Meet These Folks Before You Bash All the Landlords

NY Post, June 13, 1997
NEW YORKERS fond of playing today's popular parlor game -- Demonize the Greedy, Knuckle-Dragging, Crowbar-Wielding Landlord -- evidently have never met Nellie Smiley.

The retired widow of a city transit cop, Smiley, 64, decided four years ago to supplement her pension by buying the six-unit apartment building next door to her home in East Elmhurst, Queens.

"I said I'm going to be this great landlord," Smiley told me. "I installed a new roof, new windows. I converted the boiler from oil to gas. You figure that the first couple of years, you may not make anything." Boy, was she wrong.

Four years after buying the building, "I'm losing money every month -- between $210 to $215. I can't possibly continue to keep up the building without going to other assets."

Advocates of this city's stifling housing regulations like to paint the current battle over rent laws as a David-and-Goliath struggle, pitting defenseless tenants against fat-cat landlords. That public-relations strategy has been as successful as it dishonest.

The truth is that for every major owner of residential property, there are more than three landlords who operate buildings with fewer than 40 rental units. They provide a needed service to New Yorkers, while pumping taxes into the city. Some of them are jerks.

But so are some tenants.

One thing is certain: The arcane mess of rent-control laws have damaged our city, scaring potential landlords out of the real-estate business amid a housing shortage. In Manhattan, while millions hang on to cheap apartments they've outgrown, the few rentals not controlled by the laws are so expensive, immigrants, young people and the middle class -- the supposed beneficiaries of rent regulation -- can't afford a place to live.

All over town, rent laws have strained fragile relations between landlord and tenant. So yesterday, I took the daring -- and almost unprecedented -- step of listening to landlords' views on the damage done by all that government meddling.

In Smiley's case, legal fees alone eat up a good chunk of her rental income. She said one tenant, who paid just $427 a month for a one-bedroom worth $600 or more, recently reported Smiley to the city for failing to make necessary repairs.

"Then she wouldn't let me into her apartment to fix it," the landlord claims.

After months of game-playing, said Smiley, she was ordered to reduce the already bargain rent. The experience has soured her forever on being a landlord.

Like Smiley, Walter Wilfinger, a 44-year-old retired police lieutenant, tried to supplement his pension by purchasing three buildings in the Mosholu section of The Bronx. In that borough, the issue isn't so much rent -- he charges less for an apartment than the law allows.

"It's the atmosphere make," he said. "It's Us against Them."

Nowhere is the situation as acute -- with landlords and tenants behaving like enemy soldiers -- as in Manhattan.

Three years ago, Michael Gregg, 37, bought a 28-apartment building on 11th Street in the East Village.

Gregg's building contains six newly renovated one-bedrooms that rent for around $900 a month. Beside them, a number of two-bedrooms go for less than $400 -- with one bringing in just $285.

The high-end apartments "keep the rest of the building going," said Gregg. Taxes, utilities, repairs, paint cost enough, plus, "last year I spent $20,000 in legal fees alone."

Gregg believes the taxes he pays and his efforts to keep up the building are good for his tenants.

Others don't see it that way.

"Landlords will stop at nothing to get tenants out of their apartments to get more money," complained one man, whose family lives spread over two apartments -- four bedrooms -- paying a combined monthly rent of around $900.

"People have been living a certain way for many years," the man said. "It's difficult to ask them to give it up."

But Gregg maintains that if rent controls ended, his prices would rise but he would not gouge tenants.

"What people don't realize is, if all these rent-controlled apartments opened up, people would have choices of where to live. Landlords would have to be competitive. Overall, prices would go down."

But with tenants playing victim -- and politicians playing games -- it seems we'll never see the day.