By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
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!"
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!