After posting the cautionary tale, There’s Such Thing As A Friendlord, I feel obligated to share the shameful results of my housing search.
Caveat: If I represented my clients in the manner I have recently represented myself, I’d be ashamed to call myself their attorney. All I can say is this: Please don’t judge me.
. . .
In the course of about three weeks, I looked at more than two dozen apartments in Brooklyn. The vast majority of the places were tiny, dark boxes going for about $2,000/month, plus utilities and fees (we’ll get into fees later).
The brokers usually justified the astronomical rent by throwing in the ever-trendy pitch of “stainless steel appliances” and “granite countertops.” There’s nothing like cooking in luxury on top of your underwear drawer.
A few observations about brokers before I regale you with the pitiful results of my search:
1. Brokers are totally insane/evil: Although I’ve always attributed the evils of New York City housing to the owners and their predatory lenders (See An Introduction to New York City’s Slumlords), brokers have now gained a well-earned place high on my shit list.
2. Brokers create ridiculous lies about rent stabilization: Getting a rent stabilized apartment should be the goal of any apartment hunt in which a tenant seeks long-term (i.e. more than a year) housing. Stabilization means you won’t be evicted for calling the city to report a fire hazard and that your rent won’t go up excessively when a sushi bar and a Red Mango open on your corner. Admittedly, the question of whether an apartment is stabilized isn’t always straightforward but, the rules are generally simple:
- The building must be erected before 1974;
- It must have six or more units; and
- The legal rent must be below $2700 upon move-in.
Of the two dozen or so apartments I saw, at least a third should have been subject to rent-regulation. When I asked the brokers about the status of the apartments, they made up ridiculous rules like, “oh see how the owner installed an elevator; that means it can’t ever be stabilized.” In order to avoid revealing my identity, I had to play along, “oh right, I forgot about the elevator rule…”
3. Brokers have all the leverage to totally F-you over (and they do): Before you fork over your entire life savings and your first-born child at the lease signing, no broker will provide you a copy of the lease ahead of time. As scam artists, brokers require at least a $500 deposit to “take the apartment off the market” and then delay the lease signing by a matter of days or even weeks. By the time you actually meet up to sign away your rights, you really have no other option than to swallow whatever nonsense they put in front of you; it’s simply too late in the game to start the process over with another corrupt broker and try to claw back that $500 deposit. Rather than risk homelessness, you’ll sign the lease even if the rent happened to be a bit higher than originally advertised or the stove has “temporarily” been removed while the owner deals with a pesky little gas leak problem.
Now, that I’ve gotten that off my chest, without further ado: Of the three weeks of housing hunt hell, here are some of the lowlights:
. . .
1) Rent Stabilized Penitentiary-Style Building: The second place I saw was advertised at the address of a cute little brown stone but the actual studio was located across the street in a fortress-style 80-unit monstrosity in Crown Heights. Because the building had a tax abatement, the unit was actually advertised as stabilized with at least 10 exclamation points. Sure, the building looked like a penitentiary and smelled like rotten eggs, but the kitchen did have those sleek stainless steel appliances and granite counter tops. And, for a studio, the square footage proved impressive. Despite an ungodly broker’s fee, the rent still came out below market.
The broker, Sharon, a woman in her 20s, showed up at 10 am on Saturday morning apparently still intoxicated from last night’s escapades; she wore almost no clothing at all. As she showed me the building’s “luxury-style amenities,” I tried to avoid catching glimpses of her exposed body parts. But Sharon seemed preoccupied, describing the drama of her evening—-one involving a near arrest and an ex-fiancé.
As we made it to the unit, new details of Sharon’s evening emerged: Apparently, as she was drunkenly cruising around Grand Army Plaza at 2am, her ex-fiancé happened to spot her driving erratically. He also spied some nearby police getting ready to give chase. When he called Sharon to tell her this, her ex also instructed her to pull herself over and get out of the car: Apparently, if you’re just drunk standing outside your car, the cops can’t arrest you for a DUI? As we ended up outside the building at the end of the tour, I realized I had been so distracted by Sharon’s story I barely inspected the unit. No matter: Sharon seemed to feel more strongly about sharing this DUI-avoidance dip than selling me on the apartment. When I told her I didn’t own a car, Sharon seemed genuinely disappointed.
