Lord of the Sties
Anwar Faisal has built an empire renting to the city’s college students, but he hasn’t been so good at making sure his apartments are actually habitable.
One afternoon in September, I set out to find Anwar Faisal, the most notorious landlord in Boston. Faisal, the owner of Alpha Management, is a major landlord in the Fenway and Allston, catering mostly to students, though if you believe his tenants, there are as many rats under his roofs as undergraduates. Faisal is also one of the most prolific instigators of tenant complaints to Boston’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD), a renter’s only recourse when he or she can no longer stand a landlord’s negligence. The stuff of Faisal’s tenants’ complaints is biblical: mice so plentiful that tenants resort to killing them with the back of a frying pan, bedbug infestations that drive tenants to abandon all of their possessions, cockroaches scurrying audibly in the walls. There are ceiling leaks and broken window locks that result in break-ins, overflowing trash bins, lack of heat, and, of course, “dog-sized rats.”
In spite of this, Faisal is unrepentant. When tenants complain, he sometimes takes them to court, or springs rate hikes on them. More often than not, he simply ignores them until ISD forces him to act. In a 2008 consumer complaint filed with the Attorney General’s Office, one tenant described attempting to move into a Faisal apartment, only to find the room filled with garbage, with windows broken and doors off their hinges. “When we went to Alpha,” the person wrote, “we were told ‘to put my things on the sidewalk and wait for repairs like all the other students in Boston….’ [An Alpha Management representative] threw us out of the office and stated that he would see us in court.”
Over the years, Faisal’s audacious disregard for the agency has become legendary. In 2010, WBZ aired a report concerning a whopping 73 complaints that had been filed against him and his company over an 18-month period. In September 2012, the Boston Globe reported on a basement studio apartment that Alpha had rented to a Northeastern University student at 115 St. Stephens Street. “[C]ity inspectors found evidence of roaches, grime-caked walls and ceilings, exposed wires, and rusty pipes,” the Globe reported. The room had “no windows or other source of ventilation, no working carbon monoxide detector, and no emergency lighting.” In fact, Faisal didn’t even have a permit to use the space for housing—and yet, even when inspectors condemned the apartment, and the tenant’s Realtor returned the finder’s fee, Faisal initially refused to return the requisite first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit totaling $3,670. “We’ve had a problem with Anwar Faisal and his company’s noncompliance with our rental ordinance,” Dion Irish, the former housing inspection commissioner, told the paper. “This is probably one of the worst cases, but the issues we’ve had with him have been systematic.”
But what sets Faisal apart from other slumlords isn’t just the sheer number of complaints against him, or his unblinking disregard for cleanliness and safety—it’s also the nature of the complaints themselves. Reading through hundreds of pages of them, I’ve come to think of them as their own sordid literary genre—tales so outrageous, sad, and awful that they occasionally drift into unintentional comedy. I pored over dozens of prime examples, and as I read them, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. On February 14, 2012, a tenant named Kelsey Hallman sent a six-page letter to Alpha Management—later filed with the Attorney General’s Office—that read in part:
On our September 1, 2011 move-in date, we arrived to four separate mattresses marked: “Bed Bugs! DO NOT TOUCH!” and marked with city caution signs…. Within the coming hours, we spoke with the individuals who were scheduled to move into a unit but were unable to as the previous tenants had moved out and left all of their belongings in the apartment. The individuals we spoke with indicated they had found a note that said, “Sorry we didn’t move our things out. The apartment was filled with cockroaches and bedbugs.” Immediately upon moving in we could tell that the apartment had not been sufficiently cleaned despite paying a $250 cleaning deposit…[there was] a noticeable foul odor coming from the kitchen common space…mold and mildew covering a large part of the bathroom ceiling, exposed wiring in one closet…no smoke detector nor carbon detector and the windows would not lock properly…. Early in the morning, [another tenant] called AMC and was immediately hung up on…. Shortly thereafter, we determined that the apartment had mice…. Nonetheless, I began to show signs of bed bug bites….
Faisal’s document trail doesn’t end at ISD. I also tracked down 14 complaints taken to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. Boston Housing Court records show that Faisal has had 31 cases reach a show-cause hearing since 2009, two of which resulted in his arraignment. (Typically, a landlord has up to 90 days to fix the problem; he or she is arraigned if it still isn’t resolved.) He’s been the defendant or plaintiff in a total of 60 cases over the past 13 years. The woman behind the desk at housing court actually rolled her eyes when I mentioned his name—oh, that Faisal guy again?
The more I read, the more I wanted to meet the person who was responsible for this one-man real estate apocalypse. What kind of landlord could stomach this parade of anguish, destruction, filth, and fury, season after season, year after year? I also figured I ought to act fast. In a time when Boston’s real estate market is becoming big business, drawing large corporate entities to the city’s many luxury high-rise projects, lone and negligent landowners such as Faisal are a dying breed. Before he and his kind vanished forever, I wanted to get an inside look at this rarified world.