Finding an apartment in a big city like New York is just the beginning. Photo via Flickr user Kevin Case
If there's one thing people in our broadly tolerant, mostly liberal society love, it's publicly casting judgment on peers. We’ve locked up the ne’er-do-wells in the town square’s gallows, plastered DUI drivers’ ugly faces all over local newspapers, and told everyone which houses belong to the sex offenders.
These days, when it comes to shady landlords, New York City is leaning on a much more visible town square: the internet.
Take, for example, a woman named Robin Shimoff, the latest star of NYC's Landlord Watch List. Launched by the then Public Advocate (and current Mayor) Bill de Blasio in 2010, this nifty database lets any New Yorker search for the worst landlords on his or her block, ranked by the number of violations they’ve accumulated.
Shimoff’s properties in the Bronx have racked up a grand total of 3,352 violations over the years. When Public Advocate Letitia James, the architect of this year’s edition of the list, announced the landlord's name at a press conference in front of City Hall last week, shouts and boos of “shame!” reverberated through the crowd.
"I wanna begin with the top worst landlord in the City of New York", James said. "And that award goes to – roll call – Robin Shimoff! And so, Ms. Shimoff, congratulations, you have the distinction of being the worst landlord in the city, and I would urge you to clean up your act immediately”.
Bizarrely, James promised her audience that “it’s really not my intent to shame landlords". After all, even if she had the noblest of intentions, it’s safe to say some New Yorkers had already grabbed their torches and pitchforks. But do landlords actually care when people get pissed off at them on television?
“I think it’s clear that a lot of them don’t”, Michael McKee, the treasurer of the Tenants PAC, a housing advocacy group in New York, told me. “The profits are too great. Landlords are driven by quick turnover and enormous profits”.
That’s why, to McKee, it was no surprise that Shimoff’s tenants told the New York Daily News tales of rats, gas leaks, and collapsing leaks in her properties, just days after she was declared the city’s slumlord-in-chief.
“We’re not going to suddenly see those buildings change”, McKee argued. “Unless you change that incentive, you’ve got yourself a gold mine”.
That incentive, which, in most of America’s major cities, exists in some form or another, is a lesser-known policy called "vacancy deregulation". It’s a free-market concept that arose in the 1990s, when high-speed housing bubbles paralleled economic expansion; the idea is that landlords are able to free their properties from rent control or rent stabilization by holding them vacant for a specified period of time. After that, the property owner can rent the unit at market rate, which is of course much higher than what tenants were previously paying (since landlords have this incentive to evict renters, it's more difficult for them to remove tenants who have some form of rent regulation). Partly as a result, people across the country are putting more of their incomes toward rent than they were in the Reagan era.
McKee pointed out that James’s office has offered a list of resources out there for tenants with shitty landlords. But he doesn’t think the Watch List is addressing the core issue of financial payoff. “Yes, it’s great we have a spotlight on them now", he said. "But is it going to change their bad behavior? No”.
Aja Worthy-Davis, a spokeswoman for James, told me that the Landlord Watch List—and public shaming, for that matter—is “the first step in a larger (and coordinated) effort to improve housing conditions in primarily low-income communities”. Since James took office last January, Worthy-Davis argued that the Public Advocate has taken a more defined role in protecting tenants against slumlords by joining them in court.
In one case, in which a Brooklyn property owner was accused of attempting vacancy deregulation by kicking tenants out, James told reporters that the city’s Housing of Preservation and Development is legally allowed to repair the building and bill the landlord later. If matters worsen, HPD is also entitled to a tax lien, which effectively places the landlord in debt.
“The most effective way to ensure safe, quality housing is to pass fair and strong laws that are strictly enforced”, Jamie McShane, a spokesman for the Real Estate Board of New York, which has no landlords on the Watch List, said.
But public shaming is all about who holds the information. In my neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, Joseph Pistilli at 28-07 38th Street has racked up 53 violations with his residents, and he hasn’t done anything about them since last year. In other words, what this chart is trying to tell me is that Pistilli is a downright shitty guy. Got it.
The idea here is that these assumed-to-be assholes—over 5,000 of them in New York alone—might get their act together once a prospective renter looks them up on the Watch List and decides to steer clear of them. But as anyone who has ever gone apartment hunting in New York knows, tenants don't always have the luxury of staying away from a building just because its owner has a bad reputation.
Since New York’s Landlord Watch List went live, Worthy-Davis would only tell me that “at least one” landlord had reached out to her office to clean his or her act up.
One down, 4,999 to go.
John Surico is a Queens-based freelance journalist. His reporting can be found in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter.