NYC rents continue to drop, and landlords are feeling the crunch

Small property owners will take to the streets to demand action from City Hall

Median rents across the city continued their slide as hundreds of frustrated landlords plan a march on City Hall to demand government relief. (Getty, iStock)

UPDATED, Oct.16 2020, 10 a.m.: Rents across the city continued their downward slide in September, and hundreds of frustrated landlords are feeling the crunch — and demanding relief.

Median rents in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens all fell in September, according to an analysis of active apartment listings as of Sept. 30 by The Real Deal. The largest decrease was Queens, where the median rent fell nearly 12 percent, from $2,600 to just $2,295. The drop was slightly less steep in Brooklyn; there, rents fell 7 percent, from $2,914 to $2,700. It was the same story in Manhattan, where the median rent fell 5 percent, going from $3,418 to $3,200.

Manhattan did see an improvement in inventory: Active apartment listings in the borough decreased in September, from 21,736 to 20,182. That trend didn’t bear out in the other boroughs: In Brooklyn, apartment listings increased by nearly a third, from 4,628 to 5,945. In Queens, listings increased 71 percent, from 1,307 to 2,238.

Since Covid-19 struck, the vacancy rate in Manhattan has climbed to historic highs. In August, the vacancy rate reached 5.1 percent — the third record-breaking month in a row since appraiser Jonathan Miller started keeping track many years ago.

Landlords continue to lower rents in a bid to keep their tenants and salvage their investments, but the loss of revenue, along with nonpayment from some renters — plus limits on evictions that are in place through the end of the year — is putting pressure on smaller property owners, who want City Hall to take action.

A coalition of groups representing smaller landlords plans to take to the streets on Friday to demand that the city slash property taxes, eliminate property tax late fees altogether, or delay the tax lien sale, which is currently scheduled for Nov. 3.

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Joanna Wong, a landlord who represents one of the groups organizing the rally, Small Property Owners of New York, said that many smaller landlords are frustrated at tenants who are able to pay rent but choose not to because they cannot be evicted, while owners’ property tax bills pile up.

“I understand there are serious issues out there, but that doesn’t mean they should have a free ride,” Wong said. “Just because people are hurting doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all.”

One bill that sought to provide a subsidy for low-income renters came with too many eligibility requirements, Wong said. One of her tenants was not able to receive a state subsidy because part of her income was in cash.

Jan Lee, a member of NY Chinese Property Owners Alliance whose family owns about 25 units in Chinatown, said that small landlords have different issues from those of larger ones, and need to “have some distinctive voice.”

Lee said a rental voucher program, sponsored by Manhattan state Sen. Brian Kavanagh, was not sufficient to meet landlords’ needs. Kavanagh’s bill allocated $100 million from federal funds to provide subsidies to landlords whose tenants are eligible, but the state agency tasked with doling out the funds was overwhelmed by requests when the program went live, and questions remain over how much money has been allocated.

“Everyone knows it’s not enough, but the idea that canceling rent is a solution because property owners have this big pot of money that we can dip into is fanciful and illogical,” said Lee. “We’re not for anything that severs the economic stream.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a member of NY Chinese Property Owners Alliance. It is Jan Lee, not Jim Lee.