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Paying Rent

What Is a Small Landlord?

The real estate lobby loves to invoke small landlords when opposing renter-friendly policies. But who, exactly, are they talking about?

12:29 PM EST on February 17, 2023

(SĂ©rgio Rola/Unsplash)

On Wednesday, while testifying in Albany, small landlord Eric Adams addressed the issue of Good Cause Eviction legislation by invoking the plight of housing providers much like him. Among his concerns, he said, was that such legislation might "displace some of the small property owners" who have poured "all their savings" into their homes. The logic here being, I guess, that eviction without cause is a necessary piece of insurance for the small-business owners for whom renting is the only way to stay afloat. 

As others have pointed out, the current Good Cause bill provides specific carve-outs for landlords the average person would probably consider small-scale. As written, the legislation wouldn't apply to "owner-occupied premises with less than four units." So assuming the Platonic ideal of a small landlord is a person who funneled a lifetime's worth of savings into a townhome, and then passed it down to their family and rented two units out to help pay the mortgage and other costs, the Good Cause Eviction bill simply wouldn't apply to them. 

It's entirely possible Adams wasn't aware of this provision, but his invocation of the humble small New York housing provider raises a good question: What, exactly, is defined as a small landlord in a city where by some estimates the average apartment is owned by someone with 21 properties and nearly 900 separate units for rent? 

The small landlord is said to be vanishing, crushed by high taxes and eviction moratoriums and new rules around Airbnb, and the mom-and-pop owner appears regularly in campaigns against rent regulations. But there is absolutely no consensus on who, exactly these people are: Is this a question of how many units a landlord has? Do they live in their buildings? Is it simply a matter of the size of a building the small landlord owns? 

For instance: The state-run Landlord Rental Assistance Program prioritizes property owners who own buildings with fewer than 20 units, implicitly favoring, say, the owner of the Park Union, a 15-unit boutique condo overlooking Grand Army Plaza, over larger buildings nearby. A few years ago, the Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord advocacy group, said over 70 percent of its members were small landlords: Small landlords were defined, in this case, as "small-property" owners who owned one or two buildings with no more than 48 apartments each—meaning a small landlord could be responsible for just under 100 units citywide. 

Elsewhere, small landlords have been the owners of 14-unit buildings in Crown Heights, or a 16-unit building in Flatbush, as well as a store and a two-family home. But late last year, as stories about struggling property owners appeared in outlets nationwide, the New York Times profiled a "smaller landlord" whose Houston-based company manages 6,000 apartments. "There's some people who think landlords must be making money," he told the outlet. But his profit margins were "evaporating," which I suppose made him a small landlord, as well. 

Of course this is all relative when Blackstone owns tens of thousands of units across the city, but still, as of a few years ago, less than one-fifth of housing in New York City was owned by someone with just one building, so a landlord who owns a single apartment complex with hundreds of units could probably be considered a small landlord too. As a report from a housing advocacy group found not too long ago, within the three major groups lobbying for small landlords in New York, the average board member had a portfolio size of 5,144 units.

Perhaps those members poured all their assets into acquiring those investments, which, as per Mayor Adams, might technically make them "small" too. 

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