Isabel Pedras never wanted to be a landlord, but she inherited the honor nonetheless. She’s the daughter of Portuguese immigrants who built an 80-unit uptown empire on sweat and frugality. Her father worked construction jobs during the week and took bussing shifts on weekends, saving every penny he earned to buy his first property. He and his wife are proud of what they’ve built, but in recent years, they’ve found it harder to manage on their own, and Pedras has taken on a larger role.
Pedras balanced her family’s business and a job as a commercial litigator until four years ago, when her father had triple bypass surgery. Realizing she needed to step up, she quit the law and became the full-time manager of her parents’ properties.
“You work so hard for something, and then you realize your parents need you,” she said. “When you have immigrant parents, and they do everything they can to give you everything you ever want in life, and they turn around at some point and ask you for help, you drop everything and do what you can to help out.”
Pedras doesn’t think of her job as a cold-blooded numbers game. In our interviews, she stressed to me the divide she feels between herself and the “old white guy sitting in a highrise looking at spreadsheets.” That’s the image she assumes people see when they hear the word “landlord.”
The spreadsheet, to her, is a symbol of corporate greed. She said the word five times when I first interviewed her at the end of March, always distancing herself from it.
“There are landlords like that,” she admitted. “But there are also a lot of us who are really small, who aren’t in highrise buildings, who aren’t looking at spreadsheets, who know our tenants’ names by sight.”
Joanna Wong, whose family owns roughly 50 units on the border of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, has a story that’s similar to Pedras’: immigrant parents, post-graduate education, a professional career (consulting) that she abandoned to join the family business when her parents got too old to run it. Like Pedras, she declined to give me her parents’ names, lest I decide to paint them in the unflattering light she feels the media has used on other landlords.
“It’s a thankless job,” she told me. “You’re literally working with people’s feces and garbage. There’s a lot of stuff I do that the average person wouldn’t do, even for themselves. I’m not saying we should be praised, but we’re usually villainized or made the scapegoat. What you read in the news, what you read on Twitter, it’s always the big, bad landlord.”
Pedras and Wong aren’t wrong about the public opinion of the rentier class. The landlord is a universally reviled creature. This disgust crosses racial divides, religious schisms and sports rivalries. In every city, there are slimy, soulless slumlords, and faceless developers rebuilding old neighborhoods in their own dystopian images, driving out working class families to make room for the children of the wealthy, the next generation of landlords.
But not all landlords are supervillains or mega-conglomerates. Nearly half of America’s rental units are owned by individual investors with no affiliated business entities. And many of these less protected landlords, like their tenants, face tremendous uncertainty right now. Before the crisis, nearly half the households in New York City were already rent-burdened, spending over 30 percent of income on rent. Now, many household incomes have been reduced significantly, or eliminated completely. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have been fired or furloughed as a result of the virus. Unemployment in New York City is at 16 percent, nearly twice the national rate, which itself has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic.
As of the first week of September, 31 percent of tenants citywide (about 1.8 million New Yorkers) owed back rent, according to a survey conducted by Apartment List. Over half these renters’ debts exceeded $1,000. And on Sept. 28, Governor Cuomo extended the statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures until the end of the year.
Small property owners across the city are in panic mode. They face plummeting rent rolls, unprecedented vacancies, and a bear market, with lien sales looming large. A harsh winter lies ahead, and many of these small-time landlords are wondering how long they can hold onto their properties, and whether it’s worth it.
Thousands of New Yorkers have refused to pay their rent since May 1 in solidarity with those who can’t. Cea Weaver, the campaign coordinator for the tenant and advocate coalition Housing Justice For All, played a central part in organizing what may have been the biggest coordinated rent strike since the Great Depression.
“The role of the strike is to put pressure on the government,” Weaver told me. “We want Governor Cuomo to use an executive order to cancel rent.”
Four months in, it’s hard to measure the direct impact of the rent strike. “Rent strikes aren’t as exciting as they sound,” Weaver pointed out. “Mostly what it is is people going about their day not paying rent, and they’re still doing that.”
Unpaid rent is unpaid rent, and it’s hard to collect data on who can’t pay, who is striking, and who is taking advantage of the situation. As with landlords, there are good and bad tenants. And though the landlord-tenant power dynamic has historically made greedy landlords much more harmful to their tenants than the other way around, small property owners say the exchange is not so simple. Tenant advocates argue that one individual’s business venture should not be equated with another’s shelter, a basic need and a human right. But for small-time landlords whose properties are their only source of income, the line between business and survival is blurry.
