When I asked my lawyer, “where do you see us on the timeline of getting our money back,” I assumed that, after almost a year of forms, fees and exhaustive Google searches for my ex-landlord’s property records, we were near the end. She paused, and I could hear a whirl of traffic through the phone. “I don’t know,” she sighed. “This is why so many people resort to bats and bricks.”
Okay, I thought. Okay, okay, okay, just be patient. You’re going about this by the books and you’re bound to win this thing. Right?
After Hurricane Sandy hit, when homes darkened, flooded or were swept away, many New Yorkers found themselves asking: where is the landlord? Who is accountable here? In between the mass confusion and devastation wrought by natural disaster, renters often had no way of contacting those contractually responsible for the homes they occupied. They were absent figures in far-flung cities, P.O.-box-wielding wraiths occasionally texting the number of Brad the Electrician, faceless managers who had no traceable association with the city or the properties they rented. Adding insult to injury is a polite way of looking at it. And to throw a number out there, according to NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, only 23% of rental properties are registered with the city so that if, say, your house gets swept into the sea, you know how to contact your landlord and ask, okay, now what?
I moved home to New Jersey at twenty-two, eager to shed all the black pressed aprons, habitual clogs and fish smells I had been accustomed to after a year of postgraduate food service. (Note: I bought new clogs two years after moving — apparently, we’re currently in the summer of the clog.) I had my eye on New York, naturally; the city’s historic magnetism has attracted kids from the New Jersey suburbs since before my grandfather took the ferry, day in and day out, as a mattress salesman from Bayonne. In the summer of 2011, I landed a job in financial technology. When I sat for my interview, my boss eyed my resume and asked, “What in the world is beverage service?” I pulled a corkscrew from my bag. “It means I’ll open a bottle of wine, anywhere, any time.”
My childhood friend and I moved into a two-bedroom co-op apartment in Kensington, just south of Prospect Park. I used to call it Fake Slope — the stretch of Church Avenue that ran perpendicular to my street advertised itself as involved in several neighborhoods: there was the Flatbush eye doctor, the Kensington Chinese take-out window, the South Slope this and the Ditmas that.
We signed a lease that didn’t quite make sense. It looked like it had been photocopied from a woodblock print, the text small, smudged, and partially illegible. There was some sort of clause that asked us to treat the landlord with respect, some form we filled out that promised us a new microwave if, after one year into the two year lease, we were deemed quality residents. And, as my roommate liked to point out, our new landlord wore one of those puka shell necklaces around his thick neck, which should have tipped us off from the start. But we were exhausted and careless. It was summer, and we had been driving into the city on weekends, frantically searching for a place to live, looking forward to the end of our two-hour commute from our childhood homes. After we moved in, we happily bought real beds (box springs!) and hauled a couch all the way from Harlem (leather!)
There were issues. The ceiling above the sink leaked. The bathtub porcelain flaked like a dermatological case study. Our fuses looked like they belonged on the Titantic, and they blew out constantly. On the first morning, I considered using a hammer to kill a waterbug the length of my middle finger. For years, residents had been dumping unwrapped food scraps down the garbage chute, and now the creatures had begun to crawl up from the basement and into our cabinets.
Beyond that, it was a decent place. Pre-war, all these decorative arches in the hallway, five closets. We kept a fair distance from the landlord except on the few occasions that our rent checks went AWOL or our bank accounts were hacked and the checks bounced. I became diligent in my communication: always telling him exactly how quickly I was running to the bank to overnight a certified check, for ten dollars more, in his name.
We lived there without much incident for two years. In 2013, we decamped to Bed Stuy a month before our lease ended, paying double for the freedom to move our possessions slowly. “We’re not moving again, not for a long time,” we agreed.
Then things got bad. My roommate and I have yet to have our incredibly large security deposit returned to us. (The sum was double what it should have been, since this was our first New York Apartment.) We left the place cleaner than a Sears catalog set piece. We called, emailed, mailed certified letters, whined to the other occupants in the co-op. “I’m sorry to hear it,” one guy said in the elevator. “That guy thinks he’s like the Donald Trump of Brooklyn.”
I read a troubling story not long ago about alleged “tenant blacklists.” These lists represent troves of housing court data and identify reprimanded renters through their court ID numbers. What is more troubling is that these lists are sold to landlords and management companies by tenant screening companies working closely with the courts themselves. So if a renter meets all the requirements for a particular apartment, they could be potentially denied for their affiliation with the list, even if whatever charges previously leveled against them were bogus.
I know there’s a bad landlord list, which can be found here, on behalf of the NYC Public Advocate. Fun fact: this list is still under DeBlasio’s name, even though he’s now changed jobs, so I wonder about the longevity of such a project. The list is helpful, but it’s nowhere near complete. New York City has so many bad landlords that just fade into the ether whenever they’d like. And I would have to imagine it’s pretty easy for a management company to change their name, whereas it’s not so easy for a potential renter.
I remember when I was living in New England and my landlord had an apartment above me. He would text me and say things like, “There’s a tin of muffins on the bannister.” Pretty halcyon, right? But it made sense for my small New England town where properties were rented on a handshake and a one-page month-to-month sublease. I’d never accept muffins from this landlord for fear of poison or plain old bad baking skills. Maybe razor blades? But it makes me wonder why there isn’t more done to regulate these processes here in New York City. I realize tenants have incredible rights, but this typically accounts for when something’s already spoiled. I’m not saying that all landlords are guilty until proven innocent, but these guys and their bad behavior have been in the media spotlight. I’m hoping there’s something more we can do, some policy that would empower renters and better regulate landlord relations for effective emergency management. Something to do before it all gets bad. Mayor Tall, I’m looking at you.
Fraylie Nord is a writer and photographer living in Brooklyn. Her work has been published in Volume 1 Brooklyn, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere.