The Real Deal New York

Open season on landlords

Reaction to deadly attacks highlights lack of sympathy for landlords in some circles

March 01, 2014
By Stuart Elliott

Stuart Elliott

Stuart Elliott

It appears to be open season on landlords. Since the beginning of the year there have been three high-profile murders (or attempted murders) of building owners in the New York area.

The first was Menachem Stark, the Hasidic developer from Williamsburg whose burned corpse was found in a dumpster after he was abducted from his office in January.

Police are still trying to figure out who killed the 39-year-old father of seven, but suspect it may have to do with his real estate dealings.

In this issue, we look at Stark’s holdings, zeroing in on the dozens of properties he acquired in the run-up during the boom (see “Menachem Stark’s portfolio revealed”).

Our story paints a picture of a small-time investor, who, along with partner Israel Perlmutter, may have gotten in over his head during the loose lending of the last decade.

Thanks to scoring a few key loans, they amassed 37 properties throughout the borough. But they later became victims of the downturn, facing foreclosure lawsuits starting in 2009, and finally, after a four-year-selling spree, losing control of all but eight of their properties.

While the downturn wasn’t directly responsible for Stark’s murder, it may have set the stage for soured relationships and deals gone bad.

Meanwhile, less than a week after Stark’s murder, Ditmas Park landlord Mahuddin Mahmud was murdered by one of his tenants. Mahmud was found with his throat slit and face burned because the 57-year-old landlord had “humiliated and teased” the tenant for being poor, police sources said. The 27-year-old tenant was nabbed trying to board a plane at JFK Airport.

Finally, in another grisly scene, prominent developer and Long Island political powerbroker Gary Melius was shot in the head at point-blank range last month by a masked gunman. Incredibly, the 69-year-old developer survived because the bullet hit him in the forehead but didn’t pierce his skull. The shooting occurred outside his posh Oheka Castle, an opulent château featured in the classic movie “Citizen Kane,” which serves as an event space and home to Melius’s famous poker games. Police suspect that the shooting may be related to an earlier political scandal on Long Island.

While no one is suggesting there is a link between these attacks, it does highlight the fact that there is a distinct lack of sympathy for landlords in some circles. Perhaps that’s not surprising given the public perception of landlords, and the strength of tenant advocacy in a renter-dominated city.

As we reported on our website, the city’s tabloids had a field day with Stark’s murder. The New York Post ran a front-page story under the headline, “Who didn’t want him dead?” that chronicled a long list of Stark’s alleged enemies. Meanwhile, an op-ed titled “Death of a ‘Slumlord’ a Teaching Moment” that chronicled Stark’s numerous failings as a landlord was published on the website the Jewish Press, but was removed shortly after publication. The coverage ties into a long history of negative portrayals of landlords. One of my favorites was the network drama “666 Park Avenue,” which aired a few years ago, where the landlord was literally the devil incarnate (not just metaphorically the devil).

If you want to find an exception to this stereotype, though, you don’t have to look farther than developer André Balazs, who we also profile in this issue.

Balazs, who has made some big moves of late in unloading his Standard High Line hotel and embarking on new hospitality ventures in London, is one of the classiest developers in the city. Like Ian Schrager or Aby Rosen, he seems to care about the bottom line and quality in equal measure, which is instantly evident in the cutting-edge style of his projects. See our profile, “André the giant.”

Meanwhile, back on the blood-sport front, we delve into the dispute at Town Residential, the city’s fast-growing brokerage. Firm founder Andrew Heiberger and investment partner Joe Sitt are locked in a dramatic court battle for control of the firm. As The Real Deal was going to press, Heiberger had just won a temporary restraining order to prevent Sitt from locking him out of the firm. Check out the story, “Kicked out of Town?”

And last but definitely not least, check out our cover package on social media by reporter Hiten Samtani. There’s tons of good information about how social media went from a faddish afterthought for real estate brokerages a few years ago to a central part of their businesses today.

Enjoy the issue!

  • care less how we feel

    Andre Balasz is totally different because he isn’t depicted as a property owner – most people who read about him in the news don’t even connect to the fact that he might own real estate. He looks like a modelizer, someone who provides glamorous escapist reading. And frankly, he is probably only interesting to people in his industry and ex girlfriends. He is always on the move so he doesn’t feel like a landlocked in New York target, correct?

