New York City officials made news earlier this year when they began posting a “Worst Landlords” list on a website, and on the popular online classified Craigslist.
Recently, NYC’s Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the man responsible for the Watch List, made a couple of changes. For instance, the website now keeps score on whether a landlord is making repairs, or racking up new violations. This is accomplished by using a tiny, diamond-shaped “under construction” icon next to the landlord’s information.
Mr. de Blasio has heralded the program as a success, claiming the website has improved living conditions for thousands of New Yorkers. He also is proud to announce that his program is the model for a similar one being developed by officials in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Yet landlords in New York say the initiative oversimplifies the underlying causes of poor building conditions–rent stabilization and rent control rules which make is impossible for landlords to raise enough capital to perform the necessary updates on rental properties, many of which are in older buildings.
Landlords in NYC complain that their hands are tied when it comes to making repairs. Because they have tenants who are paying only a tiny percentage of the current market value rent, they simply can’t afford the repairs, not to mention the modern upgrades that some tenants demand.
Rent stabilization and control programs have remained controversial in New York City. While the rent growth rules are applauded by some for keeping housing affordable, this has not been without consequences. In fact, these limitations have shaped the strategies that many rental property owners employ today.
For instance, owners looking for ways to avoid the harsh financial reality of rents frozen in time often will place updates to the buildings on perpetual hold, keeping repair and maintenance bills as low as possible while waiting for the investment to mature so they can sell. Others keep bills low while gathering capital to make major improvements which may qualify the properties for future rent increases.
While some landlords have responded to the Watch List by making repairs, others remain in this holding pattern, challenging the market to decide whether tenants will remain in the properties. And while the program has the power to improve liveability, ultimately it could diminish, rather than create new housing stock.
The Watch List program rests on the assumption that tenants will forego renting in properties on the list, giving landlords incentive to change. But with affordable rental stock low, this begs the question: Will tenants avoid properties on the Watch List, or are they stuck renting from current inventories anyway?
New York City’s Watch List was introduced as one part of an overall housing strategy, which includes eight companion provisions including free legal help for tenants, a prohibition on renting City office space from landlords on the Watch List, publishing the Worst Landlords on Craigslist, streamlining the process for making repairs, extension and expansion of rent regulations, and sending advocates into “troubled buildings” to help form new tenant associations.
According to de Blasio, more than 250,000 visitors have used the Watch List since its launch.
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