“We’re not doing this again”: Landlords’ horror stories keep homes off market

The harder it is to evict tenants, the fewer owners will risk getting a bad one

New York’s Tenant Laws Stop Owners From Becoming Landlords

In exploring why a new law cutting down on Airbnb listings might not free up much housing, the New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante hit on a key point:

“Every Airbnb host I spoke with seemed to know a story about a difficult tenant who became impossible to remove,” she wrote. “[Tony] Lindsay said that his father’s tenants in Bushwick stopped paying rent during the coronavirus pandemic. He eventually served them with eviction notices, but the tenants are still there.”

As a result, Lindsay, who used to Airbnb his home in East New York, is not inclined to become a landlord.

No one knows how many property owners don’t rent out their space for this reason. Nor do we have good data on how many problem tenants there are.

But it stands to reason that the harder it is to evict tenants, the fewer owners will welcome them. In Park Slope, where I grew up, some owners rent out their ground floors, or live in them and rent out the upper floors, but many do neither.

A good number are empty-nesters rattling around in four-story townhouses. It’s a tremendous waste of precious real estate in a high-opportunity neighborhood. This scenario plays out across New York City, even in more affordable areas.

“The risk is too great”

No one wants to end up like Queens homeowner Vanie Mangal, whose problems with tenants Rosanna Busgith and Phil Garnett began when they moved in and got worse five months later, in March 2020, when they stopped paying rent. For two years, the government protected the squatters with eviction bans, but even after those ended, tenant-friendly laws and backlogs in the already dysfunctional housing court tied Mangal’s hands.

To make up for the missed rent, Mangal took a second job working 13-hour shifts. “I’m going to have to be supporting these people for the rest of my life,” she told the Times in July 2021. “I just don’t see an end in sight.”

To preserve her sanity, Mangal moved out of her own home. Finally, after four years without rent, she got an eviction scheduled for Jan. 18. The tenants left the day before — and Mangal found her apartment had been trashed, the New York Post reported.

Mangal won’t rent again, according to Ann Korchak of Small Property Owners of New York, who says her group hears these accounts from many small housing providers. “The risk is too great,” Korchak tweeted.

Some stories are even worse. Roderick Compass of Queens got stuck with tenants from hell at his home in Springfield Gardens.

They let the sinks run over and clogged the toilet, flooding the unit below. They stomped on the floor at 2 a.m., waking a neighbors’ newborn, whom they allegedly threatened to kill. They told child protective services Compass had abused a nonexistent 9-year-old son.

And those were the good things. The landlord said his tenants later assaulted him, got police to arrest him and obtained a protective order that banned Compass from his own home. “We are going to tear your house apart when we are finished with it,” one of them allegedly told him.

Whipped and beaten

In East Flatbush, Kennisha Gilbert’s nightmare tenant story topped even Compass’ tale. She endured more than two years of unrelenting misery from violent, nonpaying tenants who used their upstairs apartment as a dog kennel in conditions so wretched that urine stained the walls of her unit below. Someone once sprayed her face with cleaning solution.

Eventually, one of her tenant’s sons ripped off her windshield wiper and slashed her face with it; another punched her in the face and ribs. When Gilbert’s husband tried to help, they beat him, breaking his ribs.

Even real estate professionals have war stories, but the most personally devastating cases involve inexperienced, small-time landlords who don’t have property managers and legal teams on call to screen out or deal with problem tenants.

Their stories rarely make the media because they aren’t sensational or macabre, but they are life-crushing. Two owners of small properties in Brooklyn told The Real Deal similar tales of tenants who manipulate the legal system and city agencies to live rent-free for years and ruin their landlords’ lives — to the point where the tenants can negotiate a buyout to vacate.

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

“He lives for free, torturing me”

One landlord’s Sheepshead Bay tenant stopped paying his $2,100 rent after six months and bullied her with lawsuits and constant 311 calls. “Every single day he files a new harassment charge against me,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being sued again by the tenant, who represents himself in court.

After shelling out $100,000 in legal fees, and never getting to tell her story to a judge, she could end up paying her tenant to leave.

“It sickens me, but I might be at the breaking point where I have to do it,” she said. “I don’t see any end in sight. The Kings County court system is dysfunctional. They don’t care.”

She discovered that at a previous residence, the tenant had sued everyone else in the building and negotiated a $25,000 payment to move out. The rental brokerage she used had missed that.

“I got a professional tenant who knows how to game the system,” she said. “He lives for free, torturing me, for at least two years.”

Maria, who asked that her last name be withheld, told a similar story of a tenant who lives in the rental unit of her mother’s house in Borough Park. The rental agency she used did not know that he was being evicted in Queens, where he got an order of protection against his landlord, took over the three-family house and rented space to other tenants.

Maria tracked down the owner — an elderly woman, like her mother — who said it took her four years to get the tenant out, by which time her home had racked up $750,000 in violations. Maria recited a litany of complaints about her mother’s tenant, from constant fake complaints of no heat or hot water to killing the hallway plants with vinegar.

“The scary part is my mom’s mental state. He’s put her through so much,” she said. “He tells her he’s going to send her to jail.”

Maria has spent $15,000 on legal fees and got an affidavit from the tenant’s previous landlord, but holds out no hope for recovering the tenant’s unpaid rent: $37,200 and counting.

When he finally leaves the home, she said, “It’s going to remain empty. We’re not doing this again.”

Finding middle ground

To be sure, these cases are not the norm. The vast majority of tenants pay their rent and cause no trouble. (The same dynamic exists with owners: Those who make the news for illegally harassing and evicting tenants are the exceptions.)

However, anecdotes of “professional tenants” who exploit New York’s laws and legal system are widely circulated. Did you know that if someone breaks into your home and stays for 30 days, he becomes a tenant under the law? No lease, no rent — it doesn’t matter. Newsday documented the experience of Long Island homeowners victimized by that rule.

The affordable housing crisis requires many solutions, one of which is getting more owners to put their unused dwellings on the market. But as Bellafante wrote, many Airbnb hosts are afraid to do that because of the horror stories.

On Airbnb, owners can screen out low-rated guests, are assured of getting paid, and need never visit housing court. In the unlikely event that a guest damages their property, Airbnb covers it. If long-term rentals in the city worked this way, more people would list their places. That’s not going to happen in tenant-friendly New York, however.

Nor is New York going to adopt the policies of states where tenants can be evicted on 10 days’ notice for one missed payment, and a constable throws their possessions into trash bags and changes the locks. That’s flat-out cruel, even if it does make it easier to find affordable housing.

Somewhere between these two extremes lies a rational policy that reasonably protects tenants while giving owners the confidence to rent their unused homes.

No rental regime will entirely stop exploitation, but New York shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. A system that gets more units onto the market will benefit owners and tenants alike.

Read more