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Rental Brokers Find Bad Landlords A Rare, But Severe, Headache

10/05/2006, By By Philana Patterson

Making a living as a New York rental broker isn't an easy proposition in any market, as picky tenants angle for discounts and incentives, or refuse to commit to anything but the perfect space in a time of scarce inventory and fierce competition.

But sometimes brokers face more trouble from their clients -- rental landlords -- than the sometimes difficult tenants they're trying to place. While it's more than reasonable for landlords to check a tenant's credit history and employment before letting somebody occupy an apartment, it's hard for brokers to earn a living when discernment blurs with outright discrimination. Racism is only one of the obstacles brokers cite in their private "bad landlord" files, which most say represent only a small fraction of New York rental property owners.

Richard Hamilton, a senior vice president at Halstead Property, worked for a landlord who crossed the line with one apartment, telling him not to show the apartment to black people.

"I told her that I couldn't discriminate, that I had to show it to whomever," Hamilton said.

Hamilton brought a mixed-raced couple over to see a unit with the landlord present. When their backs were turned, the landlord caught Hamilton's eye and swiped her hand across her neck to indicate "cut." He stopped working with her.

"I was so appalled," Hamilton said. "I don't want to work with people who want me to discriminate. That bothered me a lot."

Other landlord offenses range from failing to make necessary repairs to their properties, attempting to break two-year leases to raise the rent after just one year, and renting illegal apartments.

Because the rental business is based on ongoing personal connections, brokers say the worst landlords are easy to spot, and don't crop up all that often.

"In the rental business it's a lot of the same relationships over and over," said Bruno Ricciotti, principal at Bond New York Real Estate. "We're constantly working with new owners in the sales department, but in the rental department our database is built up with so many landlords we've worked with over the years that you kind of know everybody. You've weeded out the bad apples at this point."

Those bonds help firms get a handle on how a building operates and an on-the-ground view from superintendents to get the inside track -- a vital edge in a market where Manhattan vacancy rates are below 1 percent and an apartment can rent in minutes, if not hours.

When complaints do trickle in, the problems often aren't as big as tenants describe -- brokers describe many conflicts with landlords as "he said, she said" situations.

"One thing I've learned over the years is that there are 10 sides to every story," Ricciotti said. "I don't make a judgment until I investigate things thoroughly."

Firms have to investigate complaints about landlords when they're made, even when they're as minor as a burned-out light bulb on move-in day.

A busy landlord might brush off a tenant's request, which can escalate a small problem when the renter takes it personally.

Citi Habitats' customer service department takes calls from clients and helps sort out problems, said chief operating officer Gary Malin. "Sometimes we can effectuate the change quicker than the tenant would be able to. Sometimes you defuse the situation," Malin said.

And sometimes, agents need to jump in and solve big problems.

A landlord who lived in Italy once steered a $9,200-a-month luxury rental with broken toilets to a client of broker Jill Jordan. The Halstead broker said the apartment also had missing tiles and a bad paint job, and the renter was ready to walk away. Jordan said the landlord was going to let it happen.

Jordan jumped into action. She negotiated an allowance to cover repairs and cleaning, found a repair company, and handled the building's work order bureaucracy.

"Finally, we were able to get the apartment in a condition satisfactory for the tenant to occupy, and he moved in," Jordan said. "It was definitely a lot more work than I've ever done on a rental deal, but I really wanted my customer to be happy with both the apartment and me."

But sometimes a broker has to say enough is enough. When landlords are comparable to the Village Voice's "10 Worst Landlords" list, a favorite feature of the weekly newspaper since the 1960s, firms have to wave goodbye to property owners and potential commissions.

In those instances, which every broker or agent contacted for this story emphasized were very rare, agents and even entire firms stop taking listings from the offender and warn their colleagues.

"The last thing we need to do is ruin our reputation with [a landlord] that we've had bad experiences with the last six times in a row," Malin said.

The good thing is that it's not hard to spot a bad landlord. They're often rude or overly demanding, Hamilton said. Another sign: sometimes they want to leave furniture in a rental that's not supposed to be furnished, he said.

"You can get the signals," Hamilton said. "Sometimes you can see Mr. Hyde hiding behind Dr. Jekyll."

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