Anwar Faisal: Lord of the Sties

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Photograph by Dana Smith. Illustration by Chris Piascik.

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.

 

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Anwar Faisal at the Brookline office of Alpha Management. (Photograph by Dana Smith)

Last September, Faisal agreed to meet me at Alpha Management’s Brookline headquarters, at 1249 Beacon Street. His 2,000-square-foot office has freshly polyurethaned hardwood floors and Oriental runners. When I arrived, several office employees—bookkeepers and real estate agents—sat at new wood desks, the kind you’d find in a Staples catalog. In one corner, a flat-screen TV was tuned to financial news in front of a few upholstered waiting-room chairs. I had never seen a picture of Faisal, and after reading through his ISD complaints, I expected a bullying thug. A few minutes later, an unassuming man lumbered in wearing a pair of well-worn sneakers. He was about 6 feet tall, middle-aged, and slightly disheveled, dressed in a button-down shirt under a maroon sweater. He greeted me warmly in a soft voice punctuated with a broad smile, and said I could ask him anything. Then he told me his rags-to-riches story: the tale of a self-made man who rose from a lowly refugee to a mogul living in a $6 million Brookline mansion, complete with a detached carriage house and a chauffeur’s apartment.

Anwar Faisal was born in 1951 in a Gaza refugee camp. His parents were camel, horse, and donkey traders who had fled their home, along with thousands of their country men, after the 1948 war. Faisal told me he graduated from Ain Shams University, in Cairo, where he attended tuition-free. After trying to find work in Saudi Arabia, he said, he moved to Boston in 1977 with the help of a friend who lived in Salem. He studied English for eight months, then found work as a security guard at a Boston University dormitory at 1106–1110 Commonwealth Avenue, taking advantage of the school’s tuition-remittance program to earn a master’s degree in public relations and mass communications in 1983.

Years later—after he had made quite a bit of money by renting apartments to the types of people he used to watch over—Faisal would have the opportunity to purchase the very dorm where he once worked. It was 2006, and after he acquired the building from the university in a private sale for $8 million, he renamed it “Nora’s House,” after one of his daughters.

But in 1986, still employed as a BU guard and living in a rental at 58 Queensberry Street in the Fenway, he came home one day to find a note had been slipped under his door. The building was being converted to condos, and by law he was being given right of first refusal. Confused, he took the notice to his former history professor, who patiently explained the situation and recommended that Faisal buy the unit. All he needed was $10,000 cash and a full-time job. The minute he closed, Faisal says he was hooked on the high of the deal. “I felt the honey,” he says. He began buying up unit after unit in his building and eventually took over the entire thing.

The mid-1980s, like the mid-2000s, were marked by a credit bonanza—developers happily offered investors second mortgages to offset the banks’ requirements for down payments, meaning that if you had the stomach for risk, you could become a big player without paying out any cash at all. Being highly leveraged didn’t bother Faisal. Fenway was close enough to the universities for his properties to produce a steady rental income through boom times and bust. For the first dozen years of his real estate career, Faisal bought up individual condominiums. (Today he calls this “the biggest mistake I did in my life”—it would have been just as easy, he believes, to have purchased whole buildings.) He told me that he bought “hundreds” of condo units. At the registry of deeds, I was able to find only a few dozen—not hundreds—but I had entered Faisal’s world, where facts are fluid, though the teller is never in doubt.

Three years after his first deal, Faisal heard about an opportunity to buy four studio apartments for $180,000 at 219 Park Drive, a building being converted to condos. There was just one problem: The building owners hadn’t given their tenants the right of first refusal, and were forced to buy back the units. Faisal says he held out his units for several months, eventually earning $100,000 in profit on the deal. It was his first windfall.

Except that’s not what the deeds say. According to the records, Faisal sold the apartments for exactly what he’d bought them for: $180,000. When I asked him about the discrepancy, Faisal told me that he’d made a side agreement with the buyer. To check his story, I contacted Carl Awed Sr., the buyer’s father. He didn’t recall that Faisal had made any money on the deal, but he did refer to him as a “pain in the ass.” He then advised me to call his son, Carl Jr., who might remember. So I reached out to Carl Jr., who told me, “I don’t know who the fuck you are, you know what I mean?” and then apparently left the country for Jamaica.

