It was a week to Christmas, but Lincoln Eccles wasn’t feeling the Yuletide spirit. The boiler in the 14-unit building he owns in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood had gone belly up a few months before, and supply-chain issues were making it impossible to find a good replacement. It was getting cold in New York, so Eccles bought each of his tenants a space heater before shelling out a small fortune on heat pumps, a green solution he said he liked in large part because it was good for the environment. The investment meant he was now nearly $300,000 in debt. And New York, he said, was doing everything it could to drive him out of business.
“The politicians don’t care,” he told me, speaking from the icy, whitewashed boiler room where he had spent hours a day these last few months. “They say, ‘Well, you’re a bad businessman.’ None of them operate property. If they did, and they were honest, they would talk about things differently.”
When we think of New York landlords, we think of the Trumps, the Kushners, the Helmsleys, big names and big egos whose bad behavior provides as much fodder to the front pages of tabloids as it does the business pages. But in a city that has long taken pride in being home to diverse enclaves of newcomers from all over, your landlord these days may be someone like Eccles, who moved to Brooklyn from Jamaica as an infant and whose family owes its break to his uncle Walter, who climbed his way up from fruit picker to owner of more than 100 multiunit properties.
Tweak a few dates and a few factoids, and the story of the Eccles family could easily be that of many American Jewish families who arrived here fleeing poverty and adversity and worked their way into the American dream, one small piece of property at a time. Except now that dream is no longer available to a new generation of immigrants or first-generation Americans, and, ironically, it is the progressive politicians most vocal about equity who are the bitterest foes of folks like Eccles.
In January, for example, Eccles contacted a state senator, Julia Salazar, to complain of a basic flaw in the system: Landlords have to pay the city to remove any violation recorded in their buildings, even if they’ve already fixed the problem. Basically, he explained, this means he has to pay twice: once to address the problem — a leaky roof, say, or a busted pipe — and then again to wipe his record clean and avoid snowballing fines. For people like him who have little money to spare, Eccles wrote, the measure was onerous.
“You absolutely should have to pay to remove violations that you’re responsible for, Lincoln,” Salazar wrote weeks later. “That is the point. It’s a very small penalty to pay for the suffering you inflict on people who live in your janky building. Do your job instead of spending all day trolling us on Twitter.”
‘Can’t cover my cost’
This sort of dismissive language should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following local New York City politics. A wave of progressive lawmakers — many of them, like Salazar, newcomers identified with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — stormed into office with “decommodify housing” as one of their key slogans. In June 2019, they radically overhauled New York’s rent regulations, making it virtually impossible for owners to raise rents on the approximately 1 million apartments covered by the law. It was a reversal of reforms that had been in place for the past two decades, and which gave small-property owners like Eccles better opportunity to recoup the considerable investments required to run a building, opting instead for policies that repeatedly failed for the prior half-century.
These policies, Eccles said, leave him between a rock and a hard place. If he renovates his units, he stands to lose a fortune on each one, an investment the new laws aren’t allowing him to recover. If he doesn’t, the new tenant is likely to complain to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the dreaded HPD, which means inspections, lawsuits and a fortune in violations. So he keeps some units empty.
“I need about $1,000 just to cover basic costs, like water,” he said. “I have three where the rent is under that. Unless they change the law, they’re not rentable.”
Under New York’s new rules, regardless of how much money Eccles spends to get an apartment ready for tenants, he can’t add more than $89.29 to the monthly rent. “The lowball estimate on renovating one of my two-bedrooms,” he said, “was $88,000.” Add to that a surging increase in tax assessments, and you can see why, even before COVID, things were looking grim for Eccles.
“These past eight years,” he said, “my revenue increased 5.75%, and my taxes increased 100%. It made it extremely difficult for me to keep up with repairs, much less pay my property taxes. I can’t get more money because of rent stabilization. When COVID came, I wanted to be a good landlord, so I gave tenants concessions, but then the city came in and froze the concessions forever. If I can’t cover my cost, it’s not going to work.”
It’s already failed, he said, with several members of his family, all of whom were forced to sell their businesses, often at a loss.
“My first memories are the home on Eastern Parkway my family now had to sell,” he said. “And then we saw it refinanced for $30 million. What these new rent laws did is constrict black property owners, reduce their wealth, and make them an easy pickoff for a bigger speculative owner. My aunt sold a 20-unit building because she couldn’t afford to keep it up anymore, and a few years later, the new buyers sold a single unit in that building for the price they paid for the entire building.”
Sharon Redhead tells a very similar story. The daughter of Caribbean immigrants who got some help from their Jewish landlords and were able to afford first one building, then a second and a third, she now owns and runs a 19-unit apartment building in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
“It’s become too arduous,” she said. “When my father purchased the building, these units were rent stabilized, but our increases were more or less in line with what our expenses were. We now have increases that don’t cover the cost of running the building. The loss has become just punitive.”