Pedras, Wong, and other landlords I spoke with all described their relationships with tenants as reciprocal, and in this give and take, they said, some do more taking than giving. As small property owners, they know which tenants they can trust to try their best to make rent, and which ones are less forthright about their finances.
“I know the ones that are struggling,” Pedras told me. “I see them come in on the cameras at three in the morning. I know they work late hours at restaurants, doing the closing and the cleanup. We’re talking about people who work really hard for every dollar and every tip. I obviously don’t begrudge anybody going through hard times, and I’m sure it’s keeping them up at night.”
But other tenants, she said—“the usual suspects”—are refusing to pay rent even though their income is no longer affected by the pandemic.
Wong is having the same issue. “We have a tenant who hasn’t paid anything since April,” she said. “He’s not living in the apartment, and he’s holding it hostage in an attempt to renegotiate. He just has weak morality. And get this: He has no money to pay rent, but he has money to hire a lawyer to approach us.”
Since widespread protests of police violence began, the tenant has been sending her alarmist articles about spikes in crime and flight from New York.
“He’s signaling to me that the market is weak, and that we should try to work out a deal with him,” she said. “He knows we’re in a tough situation, but he doesn’t even try to pay partial rent. Legally he’s obligated to pay, but he knows there are no consequences.”
There are still consequences for refusing to pay rent. Landlords can charge up to 10 percent interest on rent arrears, and these accruing fees aren’t going anywhere. Cuomo’s executive order to push the end of the moratorium from Oct. 20 to Jan. 1 came after a national ban had already been put in place for the rest of the year. Now, assuming their landlords choose to follow the law, tenants and mortgage-bound homeowners won’t have to worry about being kicked out of their homes for a while longer. But with so many still out of work, it’s unlikely the extra six weeks will be enough time for the millions of New Yorkers in debt to catch up on their delinquent payments.
Housing Justice for All has proposed a bill to extend the moratorium for another year. They’re also calling on the state legislature to cancel rent and mortgages, and to rehouse homeless families.
Mike Johnson, the communications director at the Community Housing Improvement Program, an association of about 4,000 small property owners across the five boroughs, said he understands the current eviction ban is a “necessary tactic during a health crisis,” but that extending it another year would be catastrophic for his members and only deepen New York’s gaping real estate wound.“It’s not a solution,” he said. “It’s punting the problem down the road, and it will create all sorts of other issues.”
According to Johnson, the eviction process is the only tool landlords have for determining whether tenants are missing payments by choice or by necessity. “It’s not just the physical removal of people from their homes,” he said. “It’s a long process, and it’s the system our elected officials put in place for rent collection and property ownership. This is how it works. Once you stop the ability to execute that system, it falls apart.”
Pedras echoed his concerns. “I doubt this will be the last extension,” she said. “If they were serious and not just political they would hear each case and determine the people who need help and those taking advantage.”
The members Johnson sees struggling most are those with commercial tenants. Many small property owners in New York rely on the businesses that rent their bottom floors for over half their rent roll. And the moratorium has allowed these savvier renters to hedge their bets.
“A lot of these businesses are making a calculated decision,” he said. “They might have enough money to pay all the back rent they owe, but they might be holding that money and deciding whether or not they want to stay. And when the moratorium ends, they might just walk away.”
Wong said she offered a retail tenant a 40 percent rent reduction but still couldn’t cut a deal. “I guess he got to the point where he sees no way out,” she said. “When he leaves in November, the building will be in a significant deficit.”
Most small property owners, like most homeowners, don’t own their buildings outright, but the ones I spoke to said mortgage payments were the least of their worries. What keeps them up at night are property taxes, which average about a third of rent rolls for Class 2 (rental) properties in a normal year.
Property taxes were due in July, and the small property owners I spoke to all said they had enough saved up to pay. But they’re due again January 1, and depending on how much rent these landlords are able to collect between now and then, this winter could be an especially chilly one.
“We should be alright,” Pedras said, “But we’re not paying ourselves at all. If we can get through it, it’ll be worth it. But if things don’t get better…”
“If they defer rent, then property taxes need to be deferred,” Wong said. “If they cancel rent, property taxes need to be cancelled too. Whatever treatments they give to tenants, they should be giving the same exact treatments to property owners, but they’re not.”
The problem here is that, most years, property tax payments account for over 40 percent of New York State’s revenue. The New York State Division of the Budget has predicted a $13.3 billion tax shortfall this year as a direct result of the pandemic, and a $61 billion loss over the next four years. Cancelling property tax is not a viable option.