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.

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.

The tenants were stunned, and unlike Faisal’s typical student renters, they tried to fight back. With the help of the social-justice group City Life/Vida Urbana, they created an organization called Malden/Medford Tenants United to fight the drastic rent hike. They appealed to the mayor’s office and the media. The Globe reported the MMTU’s allegations that Faisal played hardball, including that he had “changed locks without residents’ permission, allowed rental agents to come and go freely in people’s apartments, and used a parking sticker requirement to leverage residents into signing paperwork.” Faisal says that, after meeting with tenants and the mayor’s office, he reduced the amount of the rate hikes. But in the end, the old tenants were shoved aside. Now, with the rents raised, nearly all the original occupants are gone. College kids quickly moved in to fill the void.

Faisal’s lawyer, Joshua Krefetz, says that his client “was only doing what was his right.” According to Krefetz, a big part of the city’s attempts to keep tenants in their homes “was trying to embarrass [Faisal] in public, and it just doesn’t bother him.” He added, “He’s kind of a man unto himself. Some people might be bothered by people marching outside his office, by name-calling this and that. I think he just takes it as part of the game.”

In my dealings with Faisal, he consistently deflected any suggestion that what he was doing, as a landlord, was in any way wrong. He told me that on a scale of one to 10, he rates his management at an eight or nine. He blamed the litany of complaints on his tenants, who he said were just trying to break their leases. Whereas many building owners would be mortified by an ISD complaint, by repeated appearances in housing court, or by cases brought to the attorney general, Faisal considers these the burdens he must pay for his success. When we talked about these conflicts, he said, “I always have the guts for anything. I always think that it couldn’t be worse than being in a refugee camp.” I asked him once about the many rodents that had been found in his rentals, and why he didn’t do a better job of eliminating them. “Which apartment does not have a mice?” he said. “You have a rat everywhere in the city.”

When I repeated that line to Timberlake, she said, “I don’t care where you live in the city of Boston, that’s not normal. That’s not normal living anywhere. We’re not accepting that as an excuse from any landlord in the city of Boston.”

 

He may be ruthless with his tenants, but in person, Faisal does have a certain charm. “For someone like me—I’m a younger entrepreneur—he’s not reticent to give advice,” Krefetz, his attorney, said. “He would like to see everyone be a success.” There’s something about Faisal’s unkempt appearance, his backstory, and his openness that can make him endearing, at least in small doses. In the course of my reporting he submitted to every interview I requested, and one afternoon in mid-September he even offered to show me any of his apartments in the neighborhood. I think he wanted to prove to me that all of these complaints I’d been reading were blown out of proportion, taken out of context.

I randomly selected an upper-floor unit at 309–315 Huntington Avenue, directly across from Northeastern University. Faisal knocked on a few doors and finally one opened. Living there were two undergraduates in their late teens. Faisal told them that he was there from maintenance and asked if they had a refrigerator leak. We must’ve seemed a strange pair; we certainly didn’t look like maintenance men. At first the girls were a bit skeptical, clearly concerned for their personal safety. They said they didn’t have a leak. When I asked if they had any maintenance issue whatsoever, they showed us an active leak in the bathroom ceiling—the tiles were soaked and sagging.

Amazingly, Faisal didn’t call his maintenance crew. He didn’t demand an investigation. He didn’t even look alarmed. Instead, he informed his tenants that someone must have taken a shower upstairs and forgotten to make sure the shower curtain was drawn. His denial was so preposterous that we all just stood there awkwardly. Eventually, Faisal walked out of the unit, victorious: An embattled landlord had won yet another round against his needy tenants.

Later, when asked about the ceiling, Faisal said it was fixed the day after our visit: He had sent over a second shower curtain to the tenant upstairs and instructed him to close it completely. Problem solved.


Need more evidence? Read these customer-service calls to Boston’s Inspectional Services Department.

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2013/12/31/anwar-faisal-worst-landlord-boston/