Wanted: Tenants Who Pay

Daily News, June 12, 1997
Wait until you hear who is going to be renting the apartment," said the stranger at a sunny, weekend party.

The apartment in question was a one-bedroom in Greenwich Village, owned by the stranger. It wasn't such a hot apartment, said the stranger, but it had a patio in the back.

People in New York would drop a forkful of lobster tail for a juicy real estate tidbit.

"Wait until you hear who is going to pay $4,000 a month for the next eight months," said the stranger, pausing.

The guests put down their drinks for the big name.

"Brad Pitt's security guard."

Everyone gulped.

Not because Brad Pitt's security guard qualifies as a paint chip of the gods. But this was the first confirmed sighting of a $4,000 one-bedroom. Someone wondered aloud if it was a big apartment.

"Nothing special," said the stranger. "The light is okay, not great. But the movie studio is paying, so they don't care."

Which explains almost everything. In fact, the stranger probably could have asked $5,000 a month and the Hollywood people, who breathe helium and float through the skies with the IQs of blimps, would have written the check.

That is how little even enormous rents and food and cell phones and first-class plane tickets mean for a small constellation of people. Practically speaking, money is no object for the movie industry. It is not much different for the Wall Street crowd, where recent college students have made fortunes as the market blows like geysers.

If rent rules are dropped, the market for apartments on this small island could be set by a hundred thousand people or so who are too dizzy to count their money.

Where does that leave everyone else? The free marketers say other housing will be born to accommodate normal mortals. They speak as if this is a nailed-shut scientific certainty, when it is actually a matter of faith.

Already, anyone who builds new apartments can charge any rent because there is no regulation on new construction. Even so, there are very few apartments being built. Whatever the flaws in the rent laws, eliminating them will not fix New York's housing shortage.

And at the end, you have to bet that Al D'Amato won't permit his Albany henchmen to wipe out rent rules. Not a year before an election.

At the same time, the people fighting for tenants ought to surrender the ridiculous protections that deadbeat tenants now get in Housing Court.

"I was five years getting one guy out of my building," said a West Side landlord. "He beat me out of $100,000."

Here, landlords have a genuine beef one that enrages owners of smaller units a lot more than rent regulation does. For years, I have been following the saga of a man who owns a few buildings on the West Side. "I never wanted to talk about this in public because I don't want to give ideas to my other tenants," he said.

In 1992, during a recession, he renovated a 10-unit building. His first tenant was a man we will call Seamus, a vice president at a banking firm.

"I didn't do a TRW credit check on him," said the landlord. "I called the company's personnel office; he had someone confirm that he had a half-million-dollar income."

Seamus rented a two-bedroom garden apartment for $2,300 a month. From January to August 1992, he paid the rent. Then he stopped, and never paid another dime, and lived in it for nearly five years.

"He claimed that there was a flood, and he refused to pay," said the landlord. "I took him to court and he filed as his own attorney, saying the brand-new apartment was unfit to live in. Now it was a question of fact. The court had to investigate."

The landlord conceded that there had been water seepage from the property next door. But he took video tapes to show there had been no serious harm done.

"He gets a three-month postponement. Another three months. Then the Jewish holidays. Then it's Christmas. It goes on, and on, every time he files a motion, he gets more time," said the landlord.

Meanwhile, the landlord was paying an attorney in the end, more than $35,000. Eventually, the judge ordered the tenant to put the money in escrow while the matter was being decided.

"Then his big defense was that I had demanded cash rent and he had been paying me in cash all along," said the landlord. "So there was another entire trial on that."

The landlord does have two tenants who pay in cash one is in the diamond business, and the other is stashing a girlfriend in the apartment but he showed the court that he issued receipts to them and reported the cash to the IRS. "Why wouldn't I give this guy a receipt, too?" said the landlord. "He couldn't show any bank withdrawals for rent."

Finally, the landlord got a useless judgment for slightly more than $99,000. The tenant left, after five rent-free years in a garden apartment.

"If I had locked him out, they would have arrested me," said the landlord. "But he steals $100,000 from me and no one will prosecute him."

The tenant lobbyists should be embarrassed to be helping deadbeat dogs. No wonder the landlords like to see Brad Pitt's security guard walking down the street, carrying a rent check from Hollywood.