Why is this not my new home? Before handing over my social security number and various other financial documents, I did look Sharon up to make sure she had a an actual Real Estate license (she did).
After paying the application fee, it took me two weeks to “qualify.” Sharon dutifully texted every few days to say “we’re close” or “looking good on that application!” Finally, she told me I had officially qualified but when I asked to go back to the unit to take measurements (I had been so distracted last time…), she stalled and told me the “final approval” had “yet to go through.” With time ticking by and my move date coming, I finally realized something wasn’t right: Perhaps after a “Google” Search, the owner had wisely decided not to hand over a rent-regulated apartment to someone who makes a living suing slumlords. After all, his building had quite a few housing code violations already on record. Fair enough.
2) The Secret Terrorist: Shortly after meeting Sharon at the compound, I found an actual brownstone with a ton of character and the kind of easy subway access of which a girl who loathes winter could only dream. For the size and location, the apartment was renting slightly below market even with the broker’s ridiculous fee. The catch? I really hated the mansplaining broker George, who, when I asked him to negotiate with the owner for me over a few small things, gave me a long lecture about how rental markets work in New York City. Thanks, George, I really appreciate the lecture on how tenants always lose—-cause I wasn’t sure about that.
When I asked George about who was running the show, he nearly lost his already dwindling composure. Though I had qualified for the apartment, as per George, apparently I had not reached “the point in the process” entitling me to learn of the owner’s identity. At what point, I asked George, might the owner reveal himself? Before lease signing? George, flustered, agreed that I could “know” the owner prior to the lease signing but abruptly hung up. Despite George’s uselessness, my own research revealed that the owner had not property registered the building in many years, and the last registered owner had just celebrated his 94th birthday.
Nearly ready to put down that non-refundable deposit, and my curiosity piqued by George’s strong reaction to my questions about the owner, I decided to continue my own research. I knew the owner would control the heat and hot water, and I also knew that I might file a complaint with the state for the Owner’s failure to register the apartment as rent-regulated. Basically, I wanted to know who I might royally be pissing off. A sweet old lady? A large corporation? A 94-year-old real estate baron?
Some quick Googling revealed that the owner who actually managed the property had spent several years in prison due to a conviction for terrorism-related activities. The media had labeled him a “home grown terrorist” with associations to major acts of domestic and international violence. To be fair, I wanted to research his conviction more before making a final decision (the media and the justice system does not tell the full story, especially when labeling people “terrorist”) but my decision was made for me. Good old George called me the next morning to say that the owner has revoked my approval; he felt I asked too many questions. Touché, George.
3) The Luxury Apartment: After losing the convicted “terrorist’s” apartment, I finally took a weekday off from work to try to get to see apartments just as they were coming on the market. After an exhausting day of viewing $2,000+/month apartments that didn’t yet have a bathroom or kitchen in less than ideal areas, I felt deflated.
The last apartment viewing of the evening, a brand-new luxury building, lured me to an area well east of where I intended to live. In an unfamiliar neighborhood, I saw a stunning one bedroom with a private balcony, new kitchen, new bathroom, central AC/Heat, huge closets, laundry, a roof top deck, and a real gym.
The price was high but a tax abatement rendered the property rent-stabilized so, in theory, the rent would never go up much (though, the broker refused to let me see the lease so I couldn’t be sure). A 23-year-old orthodox Jewish broker, Uri, immediately honed in on our Jew connection and told me that “God had sent” me to this apartment. When Uri asked me whether I had grown up in a religious family, I evaded the question and smiled.
As Uri and I sat on the roof desk watching the sunset over Manhattan’s skyline, I felt tempted to just end my suffering and lock down this apartment. Uri sent me a link on my phone where I could throw down a PayPal deposit. Once I pressed send, all this would be mine and my search would be over.
When I demurred, Uri urged me again: “This is going to fly off the market in no time; pay now or else you’ll lose it.”