Cuomo has extended the moratorium on tax lien sales through Oct. 4, which means the state hasn’t yet sold property tax debt to private collection companies, thereby delaying the start of the foreclosure process. Cuomo has also reduced the interest rate on late payments from 18 to 7.5 percent for property owners who qualify. But this short-term forbearance is yet another stopgap measure.
When I first spoke to Johnson in March, State Senator Michael Gianaris of northwest Queens had just proposed a bill to suspend rent payments for 90 days and establish a fund to help property owners make up their lost income.
“We have very big concerns about this idea that you can tell a large population of people that they don’t have to pay rent and that it’s gonna be OK for building owners,” Johnson said, “because ultimately, small property owners are the ones that will end up being dramatically hurt.”
That bill never made it to the state senate floor. Instead, a voucher program bill sponsored by lower Manhattan State Senator Brian Kavanagh was signed into action in July. The COVID Rental Assistance Program is a $100 million allocation of CARES Act funds that will give tenants who meet a stringent list of requirements a one-time rent subsidy, sent directly to their landlords.
Johnson and all the small property owners I spoke to were in favor of this bill, and still seem to think it’s a step in the right direction. But none of them could point me to specific tenants who’d received aid. State officials have yet to indicate that any of these funds have been disbursed, and Weaver told me she hadn’t heard from anyone who’d successfully applied.
“We don’t like that bill,” she said. “It sets up a really bad framework that locks people into a rent burden and doesn’t actually prevent eviction. It’s a costly bailout for landlords that doesn’t solve the problem.”
Of the many bad options available to the state, the worst is to leave tenants responsible for their unpaid and unpayable rent, without offering them any sort of forgiveness or aid. Neither can the city afford to front the bill, with so many of its funds already sunk into COVID relief. This leaves the landlords, and tenant advocates argue that, after centuries of good business, they’re long overdue to take a hit.
“Landlords are the only investors I’ve encountered who expect their investment revenue to remain constant & level no matter what the market forces are,” noted Twitter user @pangmeli in late March, when the crisis had just begun to take its toll.
There’s historic precedent for this expectation. Real estate has always been considered the most surefire investment, much less risky than playing the stock market, and much more tangible. A study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, since 1870, housing and equities have yielded similar returns, but housing has been significantly less volatile. And before 1856, when the US achieved universal white male suffrage, owning property was the only way to guarantee political capital, as well as economic clout.
But for many small property owners, being a landlord is not only a means to a financial end. It’s a lifestyle. Those who are first- or second-generation immigrants to this country are often especially attached to the units they own. Those who aren’t independently wealthy have worked hard—all their lives, even—to carve out their tiny niches in the housing market. And those who don’t have full staffs attending their properties often develop meaningful relationships with their tenants. Still, their situation is not entirely comparable to that of tenants who know they could be out on the street come January.
“The reality is that tenants and landlords are different classes of people,” Weaver said. “I’m sympathetic to small property owners, but the reality is that a person who owns a multi-million dollar property is less in need than someone renting an apartment in that property.”
But according to Weaver, the disparity is rendered invisible to most people in this country by a uniquely American cognitive dissonance.
“The ideology of this country, the bootstrap thing and the American Dream thing, is so pervasive,” she said. “Everyone in this city identifies more with millionaires than they do with the homeless, but most people are closer to being homeless than being landlords.”
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule: wealthy young people who are only renting because they don’t want to settle down just yet. But the pandemic has pushed a large chunk of these young professionals and heirs to generational fortunes out to the suburbs, at least for the time being.
This millennial “white flight” has no doubt decreased the median wealth of New York City tenants, though no hard data exists to confirm this. But it also spells disaster for landlords like Wong, who told me most of her market-rate tenants belonged to this demographic.
“The neighborhood I’m in and the walk-up aspect of the buildings naturally attract the type of tenant that is transient and moves quite easily,” she said. “They’re not tied down to the neighborhood, or even the city or state. So we have high vacancies, and those who are staying are negotiating hard because they have options. They’re not ‘sticky.’”
Back when times were good, with unemployment lower than it had been for half a century before the pandemic began, Pedras was already losing faith in her family business due to a new law signed into action last year.
The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, supported almost uniformly by tenant advocates and civic leaders, places dozens of new restrictions on landlords with rent-regulated properties, which make up roughly half the city’s housing stock. At a Queens Borough Council meeting I attended in the fall, then-Deputy Borough President Sharon Lee (now acting Borough President) called the law “a tremendous win for tenants across the state.” Community Board 3 district manager Ricky Giordano, who oversees the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Ridgewood and Maspeth, said it was “a long time coming,” adding that landlords’ “shenanigans” had been going on far too long.
