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.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Faisal’s reckless disregard for the law extends to his treatment of his own workers. In 2011, Faisal settled with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division after it found that he had misclassified 42 employees as independent contractors and failed to pay them for overtime. As a result of the settlement, he had to pay the workers $250,000, an amount including $125,000 in back wages and $125,000 in liquidated damages.
Back in his office after the hearing, I asked Faisal whether he truly believes that all his troubles stem from being the victim of discrimination within the ISD. He was worked up, and he insisted that his success as an immigrant provoked jealousy in the eyes of the department. “Jealousy when a foreigner coming from a refugee camp with nothing and his country until this moment has been occupied,” he said, “and to come over to the United States with $800 in his pocket and he couldn’t afford and he stay all the night in a bus station and after 30 years to be one of the biggest landlords in Boston, private. And other people who do work in the city making $40,000 to $50,000, you can see the jealousy in their eyes.
“Over 30 years I have my citizenship, but I am still in the face of these people a foreigner,” he said. “They don’t realize this country built on foreigners.”
Thanks to his tenants, Faisal has become a very wealthy man. Exactly how wealthy, he wouldn’t say. When I asked him what his total portfolio is worth, he lowered his voice and said, “I hope that when it is 2015 or 2016, I will reach a billion.” He told me that his buildings are valued at $500 million. I found this a little hard to believe. In 2012, I researched the biggest landlords in the Fenway ZIP code, and Faisal wasn’t among them. In response, he told me that there are even more buildings he owns but doesn’t promote. “What big building did I miss?” I asked. He wouldn’t say. Only two people, he said, have his full property list, and he wouldn’t allow me to see it. Wherever he is financially, Faisal is far short of where he would like to be. “I always thought I could be better than what I am—a hundred times better,” he told me at a later meeting. “I didn’t do what I am supposed to do, and I didn’t get what I am looking to get. What I get is like one percent of what I was looking for.”
Boston’s hardest-working slumlord does have one respite: a private island across Nasketucket Bay from Fairhaven and Mattapoisett, which he bought for $3 million in 2009 under his wife’s name. Connected to the mainland by a causeway, the eight-acre property has sweeping ocean views and features a 12,000-square-foot Italianate villa. In October, Faisal showed me around the property: the house, the pool, the Jet Skis, and the view, far outside the reach of his dreaded Inspectional Services nemeses.
But even on his own private island, Faisal managed to violate the building code.
A few years ago, after he bought the place, he hired a crew to clear the land of vegetation so that he could put in a lawn, a basketball court, and a 100-foot gangway out to his boat’s mooring. The next thing he knew, the town of Fairhaven was issuing cease-and-desist orders for “unpermitted and illegal work.” In his zeal to improve his vacation home, Faisal had cleared several acres of state-protected wetlands.
As restitution, the Conservation Commission and Faisal agreed that he would pay to restore more than 12,000 square feet of wetlands at a municipal location nearby to replace those he’d destroyed on his own property. He also agreed to have an environmental engineer on site while the work was being done at the home and the second location. Even that didn’t work out. In August 2012, South Coast Today reported that work at both sites was shut down because there was no environmental engineer present. The order came from a Conservation Commission agent named Wayne Fostin, who was later accused by another member of the commission of referring to Faisal as a “towel head”—an allegation Fostin denied in press reports at the time. The allegation led to a formal complaint being filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). I emailed Fostin for his side of the story, but he said the MCAD complaint prevented him from saying anything about the case.
Early in his career, Faisal had concentrated on real estate opportunities within five miles of his office—prime terrain where close to 90 percent of the total housing stock is rental, thanks to its proximity to so many colleges and universities. Faisal says that his former professors backed his burgeoning real estate empire: Winston Langley (now provost at UMass Boston) and now-retired associate professor Roy Glasgow are on a few of the deeds with Faisal. (Neither could be reached for comment, and Faisal says that he bought them out.) In 1998 he graduated from individual apartments to buying his first buildings: 67–73 Harvard Avenue, then a property on Gordon Street. Even then, Faisal decided he was in for the long haul: He was determined to hold, not flip or sell, the properties he bought.
Then, in 2011, Faisal kicked his property-buying spree into high gear. Even as he continued to rack up ISD complaints, he came across four buildings comprising 265 units that were up for sale in Malden and Medford for $23.5 million. This was an unusual purchase for Faisal. For one thing, it was outside of his self-imposed five-mile radius. For another, the tenants weren’t students. Most of the residents in the buildings were what the rental industry calls “lifers”—older people on pensions, retired veterans, empty-nesters—who’d been living in their apartment for decades. They’re also the kinds of tenants who are more likely to be on fixed incomes.
And according to Faisal’s calculations, they were paying way below market rate. He bought the entire property the day he first saw it, then immediately sent the tenants a notice that their rent would rise between 22 and 58 percent the next month.
What happened next would make newspaper headlines and spark protests in the street. Faisal was quoted in the Malden Patch as saying, “The honeymoon’s over,” and began dozens of eviction proceedings. He fired the popular superintendent who’d been living in the building rent-free in return for service, and, according to Kathleen Manning Hall, chief administrator in the Malden mayor’s office, Faisal was renting to more people than the building code allowed.