Just in time for heat season, Public Advocate Letitia James has published her latest Worst Landlords Watchlist: a ranking of the 100 NYC landlords who have clocked more severe and hazardous violations from the Department of Buildings and Housing Preservation and Development than the rest. And while advocates and attorneys say the list doesn't necessarily inspire slumlords to start running around fixing elevators, exterminating rats, addressing chipped lead paint, patching ceiling leaks and replacing broken locks, it has in the past provided regulators with a target for enforcement, and rallied tenants.
"When tenants find out that their building is part of this list, there's more of an effort to organize both within the building and within the portfolio," said Legal Aid Society Attorney Ellen Davidson. "Then, when there's recognition that there is strength in numbers, there is more of a push to take the landlord to court."
At the top of this year's list is Harry Silverstein, who's managed to rack up a full 2,082 violations at eight buildings in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Silverstein was number two on the list last year. His most distressed building in 2016, by James's ranking, is 39-30 59th Street in Woodside. HPD inspectors found water leaks, mold, mice infestations, cockroach infestations, and missing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors this year. Tenants also went without hot water, according to James's office.
Silverstein dethroned last year's worst landlord, Ved Parkash, who slipped to the number five slot with 992 HPD and 28 DOB violations. Nearly 40 of his tenants at 750 Grand Concourse in the Bronx sued Parkash this spring, describing conditions like no hot water or cooking gas, peeling ceilings, and lead paint. (One tenant told the Daily News that he'd started putting rat traps in his shower.) Also this year, the Human Resources Administration threatened to withhold rent payments for tenants on public assistance living in buildings owned by Parkash and seven other Watchlist landlords, unless those landlords quickly resolved their 2,000-plus combined violations.
Parkash isn't the only watchlist landlord who's brought down his violation count in the last year. According to James's office, landlords Yechiel Weinberger, Moshe Piller, and Shaul Koplowitz, who were in the top 10 last year, didn't even crack 100 in 2016. But others, like Allan Goldman, have become a fixture in recent years, Crain's pointed out.
Silverstein could not immediately be reached for comment (a woman in his management office said "no thank you" to our request and hung up). But Parkash told Crain's that inspections have been scheduled for four of his buildings, and repairs will be made. The NY Post notes that number three on the list is Efstathios “Steve” Valiotis, who donated $5,525 to Mayor Bill de Blasio's 2013 campaign, as well as $5,000 to de Blasio’s nonprofit Campaign for One New York. Valiotis told the tabloid he has "remediated the majority of violations identified."
Here's the top-ten list for 2016 in full, with accompanying (apartments/violations):
1. Harry Silversten (575/2082)
2. Allan Goldman (187/1208)
3. Efstathios Valiotis (237/1141)
4. Martin Kirzner (280/1059)
5. Ved Parkash (257/1020)
6. Mark Silber (216/1003)
7. Michael Niamonitakis (225/949)
8. Felix Gomez (260/942)
9. Rawle Isaacs (214/891)
10. Joel Kohn (152/856)
The Watchlist website also lists the worst-kept multi-family rental buildings in the city—you can browse them here—based on the number of serious HPD or DOB violations per building. On Thursday James visited 919 Prospect Avenue in the Bronx, the worst-ranked building in that borough (owned by Seth Miller, number 38). On the tour her office saw multiple gutted apartments, which appeared to be responsible for the pervasive dust in other units. Ceilings were collapsing in some of the occupied units, and one 72-year-old tenant said the landlord had bolted her bathroom shut after she reported a leaking toilet. Now, she said, she uses a toilet in one of the gutted units.
This year, for the first time, the watchlist includes DOB violations, rather than DOB complaints. (The logic being that violations are logged by an inspector and therefore paint a more accurate picture of current building conditions.) James's office also added data from the Department of Finance on whether a building on the watchlist has gone through the tax lien sale—an annual event where the Department of Finance auctions off the right to collect outstanding tax debt on delinquent buildings to banks and private investors.
James released a report last week which found that distressed buildings often enter the tax lien sale multiple years in a row, compounding more and more fees and interest. These same buildings tend to fall into serious disrepair, and often harbor vacancies. Her office is advocating for more of the distressed buildings in the tax lien sale to be shuttled to nonprofit developers to be renovated and maintained as affordable housing for low-income renters.
Advocates argue that building maintenance violations like the ones highlighted here are good indicators of purposeful tenant harassment, often to force longtime tenants out of rent-stabilized apartments and clear the way for extensive renovations.
"The landlords on the Worst Landlord Watchlist don't usually make the list because of sloppy management practices or by accident," said Benjamin Dulchin, Executive Director of Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, in a statement. "They make the list because too often they have a strategy to intentionally push tenants out of their affordable apartments in order to drive the rents up quickly."
In some cases, the watchlist has helped tenants enduring such abuse figure out who, exactly, their landlord is. Search in a public database like the Department of Buildings website, and the listed building owner is often an anonymous LLC, or shell company. Whereas the watchlist is searchable by address.
"Having an understanding of the various buildings that these landlords own is an immense help to people in the field," Davidson, the Legal Aid attorney, said. "Getting around the LLCs is extremely difficult."
In years previous, the watchlist has included thousands of landlords. James chose to highlight the worst 100 this year, in order to focus investigation efforts.
"From most people's perspective the list can go on and on," Davidson added. "There are always going to be terrible landlords left off the list."