Landlord Baruch Singer: ‘Slumlord’ Was Bum Rap

Stung by the media, Mr. Singer enjoys a much warmer and more adulatory reception at his weekly office hours—which he calls the “best reality-television show.” They are attended not just by prospective tenants, but also by business partners who bring him deals, down-on-their-luck acquaintances who seek the informal charity for which he is known, or by novice landlords who come to watch an experienced hand—the best in the business, they say—in action.

As the tenants come into a side room to sign their leases, he sometimes asks them what they thought of the presentation.

“You have a vision,” said one graduate student. “It’s not just about renting.”

Mr. Singer stopped signing and looked up at her. “Pam!” he called out to an assistant. “Pull out the duffel bag!”

Pam came over with a large black duffel bag full of mementoes that former and present tenants had sent him: magazine articles that they had gotten published; an Ebony magazine cover a tenant had posed for; petitions by tenants’ associations thanking him for “finding a solution for all of the vandalism, drug possession and prostitution that was coming out of apartment #5D;” head shots, thank-you notes and so on.

One of those mementoes was a CD by a Canadian folk-rock singer, Angela McKenzie, who lived in the Dunbar, a huge building complex in Hamilton Heights, even before Mr. Singer owned it. (He sold it in the 2005 sale.) When her upstairs neighbor wouldn’t respond to her entreaties to fix the toilet, Ms. McKenzie called Mr. Singer and asked if she could just move to another apartment, which he allowed her to do.

“He took a genuine interest in me and what I do,” she told The Observer. “I think he has an artist deep inside, and he likes to know about what I was doing.”

Mr. Singer ends up renting to a lot of artists, but he doesn’t like to be considered a gentrifier. “We treat you the same if you are paying $1 or if you are paying $1,800 a month,” he said. “We take care of the people who were there before also.”

It is clear that Mr. Singer has an ethical system that values being straightforward and upfront. If a tenant wants to break a lease, Mr. Singer will let him: “You don’t even have to make up an excuse.” If you want to add someone to your lease, you’re supposed to bring that person by to introduce to Mr. Singer: “I like to know who my tenants are.” And never sign a super’s paperwork certifying that work has been done unless it really has been done.

All of which helps to explain why Mr. Singer has come into conflict with hold-over tenants—people who start living with legitimate tenants and who assume the lease when the original tenants leave.

Landlord Baruch Singer: ‘Slumlord’ Was Bum Rap