    I don’t care who you are – you could be the nicest person in the world – you could have been previously Jerry Seinfeld popular but in NYC, it is a BUSINESS of slamming landlords appealing to a completely unfair value system that is RESTRICTED in its applications only to property owners. It’s like Ellen Page in Catherine Keener’s basement in “An American Crime.”

    And to be honest, I find most of the news on realdeal and even curbed.com to be too industry specific to be interesting or any of my business. I don’t care how much the God of Thunder paid for a retail condo in Soho but you can bet that the Zeckendorfs who seemed to have committed no offense and have built really solid buildings that anchored then underdeveloped areas like Union Square and Hell’s Kitchen are getting an unfair share of negative perusal because they are featured here with articles mentioning their personal property in the Hamptons and that Original Shut-In Herb Sukenik got one over on them – HOW? – what did those developers ever do that we KNOW of or REMEMBER from past coverage that gets this seemingly automatic response?

    How is it any of our business – there is definitely unhealthy behavior that is uncommon, uncorrected (it is definitely correctable – what happened to the type of ordinary New Yorkers who would just tell anyone who insulted our self respect and pride with envious remarks within our earshot to shut up and mind your own business. It’s beneath us to give the side eye – not because they are rich because then we would fall all over ourselves trying to catch a ride on that gravy train – but because we exercise that discrimination only when we CAN GET AWAY WITH IT.)

    We are not Commies who make our least popular neighbor kneel on broken glass for doing nothing wrong except owning slightly more or ANY piece of real estate. Bags of broken glass were waiting for my grandfather not because his father REFUSED to own real estate but because he was a graduate student who was on his way to his ancestral village to help alleviate the suffering of his fellow villagers. They were waiting for him with the intent to punish him for being too academic.

    It’s always something. In New York, we are appealing to or CREATING a base human nature because it is profitable for non property owners to do so. It’s a fact that is trackable if anyone bothered to look at the history of press coverage in New York City.

    You know what we need? We need a Sicilian nun to give us a a good hard pinch and tell us to CUT IT OUT. When you misbehave, you don’t act like you can bully the rest of the world – not to fall silent – but to actually support you in your lie. That is UNACCEPTABLE. We’re supposed to pander to you because you fall into the category of “tenant” when you wouldn’t kick a dog the way you abuse a property owner in New York.

    Don’t lie and say you don’t know better or that you are just acting out your FEELINGS that you can’t control or that you have some misbegotten sense of unity with your fellow rent regulated neighbor so you feel compelled to strengthen her sushi defense claim by signing SWORN affidavits that she doesn’t spend all her time in Vermont but is actually shut in her rent regulated apartment in the East Village with all the lights off and not even using the sinks or showers. People say those things NOW in New York when they NEVER did before because the press manufactured this industry of slumlord NYC starting with the late JA Lobbia’s amazingly emotional pieces in the Village Voice. I felt like I was reading about the Killing Fields. But she was very one-sided.

    The regs and the press coverage do not curb cruelty which should be what the regs are for – it doesn’t stop landlords from being rude or cruel in word if not deed to tenants and the regs certainly do not encourage tenants to demonstrate decency and honesty with very normal property owners who not interested in attacking you or getting personal with you but who DO remember every dig that you exercise upon them ONLY because landlords are second class citizens and you would NEVER feel comfortable speaking to them and treating their property the way that you do if landlords weren’t LESS THAN everyone else in NYC. You wouldn’t treat people of a different race the way you treat landlords but if they are landlord, that’s where you can indulge your sadism with impunity hence the Harvard research results with regard to airbnb listings commanding lower rents if you are Black instead of White.

    There has to be a factual record of what is happening to property owners in New York City taken outside of the vacuum of SLUMLORD SLUMLORD KILL THE SLUMLORD – it’s camouflage for bullying against property owners not just by tenants but by the government because we are LANDLOCKED – we have to pay every time the government implements some new law that generates more income for them. I have read ZILCH about anyone speaking up against the proposal to force landlords to have escrow accounts of a half year’s rent in the event that a vacate order is issued but the recent examples cited this past year were caused by tenants. TOTAL silence about whether those tenants deserve to be evicted but if this was a private house renting out a their mother in law unit, then you bet that the tenant wouldn’t get to return after ruining someone else’s property.

