Apartment 300 G

Michael Grabow is paid by New York landlords to talk tenants into leaving their rent-controlled apartments. Sometimes money (how's $300,000 sound?) talks the loudest.
Michael Grabow is paid by New York landlords to talk tenants into leaving their rent-controlled apartments. Sometimes money (how's $300,000 sound?) talks the loudest. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005

NEW YORK Before they meet him, many people assume Mike Grabow is a weasel. They figure he's lying or hiding something, that he wants to snooker them out of their homes. Grabow is used to it.

"I understand why they think they're getting snowed," he says. "Very often I tell them, 'If I received the letter I sent you, I would feel the exact same way.' "

Grabow has sent variations of the same letter a few hundred times over the course of his 29-year career. The gist is always the same: Dear Tenant, I would like to discuss something with you that could benefit both you and your landlord. Please give me a call.

In every instance, the person receiving this letter lives in a rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartment, which means he or she struck the housing jackpot in the country's cruelest real estate lottery. It is not uncommon in Manhattan to find people paying $750 a month for a three-bedroom spread that would fetch $12,000 a month on the open market. This, of course, drives landlords insane, but there is not much they can do about it. City rules allow only tiny rent increases each year for these tenants. There are about 1 million of them right now in all five boroughs, according to the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey, and in most cases they are entitled to stay put until they die. Under the right circumstances, the keys to these places, along with the sweetheart deals, can be passed along to heirs.

Landlords desperate to vacate the premises have legal remedies in some cases. But what do they do when war is not an option?

They hire Mike Grabow. It's his job to talk rent-regulated tenants out the door, a feat he accomplishes with a variety of tools -- chiefly, disarming candor and great gobs of cash. Many of the buyouts he's negotiated ended with the tenant $300,000 richer. Others pocketed upwards of $2 million. All they have to do for the money is leave. Sometimes Grabow just finds a better apartment -- one with an elevator, or more space -- and negotiates a sum that covers the higher rent for, say, 10 years. That might be an appealing bargain for someone who is 75 years old and living in a fourth-floor walk-up.

"I tell them, we're going to settle this together," Grabow says, sitting in the conference room of his midtown office on Broadway. His voice is steady, low and reassuring, like a hostage negotiator. "I tell them, 'If we make a deal, you're going to be happy. You're a lucky person. Your life will be better, not worse. If it's not better, you won't sign.' "

In most cases, the initial reaction is something like "Get lost," though the choice of words is usually more colorful. Often, a single buyout will require months of phone calls, face-to-face meetings and letters. It's a process. Grabow gets to know the tenants. He wins their trust. He tells them they are under no obligation to talk to him, that they can hang up on him. And because he says things like that, they all talk to him. When they do, he finds out what they want and then he tries to give it to them.

"There was an old show back in the '50s called 'The Millionaire,' " he says. "You never met the millionaire, who was supposedly named John Beresford Tipton. I don't know why I remember that. You just met his emissary, whose job was to knock on the door of a total stranger and say, 'Hello. You don't know me but I have some money for you. There are very few strings attached. The only condition is that you sign this document saying that you'll never tell anyone where this money came from. You get this money and you simply can't divulge where it came from. Other than that, it's yours.' "

Grabow raises his voice a little. "His biggest problem was that nobody believed him! It sounded like total crap. People were afraid of him. They didn't trust him."

Grabow taps a hand on the conference table.

"I have the same problem."

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