Shady realtors and “2BR flex”: reflecting on my NYC apartment search
I rented a place in the Upper West Side for the twins and I this week. It was easy. The broker, a charming girl in her early twenties, showed me the place last Saturday. A duplex with a large terrace in a brownstone on 88th and Central Park West. No dishwasher, elevator or laundry in the basement and a 12% broker’s fee but it’s not like it’s Christmas time, is it? By Thursday the contract was signed and the cashier checks in her hands. By Friday, my boys were registered in a public school around the corner. As I was leaving his office, I thanked the agency’s owner for the smooth process. He told me the quality of my application helped (I have a perfect credit score — an important detail to the story). I just need to find bookshelves and convince movers to carry dozens of boxes (filled with books I will never read) five floors up without an elevator.
Now you might be surprised I had such a pleasant experience. Searching for a rental in New York, if you are not rich, is known to be up there with giving birth, being burnt alive or stubbing your toe often because of the brokers predatory behavior . Today’s rental market is also “competitive”: high demand, low inventory…the pre-pandemic usual (see New York Times September article).
So, how did I manage to be so lucky?
Well, I wasn’t. I had a horrendous experience a week before that.
Of course, before I get into the real juicy drama I promised, I should give a shoutout to my “friend” Jamal S. Jamal is a “Licensed Associate Real Estate Broker” at Living New York, with an impressive website bio describing him as “a rising star in the industry”. He is also a team in himself: the Syed team.
The rising star allegedly misplaced my email application. Well he ghosted me — I have been ghosted enough to know when I am ghosted. The previous weekend, on my way back from DC to get the boys, I had stopped in a Maryland McDonald along the highway to fill forms and attach dozens of documents to it as he had recommended I be swift. My friend Evie had had to wait in line for a packed open house so we knew it would go quickly. Ten days and a reminder email later, I still had no response from Jamal. I could see on Zillow that the apartment was rented by then. I insisted he gets back to me anyway and copied his boss. Reluctantly, he responded: “I looked into it, your emails were going to spam for some reason, very sorry about the inconvenience and frustration […] I have refunded your $20 application fee and sent you an extra $10 to get a coffee on me.” Applications sent from personal Gmail addresses to brokers don’t go to spam in 2021. It just does not happen. After all, processing applications is pretty much the added value to StreetEasy and Zillow a broker brings. Receiving email and forwarding them is the justification for their fee, no? along with being condescending in a wool-blend turtleneck at open houses I guess. You can call it “receiving payment from a prospective tenant for “bringing about the meeting of the minds” between a landlord and tenant” but it remains collecting a fee to push an email from A to B. I also know for a fact that the soft enquiry on my credit took place so here, you are not being truthful Jamal!. Finally, I don’t think $10 covers the damage the McFlurry I inhaled Edgewood, MD, while completing the application, did to my figures.
It would be annoying but frankly it paled so much in comparison with my horrendous experience a few days earlier with Robert F. of the Spire Group (why is it that in the NY rentals world everything is a “Group”? how did they all settle on “Groups” and turtlenecks? it’s more like a cackle really or a wake — as in a group of perched vultures) so I did not care that much and did accept Jamal’s $10.
Believe or not, Robert is also described on the Spire Cackle or Wake’s website as “a fast-rising star”. Now I did not know the difference between a “rising star” and a “fast rising star” but I gathered it separates “unprofessional” from “wildly unprofessional”. I guess a “shooting star” would be an agent that rents you a pad which actually does not even exist.
That same day, I had visited another place, owned by the infamous Brusco Group. The Bruscos, a large Calabrian family based in Scarsdale, NY, owns pretty much every single brownstone between West 71st and West 99th. They are widely known as awful slumlords but their apartments are accordingly affordable. In fact their reputation is so bad that they just changed their name to Westside Management in order to flee bad reviews. At least Westside Management is not another “Group”.
Robert was unpleasant from the outset. My friend (not Evie) who visited the place for me told me so using an expletive. I entered his number in my phone accordingly as “rude Robert” in order to remember who he was. The problem is that I liked the place: great location on 75th and the “second bedroom” (which is less than 8 feet in width hence the “flex”) could possibly be an office space - useful for the next iterations of Covid. I submitted a very lengthy application that same day. Monday went by, Tuesday I politely emailed him and called him: he hurriedly asked more details on my financial situation. Details which were actually in the application documentation but ok. I complied. As I said, I wanted the place. Wednesday asking about my assets, Thursday, same deal, no response. Friday I called him, he said he would call me back but he did not. Finally Friday night, I emailed him and his boss (Dimitar, not a “shooting star” but a “top trending agent”). My email concluded: “I would not care [waiting for a week for a response] if it wasn’t for the fact that it involves two children and my ability to secure them for a school in a difficult pandemic context”.
