The Closing: David Rozenholc

The feared tenant lawyer on coming from a family of “slaughterers,” living like Napoleon and attacking developers for sport

David Rozenholc (Photo by Studio Scrivo)
David Rozenholc (Photo by Studio Scrivo)

David Rozenholc is one of NYC’s most feared tenant lawyers. Over three-plus decades, Rozenholc has won millions of dollars in settlements and gone up against some of the city’s biggest developers, including the Zeckendorf brothers, Tishman Speyer and Donald Trump. In 2005, he negotiated a $17 million settlement (plus an apartment for $1 a month for life) for a single holdout tenant at what became Zeckendorf’s signature project at 15 Central Park West. Then in 2015, he topped that with a record $25 million for two tenants on 10th Avenue, where Tishman Speyer was assembling a site for its $3 billion office tower, the Spiral, that’s now rising. Rozenholc reportedly took home a third of that settlement. In 2016, he sold his East 84th Street townhouse for $27 million. He still lives on the Upper East Side. And his eponymous boutique law firm operates out of a modest 19th-floor office at 400 Madison Avenue.

DOB: October 20, 1945
LIVES IN: Upper East Side
FAMILY: Married with two daughters and four grandchildren

Where were you born? In Kyrgyzstan. The war was over. We took a train to Poland, where there were riots against Jews. Ultimately, we went to a displaced-persons camp in Germany. Then we went to Israel in 1948, beginning of 1949. I lived there 13 years. I came here when I was 15 and a half.

How did your parents survive the war? My father crossed from Poland into Russia. He was arrested on the border and convicted of being an English spy, even though he didn’t know where England was. He was then sent to Siberian labor camp for two and a half years. [After being released] he headed east, Afghanistan to China. My mother was from Bessarabia on the Romanian-Russian border. She was in boarding school and her father was well-off. She was 14, and her parents took a horse and buggy and she was walking behind them. They walked to Kyrgyzstan from Bessarabia.

Where did you live when you first got to NYC? My uncle, my father’s brother who’s still alive and who was in Auschwitz and Birkenau, lived in the Bronx on Walton Avenue. We moved into an apartment right below him.

What did your father do for a living after the war? I come from generations of slaughterers.

Did you learn that trade? I wish. My father could debone a chicken whole. My mother would stuff it and roast it and then you could slice it. I was too fucking stupid to ask my father to teach me how to debone a chicken.

How did you end up in tenant law? I was working for a lawyer in the Bronx. Then I went to the corporation counsel’s office and then to South Bronx Legal Services, which was only representing tenants. I became director of litigation. That was in the early 1970s, when the Bronx was burning.

There was no Housing Court back then, was there? Right. There was a civil court judge. At the time, your obligation to pay rent was separate from the landlord’s obligation to provide a habitable apartment. When an apartment had leaks and was falling apart, the judge would tell the landlord, “Please repair it. Pay the rent. Final judgment.” We changed the equation. 

How? At the time, people were not being served papers properly. They wouldn’t even know they were being evicted. We started demanding hearings on every case. There was one judge. But if he had a trial, the others were adjourned. After a few weeks, I’m walking in with 20 cases. Six months later, I’m walking in with 80. We tied the court up. The tenants were getting screwed. The only way to change that was to make it [hard] for landlords to collect rent. Suddenly, there’s no court that could give landlords the rent. [The state] pretended they created the Housing Court to protect tenants. They didn’t. They did it to protect landlords.

Do you have any war stories from early Housing Court? I was representing tenants in a rent strike in the Bronx. The landlord was next to me. His attorney was on the other side. I looked over and the landlord is counting bullets. The judge cleared the courtroom. There was no security in the courts. And at that time, many of the Bronx landlords carried legally.

You’ve said you like to think like a landlord. How does a landlord think? You need to understand development. What did the developer pay for the site? Can he make the site even larger, is it possible he’s negotiating to buy adjoining buildings? Did he finance it? How much money did he borrow? What interest [rate] is he paying on that money? What does it cost him to carry the property? What is the zoning? What can he build? And how much money will he make? That’s what a developer would do.

