As just about every landlord knows, New York City’s Public Advocate, Letitia James, puts out a Landlords Watchlist each year that includes a listing of the so-called “worst landlords” in New York City. In its wake is a firestorm of media activity. Once the initial reporting calms down, however, a few long-form think pieces written by young journalists looking to make a name for themselves appear. These are more comprehensive stories. They include interviews with tenants living in decaying buildings; fevered attempts to get in touch with these landlords, but to no avail; and sagacious advice from progressive organizations. The red meat story reads with a sense of urgency and a great deal of purpose. It’s indignant. It’s righteous. People love it.
It is no wonder why these stories are so common. It’s even more obvious why they are so popular. It’s a very easy narrative to follow. You have a clear antagonist—an absentee landlord—and a clear protagonist—a decent, working-class family. The stories usually also contain some nostalgia about how the city used to be a lot more affordable, some outrage about the conditions in distressed buildings, and then, finally, a discussion about the nature of gentrification and how the protagonists’ neighborhood will eventually change because whichever side of the hipsters/yuppies coin one wishes to bemoan will pay double the rent of the working-class family currently inhabiting the unit. You would have to be a monster not to sympathize with the family, to despise the gentrification, and to absolutely abhor the landlord.
As common as these stories have become, they are nowhere near as common as the stories about what has been described as the country's worst slumlord, the New York City Housing Authority. On top of regularly allowing its tenants to live in squalid conditions, it is also the biggest landlord in New York City. NYCHA has 177,657 apartments, and almost 600,000 New Yorkers are served by either the agency’s Public Housing or Section 8 Programs. In fact, it has a portfolio that is ten times larger than the city’s next biggest landlord—the Related Companies. According to a NYCHA fact sheet, “NYCHA Public Housing represents 8.1 percent of the City’s rental apartments.”
And yet there’s little to no outrage when it is revealed that they repeatedly fail to take care of their buildings. These are not isolated incidents. It is regularly reported that NYCHA buildings are falling apart and that its tenants are living in appalling conditions. And yet no one seems willing to do anything about the problem. The outrage fades. In fact, such outrage sometimes comes across as less of a battle cry and more of an annoyed yawn.
In a report filed by WABC 7 yesterday, for example, the reporter noted that “crumbling ceilings and no heat, those are the types of complaints Eyewitness News has heard before from public housing tenants,” before proceeding to show gruesome images of a dead rat stuck in the wall. Without the shock value of that sight, no one would have cared enough to report on the fact that these are the conditions that the tenants of the Mitchel Houses in the Bronx have lived with for years.
The point here is not to draw attention away from landlords who don’t properly care for their building or buildings. The point is that the reports that bring to light the horrendous conditions at NYCHA buildings should not be overlooked. They should continue to cause outrage. Within the past month, it has been reported that 1,700 NYCHA apartments in 46 buildings don’t have gas (Daily News), that a back door was broken and left unlocked for four months (PIX11), and that at least one resident was forced to clean up sewage in his own apartment that came from a leaky pipe (News12), while a family in the Albany Houses had been unable to cook because of the mildew and mold coming from a leaky pipe (News12).
The only way to remedy the laundry list of problems with NYCHA is to do exactly what Ms. James has asked people do with all bad landlords—shine a spotlight on them and put them on notice.