I told Uri I needed a few hours to crunch the numbers and research the area a bit. As we left, (I’ll never know if she a plant) a young woman passed us and greeted Uri, “another broker,” Uri whispered. “She’s going to try to rent it; I’d move fast. You were first so it’s yours if you pay now.” During my train ride home, I texted Uri two words: “I’m sold.”
As soon as I paid application fee about 20 minutes later, Uri texted to say the other female broker had gotten a deposit exactly 11-minutes before. But not to worry, he’d fight for me. After dragging out the battle by 24 hours and asking me to add funds to my deposit, he assured me I had it. Success.
After putting a total of $1,900 down over the course of 24 hours, I began to feel a deep sense of regret. When I called to beg for my deposit back, Uri became positively distraught; “Oh no! Why in the world would you do that?”
He tried every trick in the book to convince me to take the apartment, and I endured another long mansplaining lecture about how the housing market functions. I countered that if the apartment had “flown off the market” so fast, he should be able to rent it easily. I also pointed out via screenshots that though I had paid my $1,900, the owner had NOT taken the apartment off the market; all the major rental websites still had it advertised as available.
All of the sudden, confident young Uri acted worried he wouldn’t find a replacement renter by October 1, still more than two weeks away. When he asked for my help advertising it on CraigList, I started to freak out. But Uri comforted: “don’t worry, God is going to return to your deposit; you’re a good Jewish girl.”
I told him that I didn’t think God gave two craps about my deposit but he assured me that God cares about all Jews (I’m not sure what God thinks about the others though…). To date, I have been wrangling with Uri and his company for three weeks and still don’t have all my money back. I might have to hire a lawyer…
And now for the winner:
4) The Winner: I honestly think a combination of fatigue and hopelessness put me in a vulnerable position, thus clouding my judgment and compelling me to break one of my golden rules: There’s no such thing as a friendlord (i.e. don’t live with your landlord).
With two weeks before move day, yet another broker took me to the tiny unit under construction with no complete bathroom or kitchen. When I asked about the fee, she said $2,300 without a hint of irony. When I gasped I horror, she told me that the fee had been lowered; this was a deal!
When we were done viewing the construction site, and I descended the charming stairs of the brownstone, I had mentally decided that this was not the apartment for me. Sure, great location but the usurious broker didn’t really make a good sell: “yea the place is super small; needs a lot of work.” And when I asked if it would be ready for October 1st, she shrugged and said, “October 1st, um…sure, why not?”
Nevertheless, when I saw some tenants hanging out on the stoop, I decided to ask them about the place. They told me they loved living there. When I asked about the owner, a small older woman peaked up at me from the garden level door below and said, “well she’s right here so you can ask her yourself…”
Ms S., the owner, lives in the garden level of a five-unit building. She first charmed me with a story about investors aggressively trying to get her to sell the property in this quickly-gentrifying neighborhood. Her response? She called the police on them. I couldn’t help but fall in love.
We talked about the other tenants, her garden, local politics, and affordable housing. By the time it came to signing the lease, Ms. S, given her more advanced age, clearly had not Googled me. Meanwhile, the broker in her attempt to do as little work as possible, also refrained from a Google search.
At the lease signing, the apartment still lacked cooking and sanitary facilities—the construction “team” (i.e. one dude who swore he was bringing in a helper) had made little progress. But I dutifully handed over my life savings to the landlord and her broker friend. I winced as I signed a lease containing unconscionable and illegal terms underlined in bold and followed by five exclamation points. It took all my will power to keep my mouth closed.
After the ink had dried, Ms. S turned to me and said: “you know what, now that you’ve signed and paid, I can tell you the truth: I don’t usually rent to single women.” She told me that she likes female tenant as a general matter but that so many young women have aggressive, drunk boyfriends who create a “ruckus”. She started describing all the personal ongoings of her previous female tenants.
Taking my opportunity to rip the gay band-aid off, I emphasized to Ms. S that I would never bring home a boyfriend. When she failed to grasp what I meant, I tried to repeat with different phrasing but the broker shot me the evil death stare and nearly dragged me out of the building by my shirt collar. Looking on the bright side, I hope Ms. S will just think I have some very close female friends or maybe lots of sister. And if I have gas service and running water when I move in October 1st, all the better.
To be continued…