Top 10 Reasons NYC’s Small Landlords Are Becoming Extinct


apartmentsA hundred years ago, men and horses farmed vegetables, and most rentals were in owner-occupied buildings.

Today in NYC, we call those farmers “urban gardeners” or “Amish”–and artisanal, old-style landlords are just as uncommon. Here are the top 10 reasons why:

1. Rent regulation: Rent regulation, imposed in 1947 and again in 1971, did not provide enough revenue for small landlords to function. Small landlords burned their buildings, defaulted on property taxes (NYC owned two-thirds of Harlem and the South Bronx in the early 1980s), sold their buildings to the tenants (a.k.a. the co-op conversion craze of the ’60s-’80s), or sold out to better financed (and bigger) landlords.

2. (Lack of) handiness: Being a small landlord requires being hands-on and understanding the intimate details of your building. Like most small landlords, I learned from watching my father and dealing with minor tenant issues. When my tenants have clogged sinks, I can fix them because I’ve seen it done before and I’m a fairly handy guy. If I had to keep a handyman on staff it would eat up most of my total rents. Many of the people who stay put in NYC grew up in apartments.  So there aren’t a lot of people left who are qualified to be small landlords.

3. Money: Big landlords borrow more money at cheaper rates than small landlords can.  Small landlords have to go to banks, and can only get a 10-year-loan for 60% or less of the value of a building, depending on actual rents. Tishman Speyer managed to borrow 80% of the money for Stuyvesant Town (mostly from pension funds), but their rents only covered 58% of the mortgage. Borrowing more allows bigger landlords to use a limited amount of capital to buy more properties.

4. Dealing with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal: Rent regulations are an incredible burden. To own a rent stabilized apartment, one has to use a complicated online system to register the rents, renew the leases at exactly the right time, save every receipt for years, making sure that the apartment number of any renovation is on it, and promptly file for rent increases for renovation projects.

Unfortunately, it can take 5-plus years to get a $20/month rent increase out of DHCR, and if you only have a few apartments, the cost of filing isn’t worth your time–it costs just as much to file for a rent increase in a small building as a large one, but the rent increase is proportional to the number of apartments.

Worse yet, DHCR’s group that deals with rent increases operates at geological time scales, while the “Tenant Protection Unit” (aka the Landlord Harassment Unit) can audit your expenses for everything you’ve ever done– if you are missing even one receipt, your rents can get cut. Lots of small landlords don’t have the time or energy to deal with this stuff.

5. Dealing with the rest of NYC’s Bureaucracy: NYC has all sorts of uniquely expensive requirements (e.g. you need a special license to verify that your sprinkler isn’t falling off the wall each month, or it costs you $800/year to get someone to do it).

Read more here.

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  1. The point about “unhandiness” is well taken. I have watched in amazement as my NYC-born friends have hired handymen to do the smallest, simplest repairs, and even put off necessary but no-big-deal type stuff because they couldn’t afford to hire someone else. They also hire gardeners to mow tiny lawns and even put in flowering plants that anyone from out-of-town places can handle in an afternoon after work.

    As the writer says, you learn from watching your parents doing things. It simply doesn’t occur to people that they could do something themselves if they’ve never seen it done.

  2. Regarding the legal questions, why doesn’t the frum community have some sort of legal aid/advice agency so small landlords can get advice on navigating the bureaucracy, legal requirements, etc.? There’s also a yashrus angle, since if you don’t understand a law you are more likely to break it or not take it seriously. Why don’t we have a resource for dealing with Choshen Mishpat/dina d’malchusa the same way we have kashrus agencies and advice, aimed at the small, everyday issues that people can’t afford to take to a lawyer?