How do you put settlements together? When I represent tenants at a development site, I represent everyone or I represent the last one. That’s the leverage.

Tell me about the $17 million 15 CPW settlement. My client was brilliant. He had a Ph.D. in physics and was a medical doctor. But he was strange. He had a deal. They were going to give him an apartment at the Essex House. But he insisted they include free dinner at the restaurant there twice a week. The landlord’s lawyers couldn’t figure out how to do it. Then somebody referred him to me. I said, “Listen, you have a lot of leverage. You can make a lot of money.” He said, “I don’t care about money.” I said, “You’re a scientist. Why don’t you take the money and donate it and do a foundation?” That’s how he retained me. 

How long do your cases take? I’ve represented tenants for 30 years where I still haven’t settled. I have a case from 1984. If my clients do not end up in a better position, I won’t settle. And if you fuck with me, I’ll fuck you for sport.

For sport? You’ll pay extra because you fucked with me and my clients.

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What’s the sport look like exactly? The sport is that you pay a lot more because you fucked around.

Why don’t you have a website? I get my business through reputation.

So were you the person I was emailing? No. Yin, my assistant, gets the email and hands it to me. I dictate or write it. I have an iPad for photos and … to [go to] auction websites. My wife sets me up with Sotheby’s, Christie’s and other auction houses.

What do you collect? Antiques, antique furniture and art. Neoclassical. My house looks like I’m Napoleon.

You represented tenants in the ’80s against Trump at 100 Central Park South. Was he different than other developers? He was much more aggressive. He brought a $105 million RICO lawsuit against my firm. People threaten me, whatever. Nobody brought a completely frivolous RICO suit to try to convince us not to represent the clients. It made no difference. Ultimately, he paid my legal fees, the case was dismissed, he withdrew his application to evict the tenants and demolish the building.

In his 1992 book, “Trump: The Deals and the Downfall,” Wayne Barrett wrote that you put your bare feet on the desk and told a Trump attorney that you “like to eat a Christian a day.” There were no bare feet on the thing. I could have said that. Something similar to it. 

Do you talk like that to adversaries often? I was much more aggressive when I was younger. I don’t have to do that. Developers know who I am.

Is the real estate industry more litigious than other industries? Yes. I find that to be the case. Part of it is the cast of characters who go into real estate and become landlords in New York. Part of it is if you’re a developer and you have tenants and you want them out, you litigate. There is no other way.

You work on a contingency. Does that make you an ambulance chaser? My clients couldn’t afford to pay me hourly. I take the risk and get a portion of the reward. I’m not an ambulance chaser… But there are tenant lawyers out there who do terrible things. [They’re] sleazebags.

How separated are you from the industry? I get invitations. But I don’t go. Where real estate people gather, I am not there. They’re not my friends.

Do people criticize you for making so much money and then often representing low-income tenants? They say to tenants, “He doesn’t care about you. Look how real he’s living.” I care about tenants. I’ve found a way to make money — a lot of money — representing the underdog. I’ve made more millionaires than the New York State lottery.

Do you have a place in the Hamptons? Yes. I’ve had a house in Southampton since 1988. It’s a well-known house.

Famous architect? No, famous house. On Gin Lane, where some of my enemies live. There’s a windmill that was built on Shelter Island in 1807, then moved to Hampton Bays. The family that basically created the estate section of Southampton moved the mill to Southampton and added a Dutch barn. That’s my house.

Do you have any retirement plans? No. I enjoy what I do. I don’t play golf. I don’t play tennis. I don’t have hobbies like that. I read. I collect stuff. If I go on vacation for more than 10 days, the second week I want to commit suicide. I get bored.

What’s your biggest achievement? I represent people who need protection. I deal with lawyers and I say to myself, “How the fuck do you sleep at night when you’re evicting 80-year-old women?” I sleep well.

Edited and condensed for clarity.