Anwar Faisal: Lord of the Sties
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.
Allston and the Fenway have been happy hunting grounds for Faisal. Early on, he must have realized that in the student body, he’d found his ideal tenant: a rootless newcomer with low standards, and—thanks to student loans and parental funding—a high ability to pay. Each year, nearly 60,000 of these prospective tenants swarm in, looking for a place to crash while studying here. Unlike Faisal, many landlords don’t want to rent to them. Heather Kim, principal broker of Douglas Paul Real Estate, in Allston, said that when she shows student apartments, “garbage will be everywhere. Clothes will be everywhere.” In spite of that, she said, pricey dumps always get rented because students are “less picky.” Kim said these students often see their living situation as temporary, and just want to have a place where they can “study and have fun.” Faisal built his empire on this constant influx of transient new clients, pricing his units aggressively and doing little to ensure that his apartments are habitable.
For most of the year, Faisal has the students to himself. But on September 1, moving day for students, ISD inspectors roam the city issuing citations for newfound code violations. As ISD has cracked down on landlords, the number of violations has dropped significantly. This past year, out of more than 2,000 violations issued during move-in weekend, only two properties were outright condemned, the Globe reported. One of them was a basement apartment that belonged to Faisal.
In that case, three Berklee students arrived to move into their first apartment. They’d agreed to pay Alpha Management $3,800 a month for a roughly 850-square-foot, three-bedroom unit in the Fenway, and had provided first and last month’s rent, a security deposit, and a finder’s fee—almost $15,000 up front. On move-in day, they found that someone had punched multiple holes in all the interior doors. Smoke detectors were left hanging by their wires from the ceiling. Within hours, ISD inspectors TaWonya Williams and Iris Figueroa-Jones deemed the apartment “unfit for human habitation.” Their main concern was the lack of a second egress, which rendered the apartment illegal. The apartment was immediately condemned.
A little over a week later, on September 12, I accompanied Faisal to a hearing on the matter at the housing court. He gave an astonishing performance. Regarding the lack of egress, Faisal was asked by the hearing officer, “If there was a fire today, how would they get out?” Additionally, the court pointed out, Faisal’s building was permitted for 25 units—and this was the 26th. In response, Faisal laughed out loud. “This is a personal issue,” he said. “It’s not the building code or housing code…. They put the tenant in misery and owner in misery for no reason.” As a diversion, Faisal’s lawyer, Joshua Krefetz, of the Allston firm Krefetz & Seed, insisted to the court that Faisal was “the subject of undue focus.” Faisal told the court that he was being persecuted because he had an accent and deep pockets. John Connors, the hearing officer, had heard it all before. “You’re well known to us, and you’ve always been treated fair,” he said. “You need to get that issue resolved. If this is an illegal unit, do you think your insurance company is going to cover you?”
This is the cat-and-mouse game with regulators that Faisal has mastered—one in which the regulators have long been overmatched. Under the current system for inspecting rental properties, regulators typically don’t inspect an apartment for code violations until they receive a complaint. That means problems are severely underreported, says Bryan Glascock, the commissioner of Boston Inspectional Services. Tenants are reluctant to contact the ISD for a number of reasons. They might fear landlord retaliation, especially if they’re students who live in an overcrowded apartment and think they got a good deal. Immigrant tenants—regardless of their legal status—may be wary of contacting government officials. Glascock is haunted by the prospect that this could lead to tragedy: “Sometime in the next month, there will be another big disaster”—a fire or porch collapse, for example—“and we’ll all be standing there and wondering what could have been done about this.”
That’s why Boston City Council passed an ordinance at the end of 2012 to create a “proactive rental inspection program” that targets “chronic and priority offenders.” As a result of the ordinance, the city will no longer have to wait for a complaint to be filed in order to inspect a rental unit. Instead, ISD is now authorized to inspect each and every one of the city’s estimated 140,000 rentals once every five years for code compliance, whether or not there’s been a complaint. If city inspectors find violations, the ordinance also allows regulators to set up reinspections and levy significant fines until the violations are corrected. Proactive inspections will begin this month—and the department has hinted that they’ll be targeting landlords like Faisal.
To say Faisal’s relations with the city are strained would be an understatement. In February 2009, one ISD assistant director wrote, “The city’s broader concerns with Alpha Management and Anwar Faisal remain unresolved and our efforts to ensure they comply with all of our regulations continue.” Nearly four years later, city officials still cite him as one of the most difficult landlords to deal with. Lisa Timberlake, the media-relations contact for ISD, told me that Faisal is what those in her department refer to as a “frequent flyer,” based on the disturbing number of complaints filed against him. “It’s constant with him,” she said. “They fix what they want to fix and it’s still not compliant.”
Seeking historical context, I called Toney Jones, assistant director of the Housing Division, where he has worked for 10 years, and asked him about Faisal’s reputation. He said, diplomatically, that Faisal is “a landlord or owner whose mantra is to purchase and lease versus purchase, lease, and manage.” When I asked Jones whether Faisal was Boston’s worst landlord, he hesitated: “There are about five landlords, no greater than 10, but no less than five” who generate a lot of complaints in the Allston-Brighton area, and Alpha is one of “at least about four or five at the top.” I asked if Samia, a company involved with a 1999 deck collapse and a notorious reputation for tenant relations, was one of the others. Jones responded, “No, they’re pretty good.” (Incidentally, in that deck collapse, Samia claimed that Faisal was the manager of the building—that Samia owned only two of the 18 units and thus was not responsible for managing it. Faisal told the Globe and the Herald that he couldn’t pay for repairs on the building because Samia was $10,000 behind on its condo fees.) I racked my brain and asked Jones about another notorious firm that owns a lot of property in the Fenway and Brighton. It had once rented an apartment to a BU law student I know. The place had a huge hole in the shower that had apparently been there for months, and all the management company had done was put plastic over it. But Jones said that company was good, too.