Editor’s Note: Thomas Haines has published a memoir called “A Curious Life: From Rebel Orphan to Innovative Scientist” that includes this history.
By Thomas Haines
As someone who started life in an orphanage, I never dreamed I’d one day become the landlord of two small apartment buildings on West 68th Street in New York City. Even then, I regarded landlords as enemies. I supported rent control and worked with Assemblymember Richard Gottfried advising tenants of their rights.
It happened because my artist first wife Adrienne Rappaport, who painted as Adrian Rappin, needed a studio with constant north light, yet close to the galleries on Madison Avenue. After we looked for a couple of years, a relative suggested we buy a building. Buy a building? We had no money; I had just become an assistant professor of chemistry at the City College of New York. But back then in the early 1960s the Upper West Side was a slum, and real estate was cheap.
We found the perfect studio for Adrienne on the top floor of an old mansion, 14 West 68th Street. It was one of a pair of buildings, 12 and 14 West 68th, on a double lot behind the Christian Science Church on Central Park West. 14 West was originally the August Zinsser mansion, built in 1896. It had rough brownstone on the two lower floors, ornate brick terracotta on the three upper floors and a gabled slate roof. In 1916, it had been chopped up into twelve apartments and an Otis elevator was put in. The apartment that became Adrienne’s studio had a 22-foot ceiling with a north-sloping roof, into which we installed a skylight. The other building, 12 West 68th, was a small walkup “taxpayer” with 20 studio apartments, built in 1923 at the back of the garden.
In February 1965, we paid $140,000, $10,000 down. A bargain! We had to borrow from friends to raise even that.
Meanwhile, we had a building to manage. Our first phone call came from an elderly tenant, Marjorie Devoe, who said, “My spark plug doesn’t work,” meaning she’d blown a fuse. She was virtually stuck on the top floor of 12 West because she couldn’t do stairs. Instead, she would use the elevator in 14 and cross a plank to the top floor of 12. We moved her down to a ground floor studio in 14. She had been a Ziegfield Follies dancer. She showed us her portfolio—gorgeous 8×10 glossy black and white photos of her posing with almost nothing on. There were two retired opera singers in 12, and a well-known jazz singer from Tennessee, Gail Wynters. All the tenants in 12 and most in 14 were rent-controlled, some paying as little as fifteen dollars month. Most had been there for decades and would leave only when they died.
A young actor applied for the job of super. Al Pacino was a student at the Actors Studio on West 44th Street, where Marlon Brando was one of his teachers. He moved into a tiny studio on the ground floor of 12 West; on his door he hung a big picture of his face, and underneath it said “SUPER.” Pacino rarely got home before three in the morning and would emerge bleary-eyed from his apartment at 7:00 a.m. to vacuum the halls. Our eighty-year-old managing agent would yell at him, “You’ll never amount to nothing if you don’t get up early and go to work!” Pacino had a heavy program acting and directing plays, leaving little time for his duties. After two years, and many warnings, I finally fired him. There were no hard feelings because his career was taking off.
We had light and space, but we also had a building with many problems. I discovered muscles I didn’t know I had when I worked in the basement on weekends to replace corroded galvanized pipes with brass. How lucky that I had been taught basic plumbing at the orphanage! We patched, painted, and planted flowers in the garden. The rents were so low that the buildings continually lost money, but as a result I paid no taxes on my salary. Adrienne worked at her easel in her top floor studio and we lived in a big one bedroom on the second floor. Our daughter Avril was born in 1969. Our careers were flourishing: Adrienne’s as an artist and mine as a chemistry professor.
Then, disaster. In 1978, Adrienne, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with emphysema and given only months to live. We bought and moved into a nearby three-bedroom apartment to accommodate her aides, taking out a big mortgage on the buildings to pay for it. Adrienne actually lived until May 1985, with me and Avril constantly at her side. The cost of her round-the-clock care was staggering.
In 1986, I married Polly Cleveland, an economist who was then teaching accounting at Rutgers. When we moved back into 14 West, Polly discovered a horrifying situation: I was heavily in debt, even after selling the three-bedroom. The buildings were crumbling from years of neglect during Adrienne’s illness. The copper gutter on 14 had rotted through and a large Ailanthus tree was growing in it. When it rained, water sheeted down inside the walls all the way to the basement. The electrical system was ancient and dangerous. Tenants’ fuses kept blowing. The front garden was an overgrown mudslide. Polly made me face reality. Judging by the dumpsters and construction vans up and down West 68th Street, the neighborhood was turning around. Either we had to sell my beloved buildings, or borrow money to renovate. But if we borrowed, how could we raise rents enough to repay the money?
The banks wouldn’t touch us. We found a private lender, who advanced us money at 16%. Construction began with the roof and the only vacant apartment we had at the time, a big top floor two-bedroom. We expected it to rent for enough, over $2000, to qualify for “luxury decontrol.” That wouldn’t work for smaller apartments. We stumbled into a solution. I had brought in furniture from the three-bedroom, including furniture from Adrienne’s recently deceased mother. When Polly moved in, she brought all her furniture. Our apartment looked like a junk shop, with tables, chairs, dressers and bookcases heaped in corners. Why not get rid of the furniture by putting it in apartments when they came vacant, and renting furnished? Since rent control only applies to permanent residents, we could charge market rents.
That’s how we got into the furnished rental business. Bit by bit as the old tenants died or moved away, we gut renovated apartments and rented furnished. In our location not far from Broadway and Lincoln Center, we attracted actors and opera singers who came to New York for stays of a few months. Moreover, we welcomed pets—a blessing to many of our clients who brought their comfort animals. For example, Actress Kristin Davis of Sex in the City brought a large red setter. It chewed up a couch, which she paid for without complaint.
In the first years, we couldn’t raise rents fast enough to pay our lender; fortunately, he proved willing to renegotiate the loan. But as the neighborhood improved, our rental income rose until it more than covered costs—allowing us to support a drug policy reform organization operating from our living room. Come the aughts, however, Polly began to worry that this wasn’t just a boom, but an international bubble that would soon collapse, catastrophically. After all, she said, a huge real estate bubble in the Roaring Twenties preceded the crash of 1929. Time to sell, she said. Reluctantly, I agreed. I especially hated to give up the garden. In summer of 2008 we listed the property for an astounding $22 million. Nibbles came and went, but the market stalled, and then crashed in September 2008. We were very lucky to get about $10 million in early 2009. We ended up with some $3 million after paying off the mortgage and other expenses.
From $140,000 to $3 million in 44 years is about a 3% return, adjusted for inflation, but the buildings also gave us years of free rent and tax deductions on my salary. A windfall, merely from the lucky accident that my first wife needed a studio and that society would later make the property much more valuable. Polly and I spent half the money to buy ourselves a nice two-bedroom co-op on West 72nd Street, and put the other half into a small foundation to support research in science and economics.
New rent control laws just adopted in New York eliminate luxury decontrol and severely limit increases allowed for renovation. These laws would have prohibited us from renovating and renting furnished to get out from under rent control. I still support rent control. But I wonder if there aren’t better approaches—such as taxing the windfall gains of lucky landlords like me and using the money for more and better public housing.
Haines’ book with co-author Mindy Lewis is available here.