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…