And New York’s lawmakers, she said, are “more focused on punishing owners” than on helping struggling small-business owners like her stay afloat. “We’re supposedly greedy and bad, but yet no one is moving out of our buildings,” she said. “I have vacancies I closed the door on; I’m an accountant by profession, it doesn’t pay for us to spend $40,000 renovating the apartment and then get a rent of $1,000 if we’re lucky.”
She finds the sight of empty units in her building particularly heartbreaking, she said, because she used to rent them to immigrants, including many who were undocumented and therefore considered high-risk tenants. “I wanted to help our own,” she said, “just as my family of immigrants have always done. That’s why we have these cultural ethnic enclaves in New York. But no more.”
Jan Lee concurs. His grandfather came from China in the 1870s, still wearing the queue hairstyle made mandatory for males by the Qing dynasty. He worked for a Chinese trading company, and when his bosses returned home to celebrate the Lunar New Year and left him temporarily in charge, he took the initiative to buy the building on Mott Street that housed the company’s storefront on its behalf.
The decision angered his superiors, who had no intention of settling in America, so Lee’s grandfather took out his own loan and transferred the deed to his name. He kicked his old bosses out and used his small building to grow his own business and his family. Lee’s father was born in that building, as was Lee himself. Like his grandfather, he is immensely proud of his property, and became a carpenter in part so that he could make all the necessary repairs.
“Ours,” he said over vegetarian dumplings and hot-and-sour soup at the restaurant in the ground floor of his building, “is the last generation of ethnic owners. All of the people who settled here in Chinatown did this on their own, because a lot of people back then wouldn’t lend money to Chinese. And now these politicians are coming in and saying, ‘Enough of immigrants being able to establish themselves here, enough of you guys and your American dream. We’re going to homogenize everything, control everything, while having no idea about the mathematics it takes to run these buildings.’ All of the uniqueness in our neighborhoods has been formed on the backs of people making sacrifices from generation to generation, and supplying housing and businesses significant to that group. They’re killing that.”
Lee, Eccles, Redhead, and dozens of others in their predicament, many of them minorities, are members of SPONY, Small Property Owners of New York, an organization dedicated to scaling back what they claim are draconian measures leading them to ruin. According to the group’s members, they’ve held more than 110 meetings with local politicians since the pandemic started, opening their books and begging for help. But the young revolutionaries that now run New York aren’t impressed.
“They don’t believe in private property,” said Joanna Wong, another SPONY member and a landlord. “They told us flat out. When we asked what is our role in your vision, they said, literally, you have a role, for now, until we figure out how we can take it from you.”
She wasn’t exaggerating: A source close to SPONY shared with me a recording of a Zoom meeting the group held with New York state Sen. Jabari Brisport recently. Brisport, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who was endorsed by prominent figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Cynthia Nixon. He prides himself as the first openly gay African American elected to New York’s state Legislature.
But when he met with Eccles, Lee, and their colleagues, he insisted that only the state should own and rent houses, and that whatever failures public housing projects have had in the past can be solved by infusing the system with more tax-based cash.
“So you don’t think that the housing market should be in the hands of private landlords,” one SPONY member asked, “is that a fair statement?” Brisport didn’t need much time before responding. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s fair, it’s clear that the market cannot make affordable housing.”
These meetings, Lee said, left him and others feeling as if “the ultimate goal is to take our private property away.” A coalition of New York City landlords and trade organizations are making the same argument — that unreasonably strict rent regulations make it impossible for them to own and operate their properties, a move tantamount to unlawful seizure — in a lawsuit awaiting a decision this month by the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
‘A fantasy land’
One former Democratic member of the state Legislature, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is still active in his party, said that radicals like Brisport are a major liability. “These people live in a fantasy land,” he said, “and those Democrats who are rational are allowing themselves to be held hostage. They’re so scared of the primaries that they’re failing to do what’s right by the people of New York.” Requests for comments from Sens. Salazar and Brisport went unanswered.
But there’s one other thing that bothers some of SPONY’s members about the radical leftists on the Legislature. “They talk a lot about ‘white landlords,’ ” said Lee, “but it’s not hard to figure out that they’re actually talking about Jews. You hear a lot about ‘these people’ and coded language like that.”
This, Lee said, offends him, not only because it reeks of bigotry, but also because he considers the Jewish community a model for other ethnic minorities to emulate. “They came here with nothing,” he said, pointing at buildings that were once teeming with new arrivals from the shtetls, “worked hard, bought buildings, moved on up. The Chinese did the same thing, and when no one else in town would sell to my grandfather, it was a Jewish architect who did. Now the same people who don’t seem to like Jews don’t seem to like the idea of other ethnic communities getting ahead in exactly the same way. This is how you kill New York.”
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast, “Unorthodox,” and daily Talmud podcast, “Take One.”