Landlords Forced Out of Hiding by New City Law
A little-publicized law passed by the City Council last week is intended to make it easier for tenants — and city officials — to figure out the identities of landlords of some of the city's most neglected buildings. But insiders say the law is going to be very difficult to enforce.
Even supporters point out that the city's housing department is already overburdened and has enough trouble getting landlords whose identities they do know to comply with the housing code.
The law, primarily sponsored by East Harlem councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, recognizes the fact that tenants in many of the city's worst buildings don't even know who their slumlords are.
Landlords often conceal ownership: They list post office boxes as company addresses in city registration documents, list employees as owners, and create a different corporate entity (usually limited liability companies, or LLCs) for each building they own, making it hard for even the city to figure out how many buildings are owned by a particular landlord. Frank Palazzolo, profiled in the Voice's "10 Worst Landlords" series this past spring, is a prime example.
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The new law will require landlords to list a physical address — no more P.O. boxes as a subterfuge — and will also require any landlord who controls more than a 25 percent stake in an LLC to be listed in city registration documents.
But if the law is going to have real impact, says tenant attorney John Whitlow, that will be have to be demonstrated in housing court. Attorneys who know the law should be able to use it as leverage with judges against recalcitrant landlords who hide behind a blizzard of corporate entities and mail-drop addresses. Once the law goes into effect, in a few months from now, landlords who don't comply with it will no longer be able to obtain unpaid rent from tenants.
How is the city going to ensure that the landlords really register? Housing officials haven't said, but the the city's earlier stance on the law was telling. While the city supports putting an end to listing P.O. boxes as addresses, officials haven't come out on the side of requiring landlords with more than a 25 percent stake to identify themselves.
Officials from the Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development have said that the new law could discourage landlords from coming forward to register at all.
That in itself should says something about how hard it is for the city to stay on the case of derelict landlords, who cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in emergency repairs and fees. Because fines are often bargained down in housing court, not all of it gets repaid.
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