.gov), and this time choose "Finance" from the list of agencies. About halfway down the page, you'll see a link to "ACRIS Property Records." This will take you to the powerful online city register. Launch the system, and click on "Find Addresses and Parcels." After you type in your address, click on "Find BBL," and the system will return your property's block and lot numbers. Click on the button that says "Document Search by BBL." This produces a new page, which includes a pulldown menu. Choose "Deeds and Other Conveyances" and press "Search."
This should retrieve a lot of information about the ownership of your building. You'll be able to open a copy of the original property deed. Congratulations: The person or the company on the deed is your real landlord! (Of course, in a game like this, there's always an exception:
If your building is in foreclosure, that won't be reflected in ACRIS records. In that case, you should search for the name of the company in State Supreme Court records.)
Game Play Example: Upstairs, Downstairs
Maria Najera's** landlord is around—at least from time to time—but she and some of her neighbors say that he denies that he is, in fact, the building's owner. When they ask him who the landlord is, Najera says, he says he doesn't know.
Najera's top-floor, two-bedroom apartment at 1498 Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn has three large water leaks coming from the ceiling—one in the kitchen, one in the bathroom, and one in the living room. That leaves only one room without a ceiling leak, the bedroom, where the entire family of five sleeps at night. The leaks have been listed by the city as open emergency violations since 2007.
For such a small place, Najera's apartment has 12 open violations—three of them hazardous. The violations include the ceiling leaks, defective electrical outlets, missing smoke detectors, a faulty fire escape, and rodents. Her neighbors, also longtime tenants, have six violations in their two-bedroom walk-through. The conditions are so bad that a judge recently awarded the Najeras a one-time $4,000 rent reduction.
The city's records indicate that the Bushwick building's landlord is a man named Mark Berkowitz, who took over with some partners in 2009. The corporate address is a P.O. Box. (The city outlawed the use of P.O. Boxes as corporate addresses this summer, but it's going to take a long time—if ever—for the law to catch up to reality.)
A month after he took over, Berkowitz introduced himself as the building's manager (not owner), Najera says, and offered the family $6,000 to move out. They said they didn't want to go. Najera showed him the leak, which he said he would fix. When she asked who the new landlord was, she says Berkowitz claimed he didn't know. (In court, Berkowitz has also represented himself as manager, not owner, of the building.)
Since Berkowitz took over in 2009, the four families on the bottom floor have moved out, says tenant attorney John Whitlow.** The newly rehabbed apartments have hipster tenants. The ones the Voice spoke with—two out of the four rehabbed apartments—think Berkowitz is doing a great job.
The top-floor tenants said they spent most of the 2009 winter without heat. Najera says she called Berkowitz's office 10 times in one month to ask for heat. This year, in winter, she called the city every single day for two months. It's not entirely clear why the city didn't come, though it appears that repairmen have caulked the ceiling leaks and reported to the city's system that repairs have been done. A few day later, the leaks start again.
"We keep fixing it and it keeps on breaking," Berkowitz tells the Voice. He denies that he has ever pretended not to be the building's owner, and he says he was not trying to get the top-floor tenants to move out. "They are not cheap tenants. I love them to stay," he added. Regarding the time he offered them $6,000 to leave, he said that was to spare them from inconvenience related to the construction he was about to undertake. The P.O. Box, he says, is also for convenience; it's not about hiding from tenants. "The tenants know my actual office address," he says. He adds that the upstairs tenants are no longer paying rent (Whitlow says they are withholding rent on account of the needed repairs).
"Mark is great," says Michael Cosmi, who works in IT and recently moved into a rehabbed apartment below the Najeras. "He was here last night fixing my stove until 11 p.m. It's funny, isn't it? How—when you pay your rent—people help you?" Cosmi said he had only one qualm with the building: "I was promised that this building would have no children," he said. "There are nine children running around all over the place. They are so f-ing loud! My girlfriend doesn't want to move in here because of these people!"
Expert Play: Going Gumshoe
Still having trouble identifying your slumlord after checking HPD and ACRIS? If a faceless company name is all you've been able to locate, you can look up that company on the New York State Department's Corporate Registry. Other strategies: You can call the building's previous owner. A simple Internet search on your address might turn up transaction information: It's possible your building is for sale even though you've heard nothing about it! It's possible your building is in foreclosure without your knowing!
Or you can go gumshoe: Just show up at some of the addresses that have turned up in your search and start asking questions.
Ask the super who the landlord is. Ask repairmen in the building. Ask anyone who looks like they might have some connection to management. Never give up. Never give in.
You're in this game to win!
**John Whitlow is the Supervising Attorney and Maria Najera is a member of Make the Road New York (MRNY).
More on: Improving Housing