"I Was a Slumlord..."

Copyright 1972 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission from The New York Times, January 30, 1972.

I was a slumlord. Here is how I came to be one.

I was born 69 years ago. I learned the craft (maybe the art) of cabinet-making in my native land, Hungary. This would have been my 50th year of working actively, creating in wood many things of lasting beauty. My name is well-known and well-respected in the trade.

About 20 years ago I bought a small factory building in East Harlem, at 508 East 117th Street, where I worked together with my team of 10 to 12 men. With changes, improvements and additional construction, the factory cost me about $65,000.

A few years after I bought the building, the adjoining building, No. 510, was offered to me at a bargain price because it was in poor repair. With the idea of expanding my workshop into it, or using the lot for parking, I bought it. For $12,500 in cash I became the owner of a four-family house.

The four families living in the house are all decent working people. To my knowledge they do not need and never asked for charity, public help or assistance. Yet the law forces me to give them shelter and heat at a lower price than my own cost.

For several years now my cash expenses have exceeded my income by about 25 per cent, and this without interest or amortization payments on the mortgage.

The building was in poor repair when I bought it. By now it is the favored hunting ground of every city inspector.  

The building needs a new roof, new walls, new ceilings, new plumbing, new wiring, new doors and a new heating system. It needs about $15,000 worth of repairs.

The building now has a gross income of $2,600 a year, of which I am paying for taxes and heat about $3,000.

Why didn’t I apply for a hardship rent increase? My accountant told me there would be a blizzard of paperwork, and that if he was able to get me any increase, my fee to him would have taken away whatever I gained in the first two years.

So far I have been fined four times for failure to comply with orders to correct building code violations! I was summoned to court again only a few weeks ago, and I explained my predicament to the judge. He assured me of his "sympathy," fined me $40 and promised that my next fine would be much higher.

I did not go home from the court. I went straight to the offices of the local Roman Catholic Church and asked them to accept the building as a free gift. They didn’t. An hour later I made the same offer to the Protestants. Again the answer was no. Next I offered the building free, without any money, to the four tenants. They didn’t want it.

Okay, I will abandon the building, was my next thought. I will stop collecting rents, will not pay taxes or heat. I will let the city take over. This sounds like an easy way out, but my lawyer tells me it cannot be done without my being legally financially responsible.

So, here I am with a building assessed by the city at $21,000 — I repeat $21,000 — that I cannot give away, I cannot sell, and I cannot abandon. I am forced by law to operate it.

That is, I was. I am not any longer.

I have sold the building for $30,000.

As an extra inducement I threw into the bargain my good old factory building, which cost me close to $70,000, for nothing. In other words, I sold real estate that cost me $80,000 about 15 years ago for $30,000, to be paid without interest in six years.

With the $50,000 that I lost on the deal — and which is a major part of my life savings — I bought freedom.

At 69 I am too old to start a revolution, or to fight City Hall. On the other hand I do not like to be summoned to appear in criminal court, when my only crime is that I dared to own a building in New York.

I will badly miss my shop, where I spent 49 happy years. But… I am no longer a slumlord!

 

—FOOTNOTES—

1 "Authority, Power and the University," New Guard, XI, No. 6, September 1971, p. 5.

 2 Jefferson’s Works, Vol. 19, pp. 459-461, Washington, 1907. 

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