Who's In Charge Here, Anyway?

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Mike Grinthal, a staff attorney with South Brooklyn Legal Services who often finds himself working for tenants and trying to locate the owners behind an apartment building’s limited liability corporation, describes the inspiration for a new bill before City Council as incredibly simple.

“I go out to tenant meetings a lot,” says Grinthal. “The first question I get is: ‘Who’s my landlord?’”

Grinthal says the standard practice of incorporating the owners of a multi-unit apartment building as a single limited liability corporation, while perfectly legal, also allows for abuse by landlords who don’t want to respond to tenants’ clamoring for repairs or other requests.

After meeting with the Bushwick, Brooklyn-based community-organizing group Make The Road New York about creating legislation to address the issue, Grinthal helped to draft a bill that was introduced in August by City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito from East Harlem.

The bill would require anyone owning more than 25 percent of a corporately owned multi-unit apartment building to register their individual names, residences and business addresses with the city’s Department of Finance.

“Apartments in my district are often found to contain mold or insect and rodent infestations, which are known to trigger asthma attacks,” Mark-Viverito wrote in an e-mail. “Issues like these become difficult to resolve for my constituents when the only way to reach their landlords is at P.O. boxes and unanswered telephone numbers.”

In addition to disclosing their individual names and contacts, owners would also be required to disclose the number of unoccupied units in a building before filing a registration statement with the city.

That's because landlords for rent-stabilized buildings are allowed to raise the cost of rent for an apartment unit by 20 percent once it becomes vacant, and an abnormally high number of vacant units “can be an indication that there’s a plan to convert the building to condos,” said John Whitlow, a supervising attorney with Make The Road New York.

Advocates for the bill point out that making information on a building’s owners and vacant units easier to locate could also benefit the city by aiding in the identification of scofflaw building owners, as well as reducing the number of lawsuits brought by tenants and adjudicated through the city’s housing courts.

But Frank Ricci, government affairs director for the Rent Stabilization Association, a lobbying group for landlords and property managers, says the bill is largely a redundant measure, as information on building managers and owners is available through the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Department of Finance.

Ricci points out that tenants in need of serious repairs to their building can just as easily reach out to the city in order to get them addressed: “Ultimately you want the person who’s responsible for making repairs, and that’s what [tenants] get already, which is why we have the system set up the way that we do.”

For the time being, both opponents and advocates for the bill are taking a wait-and-see approach as it sits in Council’s committee on housing and buildings. Ricci says his group will give its opinion if the bill comes up for a public hearing.

And Make The Road New York deputy director Javier Valdes says the group will work to build coalitions with other housing and immigrant advocacy organizations as it waits until after next month’s elections to push Council members for the bill’s passage.

– Nekoro Gomes