    I’m not going to name any names – but a particular advocate and a particular group are TERRIFYING to local landlords. Why? If they didn’t do anything wrong and are on the side for good, then WHY does everyone tiptoe around them? And if they are so awful, why are they getting ever more powerful? Hmm? That’s the kind of world you want to live in? Really? And the press has no hand in this? Let’s take a closer look.

    If you push us over the ledge like this and make the condemnation and laws unsurvivable, then it IS time for an expose. Ordinary people own these buildings and it is NOT about popularity, or establishing a base for a future political run or to become “the mayor” of your ethnic enclave. It’s just the ordinary basic truth and it should be delivered old school because I’m not afraid of the richer out of towners moving in and making me feel like a townie, I am afraid of the FACT that we have turned into such whining dorks – grown adult MALES squealing about having to commute “all the way from Brooklyn” to the Housing Court judge like that isn’t going to send a shudder down everyone else’s spine.

    And the press coverage or LACK THEREOF of any bullying victim attempting to correct or ameliorate their pillorying should be tracked because it will be evidence of how far we have come (or not) from mischaracterization and the degree of journalistic integrity – not just in New York – but in other places that hold themselves to be bastions of “rule of law” – if they’re not vampires, they won’t mind the bright light of day. It’s not just the press, it’s not just the courts but it’s also the housing agencies – outside of NYC as well peopled with anti-anyone who has it – according to the tenants – better than they do with no concern that according to their OWN agency’s rules, the tenant in question is EXACTLY the type of tenant they would evict from public housing.

    My parents NEVER spoke privately against anyone who had more money than they did and a lot of people with A LOT of money socialized with my parents because my father made them laugh – they never did business with him or made a dime off of each other – they weren’t cronies. There’s no excuse for what New York has now become famous for internationally especially in the English press for some weird reason. There was no excuse for not giving the previous mayor a very bright and sincere send off for personally donating a massive fortune to charities. He did it without self aggrandizement so even though he was from Boston, he always felt like a New Yorker. His New York made it very difficult for small owners but the real killer is the rent regs and the really unsympathetic press coverage and that goes back to before Giuliani.

    The New York I know has neighbors watching out for you and anonymously shoveling your snow for you because they’re nice. They don’t need some cantor in the Bronx to ask people to start pitching in when they see a problem – decades after the fact that New Yorker DO shovel other people’s snow ANONYMOUSLY. When did we devolve into this state?

    I can say that ordinary New Yorkers are uncommonly and probably overly worried about the new administration and most of them are not property owners. I would say that their concern is so severe as to be unhealthy and it has to do with the fear that this is like that classroom with the new teacher who can’t control the room and get the multiplication table into the minds of the third graders before the end of the week and inexplicably tries to reform the class loudmouths by giving them responsibility and oversight of his classmates. But if you look at what the new Mayor has actually implemented, a lot of it is for the good without giving into our fears that he is some spendthrift hippie who will spend his term taxing us all the way down to Florida (google “lovebug season”).

    Part of having fair press coverage is not telling the new mayor that we want the same educational opportunities as his son but it is exactly how tenants personalize dialogue with owners in a way that owners are NOT permitted to reciprocate. I do think that his appointments are going to continue to be thoroughly investigated because even though he was voted in, New Yorkers are reacting to an OVERDOSE of rewarded injustice so they are sensitized to the suspicion that there is some pork barreling disguised as do-gooderness – we could end up looking and feeling like a banana republic if our worst fears are realized.

    I think the press coverage has a lot to do with this – we had too many decades with gaudy sensationalistic press coverage that would use private citizens as target practice du jour. What was the base lie that Glenn Close spouted in “The Paper”? that “we only have to be right today.” Well, I can say that that there are reporters who LIED – knowing they were wrong every time they submitted a mischaracterization and they did it because the victim could not fight back from the grave.

    Everyone is very upset with other people getting subsidized housing, other people committing medicaid fraud and having basically servants standing behind their mahjong partners holding sweaters and being sent out for snacks at the senior citizen center, with getting food stamps or weirdly exercise classes because they are poverty-stricken on paper so they can pursue their dreams of becoming the next Jennifer Aniston. Everyone has a story about why they mistrust government spending but no one will dare to directly offend the beneficiaries of pork barreling and fraud.

    But no one has a problem hating on property owners. But has anyone noticed that property owners are the ones who least benefit from pork barreling? There’s no fat taxpayer-funded salary for their doing anything, correct? So actually, they’re not a burden BUT they are HATED.

  • circa 1972
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