Landlord Baruch Singer: ‘Slumlord’ Was Bum Rap

Mr. Singer, 53, fell into the real-estate business 24 years ago. He was working on a doctoral dissertation in clinical psychology at Harvard while living on the Lower East Side. One day, he got a telephone call from a man named David Disenhouse, a builder in the neighborhood, who was looking for a partner and who received Mr. Singer’s name from Rabbi Joseph Singer, Baruch Singer’s cousin.

On the advice of a friend, Mr. Singer put his d
issertation aside and joined forces with Mr. Disenhouse, with whom he ended up working for 10 years before Mr. Disenhouse moved to Israel. Their first project was raising money to renovate a vacant apartment building on the Lower East Side. They quickly moved into Manhattan Valley, and then central Harlem, looking for good prices in areas that were likely to improve.

Mr. Singer proved to have a good eye: In September 2005, he sold a portfolio of 104 buildings that he had collected over 20 years for $450 million, he said, which he reinvested, after paying off loans and investors, into another 40 buildings. He said he now owns about 100 rent-stabilized buildings, of which he has plans to sell about 20.

At times, his reputation has interfered with his investment strategy. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development blocked the sale of a building at 437 Manhattan Avenue, for which he was the highest bidder. But, four years later, after Mr. Singer filed suit, H.U.D. sold him the building.

Mr. Singer said that H.U.D., after looking at how he took care of his other buildings, actually apologized and asked him only to promise to make its building “as beautiful” as he had the others. A spokesman for H.U.D., Adam Glantz, said he couldn’t confirm that any formal apology was offered.

“We had heard from the city and we had heard from the tenants that he was not a responsible landlord,” Mr. Glantz said. “In the end, what happened was, we went out to look at a number of his properties, and the survey found that his properties were, in fact, well maintained.”

Since then, the number of city housing violations in that building has decreased from what Mr. Singer recalls was 477 to the 72 that show up now in the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s online database. Mr. Singer said that the number should drop to eight after the results of a May 15 inspection are entered into the database.

Dealing in “distressed properties” brings its own set of hazards. The question of whether Mr. Singer repairs his buildings fast enough is at the crux of the repeated legal battles between him and the enforcement division of H.P.D. Last December, for example, H.P.D. sued Mr. Singer over violations at a six-story, 43-unit building at 655 West 160th Street, which he had bought in September 2005, according to online city records.

Landlord Baruch Singer: ‘Slumlord’ Was Bum Rap