Slummin' it in Philly? Not!

Sure, there are some poor landlords, but is it fair to let a few besmirch the reputations of all the good landlords out there? (AP file)

In a prominent commentary featured on on Wednesday, a clearly disgruntled tenant living in Philadelphia expressed outrage that “slumlords own so many properties in the city” and that Philly residents are living “like animals because the Department of Licenses & Inspections is not doing its due diligence.”

The article has quickly made its rounds in the investor community, and opinions are piling on fast.

Let me disclose that as a properly licensed landlord, legally licensed real estate agent, and state-approved real estate instructor, I read the tenant’s story with shock, apprehension and, quite frankly, defensiveness. Spending the last decade of my life focusing on leasing residential properties in all neighborhoods in Philadelphia, I’ve witnessed – first-hand - the good, the bad, and, yes, the ugly. I’ve seen anal-retentive landlords (my favorite) and absentee landlords (I avoid them).

Luckily, the vast majority of real estate investors I’ve encountered have been responsible landlords – exhibiting the best industry practices. And it shows, as many of them have long-term tenants that have been with them for 5 years, 10 years and sometimes longer – which is relatively unheard of in this day and age, but which was quite common in my parents’ generation.

But in a lively Facebook discussion I had Wednesday, there were a number of pretty reasonable folks who expressed similar sentiments as Jason Kaye – the writer of the “slumlord” piece. One father mentioned how his daughter – in off-campus housing near Temple – would have agreed with Kaye. Another person mentioned how she would never rent directly from a landlord again, instead opting to use a Realtor moving forward. Then there were those defending the landlords who felt that Kaye was making rash generalizations and unfairly lumping all landlords into a guilty category.

The most commonly heard statement came from Jeff Vickery, president of Victoria Investment Properties, LLC., from Joliet, Ill. Vickery, who leases out three single-family houses, took a pretty balanced perspective. “The bad eggs always spoil the soufflé,” he wrote. “There are bad landlords, John. I know you're shocked to hear this, but they really do exist. You're probably one of the good ones. You probably make sure your tenants have heat, you probably respond to their maintenance requests, and you probably get burned by several of your tenants yearly as thanks for your 'doing the right thing.' "

Vickery concluding by pointing out that good landlords need not worry. “Those of us that do the right thing and try to be good landlords can see the tenant's perspective, and can appreciate their anger and frustration in dealing with people that won't hold up their end of a lease.“

Allan Domb, president of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors, was more critical of Kaye’s piece – starting out by challenging Kaye’s claim that 16 percent of people who live in Philadelphia are renters. “The number is closer to 50 percent,” said Domb, a broker in Center City Philadelphia specializing in luxury condominiums. “We have a population where half the people rent. And we have lots of tenant-friendly legislation that City Council enacted.”

In his column, Kaye criticized Councilperson Maria Quinones-Sanchez for not taking action in his rental experiences beyond an acknowledgement letter.

Domb was quick to defend the councilwoman. “Quinones-Sanchez is one of the most responsive councilpersons we have. It’s unfair for the writer to make that kind of negative statement.”

I was unable to reach Quinones-Sanchez for comment.

Domb went on to detail Quinones-Sanchez’s involvement with City Council President Darrell Clarke in putting the landbank back into play in Philadelphia. “In Philadelphia, there are 60,000 properties – 50,000 structures and 10,000 parcels. On any street, there may be 1, 2 even 4 properties that are blighted. The landbank will handle the issue, changing the lifestyle of living on a block,” adding, “Blight will go away,” with the properties and lots being purchased by neighbors and investors.

“In general, our experience at GPAR is that landlords are very responsible. Can one or two be bad apples? Absolutely. But $100, $200, or $300 [to make a repair] is worthwhile from a landlord’s perspective. They won’t skimp on fixing something. It’s not smart.”

Jon Orens, of Orens Brothers Real Estate, Inc., is a Realtor, developer and property manager. Orens didn’t mince words, either. “Well, all I can say is that people love to complain when they are unhappy but don't compliment when they are. If a tenant goes to a social gathering or is asked the question, and he or she is disgruntled with his or her landlord, they are happy and eager to talk to everyone there about how they are being taken advantage of and how unhappy they are. On the other hand, if they are relatively happy with their landlord and living conditions, there is no reason to talk about it. They'd rather talk about other matters in their life that are bothering them.”

Orens sees it no differently with landlords “The same goes for landlords. No landlords go around telling everyone how great one of their tenants are but boy if they are getting screwed, it is at the top of their minds and at the tip of their tongues. You and I also both know how a feel-good story about a happy tenant and a great landlord will never make the front page of a newspaper.”

Can’t argue with that, Mr. Orens. We’re on the front page because of “slumlord” accusations.

To Oren’s point, I tried online to find an antonym for “slumlord” – a positive word that meant a great landlord. None existed.

While Orens openly acknowledged that bad eggs that are out there, he was clearly miffed that good landlords are not being acknowledged by Kaye. "Obviously not all landlords are saints -- we all know that. But, to suggest that there is an epidemic of lousy landlords in the city and good, decent, attentive, law-abiding landlords that have genuine courtesy and appreciation towards their tenants who are making them money are non-existent is absolutely ludicrous."

But to Kaye’s central point: Are properties really up to code? Or are landlords in Philadelphia generally shirking their responsibilities to provide safe and secure housing?

Darrell M. Zaslow, legal counsel to The Homeowners Association of Philadelphia (HAPCO), the largest rental property owners association in the state, stressed the requirement of law that all properties must be code-compliant. “Our organization exists for the purpose of educating property owners in proper property maintenance, and adherence to codes.

“At the same time,” said Zaslow, “the letter writer might wish to recognize the need for real solutions, and not just disgruntled complaints against all property owners, the housing and fire inspectors, a prominent city councilwoman, the Department of Licenses and Inspections, and all the reputable law firms who refuse to deal with him. The extraordinary burden of property ownership in general hardly results in windfall profits to an owner. To the contrary, by the time the owner pays ever-increasing taxes, insurance, license fees, and astronomical costs for the simplest of repairs, let alone major work on the aging housing stock of the city, little is left, if any, for profit.”

In other words, if you’re an unhappy tenant, you’d better be careful what you wish for, or there may not be many future landlords out there.

HAPCO stresses that the failings of some owners are not at all acceptable, and must be dealt with. Yet fairness in the laws, and good tenants, are equal requirements. The alternative is the abandonment of property, with government housing increasing as the only available rentals. Government can do the job, no problem, subsidized at four times the cost. 

Zaslow made one final observation. “Good landlords, which are most private property owners, will strive mightily to provide decent housing at a reasonable cost, while meeting all the important obligations to the good people who live in a rental unit. Hopefully, all the occupants will be as good at paying the rent and keeping a nice place.”