Landlords, of course, see things differently. My landlord, Tommy Laskaris, a small property owner with five units across East Harlem, Flatbush and Park Slope (where I rent a room on the top floor of his family’s brownstone), called the act “extremely egregious” and assured me other landlords felt the same way.
“You feel like you’re wasting a lot of your time,” Pedras said. “You wonder, why am I spending two days getting this paperwork filed, when it’s just for some bureaucrat to sit down and plug it into a spreadsheet? It has nothing to do with actual renting and living and providing a service to our tenants.”
Within the 74-page bill that delineates the terms of the HSPTA, Pedras loathes the section dealing with individual apartment improvements most. The new legislation places a limit of $15,000 on the amount a landlord can recoup from the renovation of a unit. Where landlords were once incentivized to make large-scale improvements in order to raise rent—an arrangement that encouraged fraud, according to tenant advocates—they now must make these changes incrementally and raise the rent in step.
“You have to second guess every little purchase now,” Pedras said. “Maybe if I were better with spreadsheets, I’d sit down and say, ‘OK, what’s the amortization on this stove? But for us, the math is just, at the end of the year, how much did we make and how much did we lose?”
In her eyes, the new restrictions will barely put a dent in the business of the super-wealthy, predatory landlords it ostensibly targets. Instead, they’ll hit the struggling landlords who were already playing by the book.
“We’re not looking to get rid of tenants,” she said. “We’re not looking to evict people. We’re not looking to jack up rent just because we can. We’re just looking to cover our costs. And the city seems to think we’re just a blank check.”
Wong also believes the caps on individual apartment and major capital (full-building) improvements will make many property owners like her family abandon ship. She described a convoluted hypothetical scenario: A landlord charging $500 for a unit has a long-time tenant move out and wants to redo the apartment. With electrical, plumbing, etc., the renovation will cost $100,000. But the way the new law is structured, she’ll only be able raise the rent in increments of $89 per year. So she decides to leave the unit vacant for the time being, waiting until the market improves or more favorable legislation is passed. But because of anti-warehousing legislation passed in 2018 to address mass homelessness, even this undesirable option might soon be illegal.
“Can you force someone to operate at a loss, or at break even?” Wong wondered. “Is that even legal? I don’t think so. The city is basically forcing private owners to work for them for free.”
This sentiment seems to be the party line for small property owners. How can they be forced to run unprofitable businesses?, they ask. Units will remain vacant, they warn. The housing stock will be ruined. People like Pedras and Wong, whose immigrant families strived for years for the properties they own, will see their hard-earned family businesses crumble. And the vultures—the truly villainous landlords, with lawyers on staff and spreadsheets blanketing their computer screens—will feast on the wreckage.
Even with a tenant advocate’s mentality, it’s hard to argue that small property owners such as Wong and Pedras should be left to shoulder the burden of a nation’s monetary woes, as they feel they will be if rent is cancelled.
Of course, that’s not what tenant advocates are arguing for. The proposed rent cancellation bill establishes a fund to cover landlords’ losses. But as slow and inconsistent as funding has been for every other attempted fix, small property owners are skeptical the money would get to them before it was too late.
“What if it never gets funded?” Wong speculated. “Or what if it gets funded and it’s not enough, like the PPP loans? Or what if, because of government bureaucracy, it comes six months late? I don’t know. Of course, I think it’s written like that on purpose to leave the landlords holding the bag.”
Two obvious solutions to our current crisis are major tax hikes for New York’s wealthiest residents—a proposition Cuomo has rejected time and time again—and massive federal aid. In March, the governor asked that $60 billion in unrestricted funds be delivered to New York over the next three years. But Republican leaders countered, calling this disproportionate distribution a “blue state bailout.” When the stimulus package came, its funds were a full zero short of that amount.
“I think about quitting every day,” Pedras said. “Am I going to do it tomorrow? No. But if things get bad enough…” She trailed off, then started again.
“I have brokers calling me all the time—‘Let me take you out to coffee,’” she continued. “I’m keeping all avenues open, because it’s hard right now. I’m eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and I have to think, do I want to put this burden on my daughter?”
Her daughter is four months old now, but as her own boss, Pedras hasn’t had anything resembling maternity leave. Her concerns for the future are all too real, and they shouldn’t be taken for granted. She’s not a villain, a slumlord, or a highrise automaton. She’s bad with spreadsheets, and she doesn’t know how she’s going to get through the interminable pandemic without relief.
“We’re being squeezed from both ends, and everyone seems to think we’re just gonna magically make it work,” she said. “I don’t see that happening.”