In turn, the fast-rising star suddenly became responsive. At 10:23 pm, he wrote me an email laden with insults: “[…] I have seen your submitted application and you have less that (sic) three months of rent in your bank account. I also know you have been denied by other landlords for applications you have submitted elsewhere. […] If you would have waited for my phone call i would have informed you the owner was away hunting […] And let me clarify, you never viewed this apartment you had three young guys come visit this apartment for you at different times. The same three young guys you has running around the UWS viewing apartments on your behalf […] I don’t have it in me to fight for someone who wants to disrespect (sic) to my boss, because you didn’t get what you wanted when you wanted it. Best of luck and when the owner calls me tomorrow i am withdrawing your offer. If you want this apartment get someone else to represent you […]”
As you can imagine that did not fit well with me. Also hunting was not underlined and bold in his email, I did that. I am pretty sure that applications get approved by WestSide management even when Paul Brusco is shooting pheasants in Scarsdale. I immediately corrected Robert indicating that Evie is actually an older woman and that my other friend is not that “young”: he just takes good care of his skin unlike straight Robert. I wish I had “three young guys running around” in fact, a coterie of minions is what I always wanted in life, but I don’t have one. More importantly I reminded him that none of the information he listed — which was entirely inaccurate (I had only applied to one other apartment for which I had been approved but eventually decided against it) should weigh on my application legally and that he was not at the liberty of withdrawing my application either. I asked him to apologize, he did not so I referred him to the New York Department of State’s Division of Licensing Services. There has to be an adult somewhere in the state. His “2BR flex” ( really a 1 bedroom and a den where you certainly could not put a bed) is still on the market on Zillow and he has had to lower the price by $200.
Now my friends who heard of this week-long debacle all suggested I contact their own realtor friends. I spoke to one of them, a hustling NYC agent in a large real estate company, who affectedly repeated banalities such as “everything available is on Zillow” or “the market is hot right now” kind of confirming that brokers like him, Jamal or Robert are really unnecessary. Out of kindness to my friend, he read to me the UWS listings on Zillow (including the number of people that saved each place) I could see on my phone, and out of kindness to him I listened. At least that one can read I thought, unlike Robert. No offense. Actually, yeah, offense! Offense! I changed my mind.
A handful of my friends also commented on me fleeing the city in August 2020 for the comfort of Connecticut showing they had no understanding of how single parents experienced the pandemic. Anybody that makes such comments should be locked by the authorities in a two bedroom (or even better in a “2BR Flex”) with twin six years old for several months.
Other friends responded with the cliché “well, this is New York for you” implying some pride in New York city idiosyncrasies such as segregated schools and NYPD abuse. I did not like it at all. I do not subscribe to moral relativism and believe when one does not stand against abuse of power, one is endorsing it. There is nothing special about NYC real estate agents compared to that of other megalopolis, besides tremendous greed, permissiveness and corruption. It illustrates America‘s own brand of capitalism at its worse in which private interest groups blackmail the regulator in leaving them running a racket (see what happened when broker fees were restricted for a few weeks in February 2020). When Robert dramatically writes “I don’t have it in me to fight”, he forgets that he is outrageously paid $4300 to “fight” (and what a noble war you wage, Rob! the Spire Wake should give you the broker’s purple heart). If he does it well, it is $4300 for less than a day of work total while he did not even attend college. When Jamal claims “closing HUNDREDS of deals annually” on his Group’s..sorry… Team’s instagram account, it means he racks at minima $430,000 of revenues (arguably LivingNewYork takes half of that) for doing very little and doing it poorly. Robert has ten listings currently on Zillow, no wonder he cannot process my application with professionalisms, some consideration and in a timely manner. There are no rules and the playground is ran by illiterate bullies.
If you are an immigrant with no credit, a student new to the city or just someone who is not super rich, you experience even worse treatment from the Jamals and Roberts of this world. And to me that is never acceptable. I shared my experience with the Mayor’s office and Commissioner Carroll : they did not respond. They are probably very tired with New York City at this point in their mandate. I also shared it with Jim Whelan, the President of REBNY, he also did not respond. I assume because, as the Wake’s head, he knows better than anybody his members.
Before I complained against Robert the warrior to Albany, I wrote to him: “With the power and privilege of handling something as essential and personal as housing for families, comes some responsibility M. Forster. I wish I had a way to make you understand this.” Broker might not be a real job in today’s world, but it remains a job which touches on one of the most basic need: shelter.
In closing, I have three tips to share: go for women brokers, they tend to be more humane, avoid anybody that is described as a “star” and keep faith in humanity: the agent who eventually rented me my place was efficient, straightforward and polite.