Let's Play, "Who's My Landlord?"

The new game that's sweeping New York's crumbling rental rat-traps

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:

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