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Leaks, Mold and Rats: Why New York City Goes Easy on Its Worst Landlords

One such building is 235 West 103rd Street, which has been the target of two comprehensive lawsuits since May 2017. Both were settled, and out of the possible $120,000 in penalties, the owners paid just $11,000.

“You’re basically patting them on the head and saying don’t do that again,” said Anthony Thornton, 59, the leader of the tenants’ association.

This peculiar system of incentives means that landlords often let regulated apartments with longtime tenants fall apart while they renovate market-rate units right next door. A renovated apartment with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops in Mr. Khan’s building on West 103rd Street was recently advertised for $2,800 a month. Neighboring regulated apartments, meanwhile, lacked cooking gas for more than two years.

In 2003, Mr. Khan and his partners purchased the building at 520 West 136th Street in Harlem where Mr. Polanco, the maintenance man, lives with his family. Five years later, the city filed a comprehensive suit against the building for issues including mice, roaches and lead. That case would be reopened three times before the building’s 303 violations were closed.

Felix Salazar, who lived in another apartment in the building, sued Mr. Khan and his partners in 2013 after he tripped on an uneven floor. In a deposition, he described the deplorable conditions. “I had two parrots in the house and the rats ate them up,” Mr. Salazar said. “They ate their beaks and their eyes out.”

In June 2014, the city again sued, to compel the building’s owners to correct its 236 open violations. The next month, the city settled for $2,500, out of a potential $31,000 in fines. When an inspector found that 75 violations had not been corrected, the city reopened the case.

This time it settled for $5,000 — out of a possible $200,000.

By 2016, Mr. Polanco’s building had landed in the Alternative Enforcement Program, which is the city’s harshest punishment for neglectful landlords. Once in the program, landlords have four months to correct the most serious issues and face fines each year that they fail to do so.

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