School for Wayward Landlords

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Under fluorescent lights in the basement of a Brooklyn bank, Anne Pasmanick stands before two dozen landlords and points to a white sheet of paper she’s taped to the wall in lieu of a blackboard. On it she’s written the words, “Rent,” “Leases,” “Housing Codes,” and “Evictions.”

As she goes over the rules for eviction, one man in the room asks what he should do about a tenant who hasn’t paid him for several months. “In certain indigent areas, the lease means nothing,” he complains. “You go into Housing Court, find the tenants in arrears for two, three, five months–and just when the decision is about to come, they decide to pick up and leave. The landlord has no [recourse for] grievances.”

Pasmanick thinks for a moment, choosing her words carefully. “There is a distinction to make,” she says slowly. “There are some people who beat the rents. There are also some people who you interpret that they do not pay the rents.” The tenants may be withholding rent because they are not receiving services they are legally entitled to, she tells him.

When the landlord protests, Pasmanick willingly concedes his complaint may be legitimate. “If that’s not your situation, you may want to go after them. You’re entitled to do that.”

The class is a stretch for Pasmanick. Executive director of the Community Training and Resource Center (CTRC) and a longtime housing organizer, Pasmanick is used to explaining eviction procedures and housing law–to tenants, not landlords. But in recent months she has found herself in the unusual position of teaching negligent landlords about their responsibilities and rights under the city’s complex rental laws.

All of the property owners in the classroom have been sued by the city for failing to provide proper heat or hot water. City lawyers and Housing Court judges have agreed to waive the usual fines for first-time offenders–which average $400 to $500–on the condition the landlords attend nine hours of classes on heating systems, the technical aspects of running their buildings, and the intricacies of evictions and leases. About 100 owners attended the pilot project’s first four courses earlier this year, which were sponsored by CTRC and taught with help from the Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Pasmanick developed the Landlord Training Program on the theory that landlords might provide better service if they received a nuts-and-bolts education.

“They’re mostly little guys,” she says. “Most of them own one or two buildings…. They’re working people who bought a building as a step up the ladder of economic success.” Many are immigrants from Bangladesh, China, Poland, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

According to lawyers with the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), some 20 to 30 percent of the 2,300 landlords sued each year for heat and hot water complaints are small players, often ignorant of their responsibilities or overwhelmed by debt and maintenance costs. Many own buildings wracked with problems, ranging from dozens of pre-existing code violations to deadbeat tenants, says Susan Holtzman, an HPD attorney who helped choose the owners placed in CTRC’s program. “These people didn’t have a clue about what they were buying,” she says.

By helping them, the program also helps low-income tenants, Pasmanick argues. “These people are providers of affordable housing,” she says. “They’re in the lower income neighborhoods. No matter what we feel about different people involved, they have real profound needs that must be met if we want to keep this housing stock.”

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The program has won enthusiastic support from landlord groups. It’s “the quintessential no-brainer,” says Frank Ricci, director of intergovernmental affairs for the Rent Stabilization Association, the city’s largest landlord advocacy group. He says the program is a much better alternative than fines. The RSA offered no financial support for the pilot–the $47,000 cost was picked up entirely by banks and foundations–but it is pressing HPD to take the program citywide, either by funding CTRC’s efforts or setting up a program of its own. “We’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback on this,” Ricci reports.

This collaboration, however, has troubled some of Pasmanick’s colleagues in the housing advocacy world, since RSA is spearheading the fight against rent regulations and tenant protection laws. In a typical broadside, one tenant organizer who asked not to be identified says Pasmanick’s time would be better spent seeing that housing laws are enforced.

But there is little available in terms of technical assistance for small owners. Pasmanick notes that one city program designed to help landlords make their heating systems more efficient has been phased out, and she doesn’t think the city has done enough to point landlords to other resources.

HPD officials claim this is changing. Stephen Tinnermon, acting deputy commissioner for housing preservation, says HPD’s two-year-old Small Property Owners Advocacy Unit launched its own 10-week landlord training workshop in April, teaching the basics of overall building management as well as the rental and housing code laws. Participation in that program is voluntary, however, and therefore fails to draw those landlords HPD knows are troubled.

The question remains whether CTRC ‘s classes–or any landlord training program–can actually motivate landlords to take better care of their buildings. Nor is every problem solved simply by giving landlords more information about housing law. People skills are needed on both sides of the lease, as a recent class made evident.

“Legal leases, according to the attorneys at law, are farces!” declares Hugh McGowan, describing a simmering dispute with a tenant who refused to give him a copy of the apartment key.

“One: the landlord is allowed access, especially in an emergency, to the apartment. [But] no! You get shoved, and pushed and thrown down the stairs.

“Two: tenants are supposed to give landlords a copy of the key. [But] all of these lawyers laugh at you and say you’re not allowed in the tenant’s apartment!” Pasmanick responds patiently, apparently having heard complaints like these before. “You’re right. You’re entitled to the key to a tenant’s apartment.”

But she also tries to get the landlords to see the other side.

“I’m going to go back in time when a number of you were tenants. Was everyone here comfortable turning a key over to your landlord?”

“If you want to, seek eviction on that ground,” she tells McGowan. “But if it’s simply a matter of battle of wills, you’re not going to win…. You need to try another approach, because your approach is not going to get you the key.”

Still, at the end of the class, many of the landlords say they found the session useful. Yvette Menes, who says she hasn’t been able to keep up with the heating bills on her three-family house, says she learned some important information about how to operate her boiler. “It was good to have an opportunity to learn more about housing and things of that nature, and not just have them drop a harsh fine on you,” she adds.

“It’s telling me again that patience is a virtue,” agrees McGowan.

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Other participants insist that what they learned in the class is meaningless in the face of the city’s housing laws. David O’Garro, a native of Trinidad and owner of two rent-stabilized buildings, claims the system is crushing him. One tenant pays only $141 as month, he says. On his other 13 units, he gets $400 to $500 a month. That is not enough to meet his expenses, he argues. His oil bill alone can run up to $1,600 a month during heat season.

And the boiler school doesn’t deal with one of the most significant problems many small landlords face: an overwhelming debt load.

“I don’t think people are evil, but I do think they overleverage their buildings,” says Steve Flax, Community Development Assistant Vice President at East New York Savings Bank and a former nonprofit housing executive. “If there is a real structural problem [and they can’t pay the mortgage on their building], you can educate people all you want. But they’re going to protect their investment before they protect their tenants.”

Pasmanick admits that to be effective the class may need to move beyond boiler repair and tenant relations and into financial management. To assess what would be most helpful, CTRC plans to survey participating landlords to determine how they financed their building, what their financial status is today and what they feel they need to learn to keep their building run-fling smoothly and profitably.

Meanwhile, Holtzman at HPD has volunteered to track the landlords to see if the classes have any impact. But the future of the class remains uncertain. Commissioner Tinnermon would not comment on whether HPD will support CTRC’s classes, and Pasmanick says the agency has shown little interest. If CTRC cannot find funding elsewhere–or find another group to carry the project forward–it may well die. And that would be a shame, Pasmanick says. “I think the collaboration here has been extraordinary,” she says. “We helped unravel a lot of anger and resentment and I think that worked to everyone’s mutual gain.”

Beth Fertig is a reporter at WNYC radio news.