Last May, college friends Ofo Ezeugwu and Felix Addison set up a booth during BuildingsNY, an annual conference held at the Javits Center for building owners across the city. The idea was to spread the word about the website they were trying to establish in New York, Whose Your Landlord. (They explain why it’s ‘whose’ here.) The goal: to create a forum for Yelp-style reviews of New York City landlords.
“We were the only ones there asking anybody to ‘review your landlord,’” says Ezeugwu. “[Landlords] would walk by and do a double take, and ask what we’re doing here.” At one point, trying to explain their product, a landlord said to Ezeugwu, “Fuck you, man,” before walking off. To another disgruntled landlord, who asked what the team was doing there, Ezeugwu replied, “To let you know that we’re here, to let you know that we exist.”
The founders of Whose Your Landlord don’t have any problem with making landlords nervous—in fact, it’s a part of their business strategy. “For bad landlords, there should be a naming and shaming,” Ezeugwu explains. “If you’re a bad landlord, people should know that.”
And in a culture of the review-driven consumer, where it’s commonplace to check Yelp before making a dinner reservation, Ezeugwu and Addison don’t see why that shouldn’t apply to the person or company renting you your home.
The idea for a landlord review site first hit Ezeugwu while he was studying at Temple University in Philadelphia. As vice president of the student body, he fielded numerous housing concerns from students, especially landlords taking advantage of college renters in the gentrifying neighborhoods surrounding Temple. Addison, at the time, was dealing with his own bad landlord. “When Ofo called [with the idea], I felt like he was reading my mind,” says Addison, who was then working as the assistant director of a Virginia-based community center.
Ezeugwu graduated in 2013 with a degree in entrepreneurship, and asked fellow student Nik Korablin to design the website and serve as the third co-founder. The team then moved ahead to spread the word about their newly-minted site. Users could fill out renter profiles and rate their buildings on issues from rodents to security, while also listing the timeframe they rented and monthly price they paid. Landlords, too, could create profiles to respond to comments.
The team found that college students, typically renting apartments for cheap, were eager for more transparency regarding local landlords. About 10 to 15 reviews per building, they learned, was enough to spur the website’s growth.
WhoseYourLandlord’s expansion to New York came later that year; Ezeugwu and Addison moved to the top floor of a Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone that Ezeugwu’s grandfather bought in 1969. (He’s a good landlord, for the record.) Ezeugwu and Addison heard similar concerns from Brooklyn renters as they did in Philly: lack of transparency and communication in the renting process, unresponsive landlords, and tenants often feeling powerless against bad landlords after they’ve signed a lease.
But they must grapple with New York’s daunting real estate market, one that provides little oversight of a vast network of landlords, from homeowners to LLCs to private equity companies. “The current model is structured so that tenants have to complain to the city [about their landlord] in order for there to be an investigation,” explains Aaron Carr, founder of Housing Rights Initiative, a nonprofit that investigates rent fraud in rent stabilized buildings. “The ensuing investigation is almost always confined to that individual’s apartment, as opposed to triggering an automatic investigation of every apartment in that building, or all the buildings owned by that same landlord,” he says. “The current model is failing to capture the systematicness of predatory behavior.”
Even when the city does fine landlords, it often doesn’t follow up on collecting it. “The city had failed to collect close to $1 billion in fines from nefarious landlords,” Carr says.
There’s also what Carr calls “the ongoing power imbalance” between renters and landlords, in which landlords often have legal representation—something most tenants can’t afford—in cases of dispute. “There are two big hurdles that tenants face in New York City: one is the severe and utter lack of enforcement, and two is the lack of legal support for tenants,” Carr says. And while New York has an official tenant blacklist—well known for how it essentially shuts New Yorkers out of the rental market—no such thing exists for landlords.
On top of all that, rising prices have sent city-dwellers on frantic searches of affordable places to live. As Monteka Maddox, a user of Whose Your Landlord, says, “Renters are desperate in New York. We’re all shopping in desperation.” This power imbalance can even create hesitancy for renters to call out bad landlords at all. “The power dynamic is still there… there are renters who may not want to jeopardize their living conditions,” says David Kalinoski, who has left reviews on the site after already moving out of an apartment.
WhoseYourLandlord seeks to lessen some of the renter’s desperation. “I believe it could change the face of apartment hunting in New York,” Maddox says, who described her current Brooklyn landlord as “kind of bipolar” and plans to leave a review after she moves out. She adds, “I think a lot of landlords and slumlords get away with providing bad living standards because renters aren’t avoiding them,” she says. “But if you go to a restaurant, and see it only has two stars, that’s on you… but at least you were warned.”
So far, the site has attracted a mostly young user base: of 250,000 active users, 70 percent are millennial users, with 40 percent of that subset in college. (The average age of a user is 25.)
The hope is that good landlords, too, will benefit from reviews on the site. “The good landlords typically want to be a part of this,” Ezeugwu explains. “Because there can be a misconception that there are more bad landlords than good.” The team also partnered with with real estate sites like Listhub, Reallyo, and Realbird to provide listings on the site. As Ofo says, “[These companies]... ensure that they're providing up to date, real time listings which enables us to make sure our listings on our site are currently active and available for our end users.”
Ultimately Whose Your Landlord hopes to tap into a collective discourse about New York living conditions, something tenant advocates know is the most effective tool in standing up against landlords. “There’s a strength in numbers that landlords can’t avoid,” says Andrea Shapiro of her work with the MET Council on Housing. (WhoseYourLandlord is looking to partner with organizations like MET Council and Crown Heights Tenants Union to assist renters already involved with tenant activists.) “The secret to solving housing issues,” Carr states, “Is working together.” He says, “I could see how leaving reviews could help level the playing field.”
“We just want renters to expect more from their landlords,” Addison says. Ezeugwu quickly chimes in: “If we can at least get landlords and renters to start talking more, it’ll be a good first step.”