photo by Lore Croghan
A smart apartment hunter’s guide to sussing out the slumlords.
This story ran on August 30, 2019 in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
It’s near the end of apartment-hunting season — at least for those who weren’t savvy enough to understand that September leases tend to be the most overpriced.
I am one of those people.
If you’re like me, your nightmares are haunted with listings and the banality of what “amenities” listing agents deem desirable: “A REAL living room that you can actually LIVE in. Bedrooms all have closets AND windows. Dishwasher included!”
And the most disturbing: “THIS WON’T LAST!”
They’re right. It won’t. Apartment hunting in Brooklyn, especially in July and August, is a lot like going to the sale rack at Nordstrom. Everyone’s grabbing at hangers, trying on clothes they know don’t fit and buying them anyway.
But an apartment isn’t a half-priced t-shirt. Most New Yorkers spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent — and an apartment can make or break you mentally: rats scratching in your walls, bed bugs… you get the picture.
Slumlords — landlords who leave apartments in disrepair or push out long-time tenants in favor of higher-paying newcomers — own and run over 8,000 apartments in New York City, according to the public advocate’s Worst Landlords list. If you’re rushing to sign a lease going off gut feelings and a budget, you might accidentally rent one.
Just because apartment hunting in Brooklyn is fast-paced doesn’t mean you can’t be thorough and responsible. With some help from housing experts, here’s a guide to sleuthing yourself away from the slumlords. (Plus, a lot of this you can do on your laptop as you’re working on your rental application.)
Let’s start hunting
You’ve starred all your favorite listings on StreetEasy, Nooklyn and Zillow (some also swear by the listing site Naked Apartments, or the Listings Project newsletter). You’ve looked at a few, knocked out the duds and narrowed it down to two or three.
Once you’ve decided on your tastes and what you can or can’t live without, here are the really important questions that most people don’t think to ask.
Who is your landlord?
If you go through a listing site like Nooklyn, you’re not likely to make contact at all with your landlord during your application. But you’re a smart renter — that’s not going to stop you.
Type in your address on whoownswhat.nyc. This tool, created by a nonprofit called JustFix, is going to be your best friend when sussing out a potential slumlord.
The website will show you the people associated with your building. Look for the building’s owner, the site manager (usually the superintendent, but it could be the landlord) and the agent (usually the landlord). Now go to landlordwatchlist.com and look for those names.
The New York City public advocate devises a landlord watchlist every year that ranks landlords in order of their Housing Preservation and Development violations and their Department of Buildings violations. If your landlord shows up on that list, you’re better off running in the other direction.
Just because your landlord doesn’t end up on the watchlist doesn’t mean they are squeaky clean. Google them. Google the address. See if there are any articles online about tenant battles. If you’re really feeling sleuthy, look up their name on eCourts to see if they’ve ever been sued.
Finally, the best way to find out if your landlord is by-the-book is to check the building’s track record. An old building is bound to have some violations. Through whoownswhat.nyc, click on links to the HPD Building Profile and the DOB Building Profile. Then you can see the complaints current or past tenants have filed against the building.
There are three tiers of HPD violations: A, B and C. Type A violations are usually small, like peeling paint. Type B complaints could be a crack in the wall or broken lighting. Type C complaints are the big ones: exposed wiring, lead in the paint or water.
Looking at how many B and C violations a building has — particularly open violations — can tell you a lot about how a landlord maintains the apartment. Don’t forget to look at the dates, though. If your landlord hasn’t had a violation in 10 years, you’re probably safe.
DOB violations are usually related to boilers. You can check how recently your building’s boiler has been replaced here.
How many buildings do they own or operate?
Whoownswhat.nyc will tell you how many other properties and units your potential landlord owns. You can also see if they have hired any property management companies by looking under business entities. This is an important comparison, according to Jonathan Furlong of the housing law and advocacy nonprofit Housing Conservation Coordinators.
“You have to ask, how big of a player are they?” Furlong says. “Do they own huge portfolios on their own, or do they employ a management company or two who’s going to give each apartment the attention it needs?”
If all that’s listed for your apartment is an LLC, it’s likely that the landlord isn’t contracting out to a management company. If they own a lot of units, say more than 50 or 60, you probably won’t be getting very much attention from them in times of need.
Furlong says it’s usually better to look for landlords who only own one or two properties.
“I think you’re better off with the one guy and the one building,” Furlong says. “There’s a good chance that they may be connected to the neighborhood in some way and they care about the people who live there.”
Where is their money coming from?
Follow the money, Furlong also advises.
New York City’s Department of Finance offers a tool called ACRIS that will allow you to search property records. You can search on your own — or whoownswhat.nyc also links to ACRIS reports. The tool will show you how your building is funded.
“It helps to see where the money comes from,” Furlong says. “How profit-driven are they?”
If the ACRIS report shows that the second party on a deed or mortgage is a bank like Chase or Capital One, your landlord is held more accountable because those banks are beholden to more government regulation. But if the second party is an LLC or a small hedge fund, your landlord is likely skirting the rules to make as much money as possible, Furlong says.
What kind of building are you living in?
Particularly in gentrifying neighborhoods like Bushwick, there are three kinds of buildings for rent: a newly constructed tower filled to the brim with amenities; a building with an old exterior but an inside that has been stripped of both its old tenants and its old decor, usually treated with a new coat of paint, fancier door handles and maybe some exposed brick; and a building that has evaded renovation, and largely deregulation, all together.
The first kind of building you’ll see scattered across Nooklyn or StreetEasy listings. Those units often go fast, as it’s hard to turn down central A/C and laundry in-building. But they’re not the safest bet.
“If your building is nice and new and built after the 1970s, you have no protections,” says Imani Henry from housing advocacy group Equality for Flatbush.
Furlong says that these units often go for cheaper, because property owners have to fill them ASAP to pay back their construction loans. But with time, you’re likely to see those rents go up.
You might run into the same problems with the second kind of building. And gut renovation can have some unintended side effects. The New York Times linked gentrification and renovations like these to an uptick in rat infestations.
The third kind of building is less common in certain areas, but certainly exists. Everyone wants a rent-stabilized unit, but just because there are rent-regulated apartments in your building doesn’t mean the unit you’re renting is stabilized.
Although Furlong says you’re still in luck. “If there’s other rent-regulated units, it’s possible that your unit was illegally deregulated.”
These buildings can sometimes provide opportunities to haggle down your rent, Furlong says. After you’ve moved in (because you likely won’t have time to do this before signing the lease), request your rent history online here.
Once you’ve received it, meet with a tenant or housing group or call the New York City Bar Legal Referral Service and they can help you determine if your landlord did anything illegal to raise the rent of your apartment. For instance, the report says the landlord claimed a Major Capital Improvements rent increase, but the building looks largely the same as it did 10 years ago.
A contingency plan
Once you’ve found the apartment of your dreams (or just the one that’ll do for now), get to know your neighbors, Henry says. Join the tenants association if one exists in the building.
Because if after all your research, you still end up with a cruddy landlord, you’re going to need allies.
“We all move into apartment situations and realize the best apartment ever has a terrible landlord,” Henry says. “Reach out to the elders in your apartment and look at how you can collaborate together.”
He says no matter what, “You stay and you fight.”