photo by Lore Croghan
This story ran on August 30, 2019 in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Here’s an excerpt:
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.