By Jena Ardell
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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."
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."